A beat switch in a song can be an amazing thing.
Sometimes they risk ruining a track or killing the momentum. But when done well, a beat switch can give a song a new lease on life while taking the artist—and the listener—to an entirely new place. It might even be your favorite part of the song.
I may be wrong, but beat switches in rap music weren’t really a thing in the ’90s and early ’00s, unless it was two songs stitched together (like Jay Z’s “A Million and One Questions/Rhyme No More” or D’Angelo’s “Greatdayndamornin’/Booty,” for example). These days, however, you’d be hard-pressed to find a major album without a good switch-up or two.
Before we get into it, there are a few ground rules. First, double songs (like ScHoolboy’s “Groovy Tony/Eddie Kane”) don’t count. Second, it can’t just be a juiced up or stripped down version of the original beat (like FlyLo’s “Never Catch Me”). Thirdly, as good as "The Blacker The Berry" outro is, the beat switch has to have a substantial impact on the main part of the song.
In the interest of keeping the list nice and varied, it's only one song per artist (sorry, "Tuscan Leather,” “Pyramids” and “Murder to Excellence”). With that said, here are the 10 best beat switches. You can listen to a playlist with all our selections on Spotify.
Beastie Boys - “The Move”
“Intergalactic,” which pulls off a few acrobatic moves of its own, is the song everyone knows from Beastie Boys’ 1998 album Hello Nasty, but “The Move” is a spectacle in mid-song beat switches. Built on a smorgasbord of samples ranging from Quincy Jones and Kurtis Blow to Iron Butterfly and Los Ángeles Negros, “The Move” pivots whenever and however it pleases. Just when you’ve found the jeep beat groove, up pops a harpsichord loop or maybe some Chilean bolero, because why the hell not? “The Move” contains as much energy and spontaneity as the three Beasties combined.
Childish Gambino - “Worldstar”
The last 80 seconds of “The Crawl.” The last minute of “The Worst Guys.” The last two minutes of “Shadows.” Say what you want about Childish Gambino’s rapping (“I ain’t fucking with you n*ggas like apartheid”), there’s no denying the fantastic production on Because the Internet, which contorted and flourished at every opportunity. “Worldstar” finds Bino pounding his chest over equally bruising production from Ludwig Göransson, but the final stretch is anything but. “Donald told me he wanted something pretty,” Ludwig said. “I was like: let’s have a saxophone solo!” In the space of four minutes, “Worldstar” takes us from the gutters of online fight compilations to vertigo-inducing free jazz euphoria.
Drake - “Know Yourself”
"Know Yourself" was the first taste of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late that Drake offered up in his 2015 short film, Jungle, and I probably wasn’t the only one who was left looking like Big Quint after that bass dropped. It turned out there’s almost two minutes of self-assured (but painfully not-self-aware) Aubrey boasts and slow-building production before we get to that junction, but when it arrives, it’s worth every second. “Know Yourself” is a perfect example of how a beat switch can turn potential energy into kinetic energy.
Frank Ocean - “Nights”
With all due respect to the “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” drop, the second half of Frank Ocean’s “Nights” was probably my favorite music moment last year. If Spaceman’s chintzy, choppy guitar work during the first part of the song feels like the break of day, the closing stretch soundtracks the quieter, more introspective nature of night. Better yet, the transition sounds like the sensation of waking up in a dream—you’re not sure how you got there or how long you’ve been there, but you’re here now, and everything feels a bit weird. The vocals are pitched up, the icy production (which echoes Noah “40” Shebib’s work on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late) is ever-so-slightly chopped and screwed, and the brooding bass awakens Frank’s cerebral cortex as he reminisces over an old flame. Like marijuana, nostalgia can also be a cheap vacation from the pressures and anxiety of daily life.
Freddie Gibbs & Madlib - “Real”
Freddie Gibbs’ “Real” is one of the best post-“Ether” diss tracks in rap beef history. The song didn’t exactly dismantle Young Jeezy’s career, maybe for the same reasons Drake can’t lose, but that doesn’t change the fact that Gangsta Gibbs destroyed Snowman like a bully on Christmas morning. What’s funny is how Madlib’s production begins in a frantic rush, which would usually send Freddie’s enemies scrambling. Instead, Gibbs takes his time loading the clip with subliminal bullets (“N*ggas heard of me, now all of a sudden they back to thugging”). It isn’t until Madlib flips the script and slows down the tempo when Gangsta Gibbs cocks the gun and goes after Jeezy by name. The only thing colder than this beat switch is the blood running through Freddie Gibbs’ veins.
Future - “Throw Away”
“Throw Away” isn’t the most seamless of beat switches, but what’s so special about it is how it brings out both sides of Future’s personality in the same song. During the first half, Future embodies the heartless, sex-hungry monster his mixtape is named after. “I want no relations, I just want your facial / Girl you know you like a pistol, you a throw away,” he raps, bluntly and brutally. But as Nard & B’s production takes a solemn turn, the mask comes off and the pain behind Future’s debauchery is revealed, because isn’t that what we all do when our heart gets broken? To quote one YouTube commenter, “the first part makes me want to sip lean and the second part makes me want to drown myself in it.”
Jay Z - “Come and Get Me”
Jay Z’s 1999 LP Vol. 3…Life and Times of S. Carter recently celebrated its 17th anniversary, which was apparently a signal for people to call it a “classic” on Twitter. “Big Pimpin’” be damned, that album has not aged well. With that said, it does contain the best beat switch in Hov’s catalog. “Come and Get Me” begins by borrowing the funky riffs from Bullet’s 1975 cut “Contract Man,” before Timbaland guides us through this Stargate-esque wormhole into a futuristic dimension—the new millennium, if you will—that shimmers and slaps in equal measure. There, we’re reunited with Sean Carter, who dares us into a game of kill-me-if-you-can (spoiler: he won).
Kanye West - “New Slaves” ft. Frank Ocean
If the industrial, ear-splitting rage of Yeezus puts the album towards the bottom of your Kanye West album rankings, then “New Slaves”—and, of course, “Bound 2”—probably felt like sun rays breaking through the clouds for those wanting the old Kanye. While the political and racial messages in “New Slaves” shouldn’t be skipped over, the soulful outro (featuring none other than Frank Ocean) is almost too good to be delayed. If Hungarian singer’s Omega’s “Gyöngyhajú Lány” is the chariot that rescues us from Yeezus’ fashion-fueled frustration, then Kanye and Frank’s heavenly crooning are the winged horses that lead us to hope and happiness.
Kendrick Lamar - “m.A.A.d city” ft. MC Eiht
Classic West Coast rap albums shaped good kid, m.A.A.d city as much as Kendrick Lamar’s own life. The Chronic, Death Certificate and Me Against the World are all favorites of K. Dot’s. He once said, “there wouldn’t be a Kendrick Lamar without Doggystyle.” That ‘90s influence is embodied on good kid’s hardest cut, “m.A.A.d city.” After THC and Sounwave’s trap production beats up your speakers like Suge Knight in his prime, Terrace Martin takes over the reigns with all the energy and essence of 1992-era L.A. Borrowing heavily from Ice Cube’s “Bird In the Hand” (including the line, “Fresh outta school ‘cause I was a high school grad”) while nabbing a verse from local legend MC Eiht, Kendrick weaves together the past and the present like only he can.
Killer Mike - “Don’t Die”
In many ways, 2012’s R.A.P. Music was the first Run The Jewels album, and Killer Mike and El-P’s unbridled chemistry was on full display on “Don’t Die.” This song has three beat switches, each separated by short breathers (if you can call them that), and each becoming more intense and deranged than the one before. By the end, you feel like you’ve just taken a spin class on bath salts while listening to Public Enemy on full volume. El-P’s beat switches don’t necessarily take “Don’t Die” in new directions—they’re more like changing gears while doing 100 on the highway—but why would you want to make a turn when Killer Mike is rapping like this?
(P.S. The list ending at the letter "k" is purely coincidental. I didn't forget the rest of the alphabet).
By Andy James. You can follow him on Twitter.