Why the Best Rappers are Master Storytellers
To each listener, rap is unique. There are preferred subgenres, rivalling hierarchies, and different theories and rumors that plague our favorite rappers. Hell, even the true ancestry of the genre and its musical roots are interpretable. When we put our unique perspective of the music aside, we can see a secondary separation in the genre. From generation to generation, the rap world evolves to produce newer, fresher music with harder flows and more complex beats and samples. Always in competition for the next cypher or feature, the time-honored tradition arises: the Great Debate of the Best Rappers.
Now, obviously no one calls it that, but real rap fans understand that once you begin to label someone as the best, you’ve opened the door for comments, questions, critiques, and just plain old scrutiny. Older generations will look back to Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. as their top two artists while younger generations will cling to their beliefs that XXXTentacion was the best rapper to ever grace the studios. But, to compare Dr. Dre to some newbies still deciding their beat is unfair.
It’s time we stop comparing artists from different eras of the genre.
Music, in general, is an art form which pulls from pop culture, politics, and innovation. Ice-Cube didn’t have to worry about buying a beat that Drake was eyeing the way Kanye did when he released “Lift Yourself.” These are different times and therefore we should be asking a different question.
Societally, we’ve already established some icons from the early days of rap. Of course, the list is up for debate as every artist ranking is, but to name a few: Tupac, Dr. Dre, The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, and more. They’ve already passed their test of time. For modern rap, there’s a new test and it begins with an artist’s foundational repertoire. Let’s talk about storytelling in current-day rap.
The task of creating a deeper connection through life experiences in rap music is no small one. Thus, when rappers take the time to craft their words and paint such vivid pictures in their projects through stories, it doesn’t go unnoticed. In fact, that process is what builds their fanbase and musical foundation. With a new level of trust from fans, artists slowly invest themselves in the music. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the rest of the rapper’s discography is speckled with storytelling — it matters that there is an initial connection with a listener. Most rappers just tell stories through their words, forgetting the other compositional elements. But, those who do remember those small details when crafting their stories, creating a more immersive experience, are the ones who have solidified their spot in the top tiers of most, if not every rap hierarchy.
The art of immersive storytelling has become a way to solidify a rapper’s place in the ever-changing hierarchy.
While the rankings might change, the names in the top tiers will never alter. Though their storytelling may or may not be what they’re known for, it's an essential part in climbing the rap ladder. Don’t believe me? Let's take a closer look at two current rappers who have it made in this industry.
Eminem’s many accomplishments during his career always battle for the spotlight. Most people attribute his wild success with Dr. Dre's discovery and constant support of Eminem. While true, most do not know the depth to which this support goes. With Dr. Dre’s influence and advice, a new level of storytelling was introduced to Eminem's discography with the cartoon-like Slim Shady character. For years to come, Eminem would push himself to grow this idea of character rapping. Using it as a storytelling tactic, the famous track, “Stan” was born. The song employs many different compositional details to create an immersive storytelling experience, plunking listeners right into the plotline upon the song's start.
Thunder and raindrops fill the space of the track and before listeners know it, they're in another world. Introduced by the hook, the Dido sample promotes the soon-to-be evident theme of the idolism with lyrics like “I’m wondering why I got out of bed at all… your picture on my wall, it reminds me that it's not so bad.” Subtle, the theme only gets more prominent as time goes on, bolstered by the grey feeling raindrops. The verses tell the story of Stan, an obsessed fan, who's been writing letters to Eminem with no response for years. As a pencil scribbles furiously in the background, each verse gets more intense as Stan’s anger boils over waiting for a response from his idol. As Stan screams into listeners ears, the song transcends into something more cinematic. In Stan, the character’s, final verse, muffled screams fill the back of the track. Stan explains his girlfriend’s in the trunk before a tire screeches and a large splash stops everything. The rapping style switches to show a change in character as Eminem, rapping as himself, ends the track like a response letter to Stan, worried about how much Stan idolizes him. The track comes to a close abruptly when Eminem realizes a terrible news story he had just seen was Stan.
The jarring end of the track creates a giant shift for listeners as they exit the world that Eminem had so delicately created and reenter the real world. Eminem’s storytelling puts listeners scarily close to Stan both lyrically and compositionally. The scribbles, the police sirens — everything is so cinematic. For first-time listeners, there’s a lot to unpack, leaving Eminem on the mind for a long time. Maybe the listener will hit replay so they can jump back into that vivid world. Maybe they’ll be so intrigued by the artistry and attention to detail that they explore more of Eminem’s catalog. But “Stan” is the ear worm that will keep listeners thinking until they go back for more.
Eminem’s discography is greatly varied and is definitely not completely immersive the way “Stan” is. His characters, varying moods, and aggression levels make appearances in his tracks, but his overall storytelling abilities never fade. Whether or not you’re a fan, it’s hard to deny that Eminem is one of the greatest storytellers out there. On top of that, he pioneered a new term for mega-fans. The word "stan" now has been used by millions to describe their extreme adoration over an artist and has even been added to the Oxford Dictionary thanks to Eminem. It's fair to say he’s worked his way up to be one of the most respected modern rappers.
A polar opposite example of fantastic, immersive storytelling in rap is Kanye West’s “The New Workout Plan.” Now, it might not seem like it tells any story on the surface, but West’s composition is deliberately trying to create a specific experience. In the world of Netflix and Disney+, Kanye West fans might not remember the days of exercise videos and tapes, let alone the crazy advertisements. West’s “The New Workout Plan” is a clear copy of the always-energetic advertisements with a musical and satirical twist.
The five-minute track begins with an instrumental build-up and Kanye West’s fitness guarantee, introducing claims to be referenced throughout the video. As the “1, and, 2, and..” counting begins, so does Kanye as the fitness instructor, detailing each exercise, one after another. Though the hook makes few real references to working out, there are persistent nods to the subject in his lyrics such as, “she feel weak without me... maybe we can work it out.” The lyrics continue to reinforce the initial idea of the workout tape bolstered by the ever-changing beat to remind listeners of the experience they’re witnessing. Around the middle of the track comes reviews from some very thankful ladies raving about the success of the workout plan. Inspired by these claims, the workout theme continues as West’s ad libs call out, “work it… pump it...” West takes this inspiration and leads listeners into the most intense part of the workout, the bridge. With the rhythmic lyrics, “eat your salad, no dessert,” paired with a stripped down beat, the song is laser-focused on the peak of the workout. As Kanye leads a series of claps, the bridge picks up intensity, encouraging the ladies of the workout group and listeners to keep up their energy. The bridge finally begins to fade out and the workout is over. Exhausted, listeners are brought back into the real world again after a fun workout mixtape that is so addicting, they might just hit replay and say “Thank you, Kanye! Woo!”
Though “The New Workout Plan” is meant to satirize workout mixtapes and place an emphasis on the toxic idea that women are only valued for their fit bodies, West does a good job of packaging this message up in a more comprehensible and approachable way: his very own workout mixtape. The track is overall so upbeat and energetic that it makes the listeners want to workout to it and follow along with Kanye’s motivational ad libs. But when the over-the-top reviews begin in the middle of the song, claiming that the workout plan landed some women NBA players, listeners see the hidden messaging in the song. West's storytelling serves an educational purpose if you listen close enough.
Like Eminem’s “Stan,” when the listener exits the world that Kanye West has so perfectly created for them and their workout, there is still more to think about in West’s messaging. Whether it happens immediately or takes a little time, listeners will return to the song to gather their own thoughts, or to West’s discography to see if his commentary is consistent through the discography. Though West doesn’t call out the toxic and unhealthy expectations placed on women in each track, he still has an amazing discography that fans will fall in love with.
To add onto the immersion of both tracks, West and Eminem create highly detailed and scripted music videos. From streaming to the big screen, the music videos take the pictures in listeners heads and recreate them. Listeners can follow along with the exercises portrayed in "The New Workout Plan" or see "real results" from West's genius product as fellow featured rappers and artists such as John Legend, GLC, and more ogle these newly fit women. Meanwhile, in the "Stan" music video, listeners see just how obsessed Stan really is with Eminem. Watching a man who's dyed his hair to match the rapper tear pictures off of his wall in agony over Eminem is shocked, adding to the gravity of the song's message. Either way, the rappers continued to elevate their storytelling practices to deepen the connection their music made with listeners and to spotlight their messages. Whether or not the listener attaches to the message, they definitely notice the care that went into these projects from the beginning samples, features, and beats, to the final ad-libs and casting of the music videos.
Storytelling is used all throughout rap to help rappers build connections with their fans and to get some things off their chests that perhaps fans can relate to or ponder about.
It’s obviously one of the quickest ways to gain fans and a following, by sharing a piece of one’s life in a song. But when the rap world gets as saturated as it currently is with new rappers, new tracks, and new stories, certain people and their discography rise above. Good, immersive storytelling is cinematic, often characterized by its ability to place listeners in the story. Artists like Kanye West and Eminem have done not only that, but, have also left their listeners thinking even when the music stops. For that, these two have solidified their position in the rap world, inspiring and inviting other artists to follow in their footsteps.
Though rap continues to create its own trends, storytelling as both an immersive or simply lyrical experience has never died. Some of our favorite, younger artists like J. Cole, Dave, and Drake employ this tactic all the time and are dubbed some of the best in the industry. A look into the past, present, and future of rap, storytelling is an essential piece of any rappers repertoire.
Let us know down in the comments some of your favorite rappers and their best stories.