How to Read a Rap Song
I took approximately three days, fourteen hours, and thirty-six minutes to try and think up an idea for my first article. I knew that I’d be mostly talking about Hip-Hop and R&B, but when there’s so much to say, where does one start?
It hit me the first day of spring break. I was sitting on the beach, listening to “Drinking Sessions” by Mississippian rapper Big K.R.I.T.. It was the first time I had listened to the song since “4eva is a Mighty Long Time”’s initial release in November, and listening to it again I realized that I had completely missed the genius of the song. At the time, the song had simply been a part of a greater picture, a piece of a puzzle lost within the extensive track list of the album. Upon further inspection, though, the song is arguably the most beautiful on the album. What I was missing at the time was the patience to listen to the song completely, explore it fully. I realized, on the beach, as the water licked the sand underneath my orange Tommy Bahama fold-out chair, that the perfect first article would be one where I explained how I listen to songs to try and extract as much as possible out of them: how to read a rap song, in a sense.
I typically break it down into three phases, three listens (minimum). For this exercise, we’ll be exploring “Drinking Sessions” by Big KRIT, and uncovering its genius.
1. The Production (Listen 1)
I strongly believe that a truly perfect song is one that combines lyricism, intonation, and production into a rich smoothie that begs to be sipped upon. When I first listen to a song, I try to focus on the production. I try to put the lyrics in the back burner on the first listen in an attempt to extract the tone of the song from the music in the background; the production informs the lyrics with the tone of the song.
“Drinking Sessions” opens with wailing, low trumpets and piano clinks. The percussion is reminiscent of gospel music. Together, though, the music creates a somber, helpless tone. The trumpets create an earnest, frightened sound; almost a cry for help. The piano sets the pace for the song. As the trumpets come and go like waves, swelling and then falling away for a time, the piano continues to move. The piano is crucial, as it informs the story that KRIT is telling with a pressured, anxious energy that comes out even more vividly in the lyrics.
The dark, gospel-like production in this song gives it a special place in the trajectory of the album. This song is a single verse with no chorus, and the production seems to be low-key in a way. It, unlike other songs (take “Stir-Fry” by Migos, for example), attempts to highlight the story being told. The production serves to make this song (which, as we’ll learn later, is basically a spoken word poem) something all consuming. It pulls the listener in, then fades out as KRIT tells us his story. It serves as the supporting character who helps to save the day: the Sam to KRIT’s Frodo.
2. The Lyrics (Listen 2)
The lyrics pull a rap song together. Depending on your tastes, you might be indifferent towards lyricism, but, I believe that lyricism is what separates a truly great rapper with a good rapper. Lyricism, as a poetry nerd, is what turns rap into a truly beautiful art form for me and continues to be what catches my attention when listening to newer artists.
Now that we understand the production and the tone it sets, it’s time to dive into the story the musician provides to us. The table has been set, now it’s time to devour that beautifully stuffed Thanksgiving Turkey that your father made. He doesn’t like rap, but he sure as hell knows his way around the kitchen.
The production in “Drinking Sessions” has told us a few things about this song. KRIT wants us to slow down, firstly, and listen to his story. This isn’t a song he wants us dancing to. Secondly, this story isn’t one in which you’ll be laughing or smiling. This is a deeply introspective tale that must be listened to and digested carefully.
Now that we know that, we can dive into the lyrics themselves. This song is five minutes, so we’ll be going over (what I consider to be) the best lyrics in the song.
In “Drinking Sessions”, KRIT sets the scene in the build up to the entry of the drums. “I got these ideas, I got a lot on my mind/ and it’s so hard to put ‘em in a lot of songs” KRIT tells us verbally what his production is telling us sonically. He’s got things he needs to say to us, and he’s needs us to be listening to him. “I’ve been drinkin’, so please bear with me.” KRIT’s a little tipsy and he’s got a story to tell. Shall we begin?
KRIT takes a moment in the song to apologize to his mother, shining rays of regret onto his successes. “I’m sorry I ain’t got a wife or kids momma, but look what I did momma/ Got a house that I barely can stay in, a car i barely can drive/ I’d be a liar if I said getting money didn’t make me feel alive.” KRIT recognizes that his mother had wanted him to live a life of love and passion, and realizes that he might have lost that in the pursuit of success. He doesn’t have a wife, he doesn’t have kids, but at least he has houses and cars. He knows it’s wrong, but the money makes him feel alive. The tone set by the production helps to show that KRIT feels ashamed and regretful of his feelings towards money, and feels as if he’s let his mother down.
One of my favorite lines from any song in 2017, “Everybody trying to die young but who gon’ talk about life?”, shows his disapproval of the drug/party culture of his peers. He wonders where the poetry, where the meaning, has gone from culture. He wonders who the greats will be if everyone is dead before they have the chance to tell us their thoughts on the world.
From the line “I got my gumption from my granny….” onwards, the song becomes desperate and scared. KRIT tells us he drinks away his issues, he’s scared of death, and he’s scared of becoming cold. He’s scared of a lack of progress and being vulnerable. This final segment of the song is where he breaks from his poetry and decides to tell us it straight. He “can’t control these tears”, he needs to just directly tell the listener how he feels. He can’t keep hiding underneath poetic devices. He’s scared and he needs to get it off his chest.
The lyrics (genius link:[https://genius.com/Big-krit-drinking-sessions-lyrics]) are worth checking out in their entirety, but those three segments further what the production has displayed to the listener. We now know for sure this is an introspective song, and the negativity is dolled out in equal parts to KRIT and the world around him. He tells us he isn’t fully content with his surroundings, but he’d be lying if he said he was perfect either. The lyrics show that he’s anxious and desperately trying to get this off of his chest, just as the piano in the production showed us as well.
The table is set, the turkey is on everyone’s plates, but it’s dry. We need something to spice it up, some gravy. “Does anyone have any gravy?” You ask.
3. Intonation (Listen 3)
Intonation is the gravy on turkey, the icing on the cake. It tells the listener how the artist feels about what he or she is saying. It shows us the passion, the indifference, the fear behind a few words.
This segment is the shortest, but arguably the most important. To truly understand intonation in this song, we must only look at a two lines.
“I’m just waiting on a sign or two, like what I’ma do/ when my heart get rusty and tired and it ain’t shining through?”
He’s almost whispering when he tells the listener he’s waiting on a sign. He needs a reason. He needs a purpose. When he finally gets the guts to ask the listener what he’s going to do when his “heart gets rusty and tired”, he breaks. You hear an audible voice crack that sounds as if he’s on the verge of tears. That simple intonation tells the listener that the entire song has been leading to that big, grandiose break. The lines before that have simply served as paving to the large, rose covered cross that is the voice crack.
The combination of these three together paints a picture of desperation, fear, and regret, from the usually bombastic Mississippi rapper. When listened to in this way, I found that the song is an almost perfect example of the PLI (Production, lyricism, intonation) Smoothie, and is a moody masterpiece in a sense. I implore you, reader, to listen to a song using this strategy. Maybe you’ll find a gem in the rough, or maybe you’ll just realize an artist you used to love isn’t as good as you thought he or she was. It’s a risky, but a worth it, game to play.