All around me, I could hear voices shouting every word of Kanye’s verse on “THat Part.” They mimicked the excited inflection and the way he would stretch the last word of a line; every “OJ,” “Kobe,” “Ok,” and “Chipotle” echoed through the entire venue. The first time I heard the verse, under headphones on my computer, I was underwhelmed. But in the club that evening, I saw its infectiousness. What Kanye raps isn’t anything astounding. It’s how he raps it, a delivery catchy enough to replay in your mind long after the song ends.
One of Kanye’s greatest strengths is knowing the importance of delivery. Imagine having a plate of food that tastes amazing, but the presentation is horrendous. It doesn’t matter if an artist has the best bars if they’re delivered terribly. Ye knows both what to say and how to say it to ensure he impacts every listener.
Hearing “THat Part” reminds me of when Young Guru appeared on Juan Epstein’s podcast a few months ago, an interview that is two hours full of gems from the legendary engineer. At one point, he talks about his relationship with JAY-Z as it pertains to critiquing records. He loves the lyrical, intricate Jay, but lyrically being Talib Kweli doesn’t equate to selling albums. Jay wanted to sell albums:
“I had to learn sometimes as good as an emcee [JAY-Z] is, sometimes you need to shut up and ‘I wish I never met her at all, it gets better order another round…’ That’s tricks. We call that tricks. Put a trick in there so the audience can sing along.” —Young Guru
Guru is the first person in the music industry that I can remember to use the phrase “tricks.” He further explains how, in the studio, they talk about implementing more tricks into songs. Tricks aren’t for the hip-hop heads and rap nerds but to add another layer of commercial appeal to a song that goes beyond a catchy chorus. Knowing that Jay’s hilarious Carl Thomas impression on “I Just Wanna Love U” was an intended trick and knowing how well the record did commercially, shows the amount of forethought. You can walk through Jay’s catalog and hear the tricks—from his police officer impersonation on “99 Problems” to rapping about planking on a million in his “Gotta Have It” verse. The more you listen, the more tricks reveal themselves.
Guru also praised Kanye for being a master of tricks, with his ability to layer songs with moments. Kanye is a character by nature; his personality is perfect for entertainment. Think about the “We want prenup!” in the middle of “Golddigger” or in “Slow Jamz” how he uses the dark skin/light skin friend named Michael Jackson lyric that’s now more famous than the hook. He knows just where to put the tricks; it’s one of his most endearing qualities as a rapper, a gift that not everyone possesses.
Drake is another rapper that specializes in making songs layered with tricks. I like to think of Drake as a rapping Facebook status update. You can go through his verses, remove entire lines, and they are short enough to be a tweet and long enough to be a cryptic Instagram caption. He’s a maker of phrases, kind of like a jingle writer, but instead of a short commercial, he creates full-length songs. I’m not a fan of “Pop Style,” but all summer on social media, I’ve seen: “Dropped out of school now we dumb rich,” and “Turned my birthday into a lifestyle.”
“4 PM In Calabasas” is an excellent display of tricks—even though the record is considered a subliminal shot at Puff—for a song that lacks a hook it could easily be played on the radio and in clubs. That’s why “Back 2 Back” works so well. It wasn’t just a rap diss but a single riddled with catchiness. A world tour with your girlfriend should be every man’s dream, but Drake turned it into a negative, a hilarious critique that the entire world recited. There’s a method to the madness.
When Trinidad Jame$ raps, “Popped a Molly I’m sweatin, WOO!” that’s a trick. We see how popular “Get Top on the phone” has become, another trick. It can be a flow, too—Migos, Ma$e, Bone Thugs, etc. A style can easily become a trick if popularized. Even though the term hasn’t been pushed and coined, a lot of successful musicians have tricks in their songs. I can’t say everyone is conscious of it the way Guru and Jay are, but there’s plenty of thought put into how to make songs more appealing.
Unfortunately, Guru doesn’t go in-depth about tricks on the podcast. The approach is quickly mentioned and left in the foreground as the conversation touches on a thousand different subjects. When you have someone with his knowledge and history, it’s challenging to stay fixated on one idea without entering into a tangent that leads into another tangent. But just based on the little information he gave, we have a firm understanding of how artists are utilizing the technique. It’s nothing new, but it’s also fascinating knowing how the minds of these artists work. How delivery, flow, and phrases can have a lasting effect on how a song will be received.
Desiigner’s “Panda” might be the best trick of 2016. The song bites a familiar sound and is built around a hook, a bridge, and one long verse, making it minimum, catchy, and familiar. It's also the very same reason his XXL freestyle was a huge hit. There’s a method to these songs, a reason why we can’t help but gravitate toward them. The artists who have mastered tricks can very well rule the mainstream.
Our favorite rappers are tricking us all, and we love it.
By Yoh, aka Atlanta's Very Own, aka @Yoh31