More Than Animated Babbling: In Defense of Rapping “Offbeat”

Rappers are always finding new pockets, just not the ones you might expect.
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Earl Sweatshirt, Blueface, 2019

The first time I heard Blueface rap, I thought he sounded like Courage The Cowardly Dog. On his earliest work, the California native was defined by his high-pitched yelp, which, when combined with his speedy flow, made comparisons to the babbling cartoon canine easy, if not entirely fair. 

In 2018, when the 22-year-old rapper born Johnathan Porter broke big, with songs like “Respect My Crypin’” and the RIAA-certified Platinum single “Thotiana,” he immediately was labeled a meme and an example of the latest Worst Thing To Happen To Hip-Hop.

One critique stood out more than any other: Blueface couldn’t rap on beat to save his life.

When most fans talk about rapping “on beat,” usually, this is in reference to the standard of a 4/4 time signature. Like most genres of music, rap was founded on the constraint of fitting words and rhythms within this specific pattern. The speed and number of syllables a rapper can fit within the four beats that make up one measure denote the “flow” of a song. A reliable and effective way for a rapper to deliver rhymes is the standard in-the-pocket flow. This approach is like kicking a ball directly into a goal. Fans often interpret looser flows, however, like trick shots; flashy attempts wherein style is prioritized over safety.

Blueface arguably stands at the center of the current conversation surrounding offbeat rapping. His tendency to stretch the limits of a bar to its breaking point has made him a polarizing figure. For example: “Stop Cappin’.” The bar “Glock with a dick for a Jehovah’s if he witnessed it” is a fun—mostly disgusting—turn of phrase that likely wouldn’t land if he delivered it in a more traditional meter. Blueface’s flow makes for unpredictable listening, and that’s exciting. He’s even leaned into the jokes, going so far as to name his upcoming major-label debut, Find the Beat.

As popular as Blueface has become, he doesn’t exist without precedent. His style originated in California’s Bay Area, molded by fellow Californians E-40 and Suga Free, among others. MF DOOM and Kool Keith’s stream-of-consciousness flows on the East Coast helped give shape to abstract thought. Southern acts like OutKast and Juvenile weren’t above flirting with the metronome to give their music a vicious swing.

Some rappers skitter across beats while others move through them like spirits. They all fit as many syllables as possible into cramped spaces and manage to sound fly as hell while doing it. Rappers have always been in search of new pockets, just not the ones we might expect. This ambition tends to be what separates the run-of-the-mill from “the next big thing.”

Off-kilter time signatures are only half of the equation. What attracts fans, like me, to artists like Blueface and Detroit rapper BabyTron, a member of the rising ShittyBoyz collective, is their willingness to come up with bars as ridiculous as their time signatures. Featuring fellow Motown rappers StanWill and TrDee, the trio’s punchline raps are as indebted to the frenetic freestyle music their producers love to sample as it is to the scams they keep cooking up in their heads.

On his solo debut, Bin Reaper, released on October 30, BabyTron emerged as the trio’s clear-cut star. His deadpan delivery over jittery keys and old school breakbeats could make just about anything sound funny: “Bitch heard my song like ‘Yea, he sweet fo’ sho’ / Upchop, let it go like I’m Keyshia Cole,” he quips without effort on opener “Dead Man Walking.”

Either from laughter or the pure exasperation of watching this kid color outside the lines, the 19-year-old leaves listeners breathless. When BabyTron crams a bar like “Been running from karma my whole life, I’m exhausted” into the margins of “Lost It,” the raps are so effortless it’s hard to believe he’s tired. Through jokes and his earnest confessions, BabyTron—like Blueface before him—turns rapping offbeat into an undeniable daredevil display.

Earl Sweatshirt has also caught his fair share of flack recently for ignoring the metronome. “EAST,” the lead single from the Los Angeles rapper’s latest EP FEET OF CLAYis a rumination on death and loss as naked as anything from his 2018 album Some Rap Songs. Despite the serious subject matter, the song has been put through the internet meat grinder and memeified for its instrumental loop and Earl’s meandering raps.

In fairness, the accordion loop sounds like a sample from the intro of an unaired Ren & Stimpy Halloween special. But to the song’s credit, this is what gives Earl’s rhymes their mystical allure. The beat’s disorienting nature lends itself to documenting thoughts both prickly and raw:

“Miss my Pop dukes, might just hit me / Depending how I play my cards / The wind whispered to me, Aint it hard? / I wait to be the light shimmering from a star / Cognitive dissonance shattered and the necessary venom restored / As if it matters if you think it matters anymore” 

As a body of work, Earl’s FEET OF CLAY is a warmer offering than Some Rap Songs in both form and content, if only because he appears to be getting closer to the edge of his rain cloud. “EAST,” then, is an outlier; the apex of his mind at its most regretful. The bars drag and jump through his psyche the way any sudden bad memory would jolt someone from happiness. This sense of dread could only come from being off-balance and out of your element. “EAST” is queasy and nervous by design, all thanks to its arrhythmic nature.

The run-on flow found on “EAST” is reminiscent of New York rappers billy woods and Akai Solo, both clear influences on Earl’s style. The old New York paranoia found on woods’ “Spongebob” and the hazy new New York embedded in Solo’s verse on “Show Love” share stylistic DNA with Earl’s poetically concise confessions. His choice to carry on this tradition through a stream-of-consciousness as uneasy as the beat it rides makes the simple revelations of “EAST” all the more powerful.

For many artists, sticking to rigid parameters means being unable to express emotion adequately. Would Earl’s mourning hit the same way if it were more reigned in? Would Blueface or BabyTron’s fiendishly aggressive rhymes impact if they weren’t rushing to their conclusion? Looser flows are inherently exciting. Their unpredictability can communicate a stronger sense of fun or dread than if the artist chose to stick to a 4/4 time signature. These raps are more than animated babbling. They are expressions of self, set to a different beat.

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