8 Great Microphone Solos

11 Aug

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Thoughts:

Rakim aptly explains my favorite type of rapper, “the microphone soloist”, in his classic comeback track Its Been a Long Time.

To me the lyric is literal. It’s been a long time since Rakim has released a track and of course, he is the greatest microphone soloist.1

From a musical perspective – I understand a soloist to be a musician who takes the prominent role, sometimes for apart of the song or sometimes for the entire piece.

In the case of rap & hip hop the best microphone soloists’ can pull off the entire track. They can create a masterpiece with a great beat and enough mastery of lyricism, rhythm and style to make 3 plus minutes interesting and exciting.

The soloist impresses listeners with a combination of technical, rhythmic, harmonic, stylistic and sometimes lyrical skills. Generally, in the context of the hip hop microphone soloist, all of the verses and chorus are a solo rapper’s voice. There are no guest features, no RnB singers taking over during a chorus.

To be a great microphone soloist is to be a great rapper. It’s why this sub-genre is so popular for both up-and-coming artists looking to prove themselves and established artists looking to yet again prove themselves.

A large part of hip hop and rap has always been about ego, style and bragging. This is one of the most fun and exciting aspects of the music. Microphone solos are an example of why I love ego and bragging in rap. Like any great solo if the musician cannot deliver, they can easily embarrass themselves and the listener will immediately know.

So, what got me thinking about microphone soloists?

I’ll admit it… Eminem’s Rap God.

When I first heard it I didn’t like it. I was at the gym or shopping or something. I heard the chorus first and did not get a good sense of the verses. I’ve always had a love/hate with Eminem’s vocal timbre and sung choruses.

A few months later I listened to the track at home and in the right state of mind… So… Is Eminem a Rap God?

Well… the 3 chorus are incredible feats of lyrical, stylistic, and rhythmic mastery and at this point I think this is one of my favorite Eminem choruses2.

He carries the entire track for almost 5 minutes, it’s exciting and has great lyrics.

So yes… Eminem qualifies as a Rap God.

I then started to wonder… who are my other favorite rap gods?”3

* * *

Tracks:

Eminem – Rap God

Producer: DVLP
Example of self-confident lyric exclaiming the virtues of given MC’s formidable skills:

Uh, summa-lumma, dooma-lumma, you assuming I’m a human
What I gotta do to get it through to you? I’m superhuman
Innovative and I’m made of rubber
So that anything you say is ricocheting off of me and it’ll glue to you
and
I’m devastating, more than ever demonstrating
How to give a mothafuckin’ audience a feeling like it’s levitating
Never fading, and I know the haters are forever waiting
For the day that they can say I fell off, they’ll be celebrating
Cause I know the way to get ’em motivated
I make elevating music, you make elevator music
“Oh, he’s too mainstream”
Well, that’s what they do when they get jealous, they confuse it
It’s not hip-hop, it’s pop
Cause I found a, hella way to fuse it
With rock, shock rap with Doc
Throw on “Lose Yourself” and make ’em lose it

Eminem’s standard rhythmic flow on this track is a 16th-note feel, but he also slips into 32nd note madness. Eminem has this flow mastered and can easily switch into other interesting word and phrase accents, cadences and feels.

Rakim – Its Been a Long Time

Producer: DJ Premier
Example of self-confident lyric exclaiming the virtues of the given MC’s formidable skills:

When I flow at night, I show them new heights, I go to write
They know I strike with new prototypes to blow the mic
Critics and biters, don’t know where my source of light is
Still leave authors and writers with arthritis
Cursed kids like the Pyramids when they found the style
First to ever let a rhyme flow down the Nile
The rebirth of hip-hop’ll be dropped now
Cause the crowd didn’t hear the original in a while

A deep swing shuffle groove, amazing lyrics and phrasing. This track completely defines the style, Rakim is one of the greatest, one of the true original rap gods.  Even without the expert delivery, style and phrasing – this is beautiful poetry. Its no surprise that Rakim is an influence on perhaps all true microphone soloists.

Jay Z – I Can’t Get With That

Producer: Clark Kent
Example of self-confident lyric exclaiming the virtues of the given MC’s formidable skills:

My shit is tight, can’t slip, gotta grip
Like a pit in a dog fight my shit is aight
I ain’t checkin’ for you ‘less you my peoples
And just in case you didn’t know peep the steelo
It goes one dime for your mind
And two bone crushers for your spine
Cause none of ya game is rougher than mine

A young Jay Z shows off his whirlwind rhythmic and stylistic talents. Sextuplet flow, 89 beats per minute, interesting grooves and phrases. This track has been a favorite of my since I first heard it in College, it was shocking actually. I was already a huge fan of the Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt, but I had no idea Jay Z had ever created this type of hungry microphone solo.

Nas – Hero

Producer: Polow da Don
Example of self-confident lyric exclaiming the virtues of the given MC’s formidable skills:

My lawyers only see the Billboard charts as winning
Forgetting Nas the only true rebel since the beginning
Still in musical prison, in jail for the flow
Try telling Bob Dylan, Bruce, or Billy Joel they can’t sing what’s in their soul

I’ll admit, this track should probably be One Mic. One Mic is a great name for a microphone solo and Nas delivers on that track with great use of volume dynamics4. I like Hero because Nas is older and struggling with the corporate system while trying to release the album that would eventually be Untitled. He’s rapping like he still has a lot to prove over faster tempo beat.

Twista – Beast

Producer: DJ Tight Mike
Example of self-confident lyric exclaiming the virtues of the given MC’s formidable skills:

With my adrenaline and venom I can turn ’em into a
Minimal amount of matter when in murder mode
Screwface, I am the Omnipotent of verbal evolution
Coming with some shit you’ve never heard before
Like genes, chromosomes, theories of existence
Ain’t no tellin’ where I take ya
bio photons turning on codons
Activating divine nature!

This man has been doing his incredibly fast thing for over 2 decades. He utilizes his pace, 16th notes and accents to tastefully shred at rapping. What can I say about Twista that isn’t said with this incredible line which combines everything I like about rap – ego, rhythms, consciousness, style and body rocking flow:

In the beginning there was “Adam”, A-T-O-M
I am the Higgs Boson, meaning that I was there way before him

Lupe Fiasco – Put You On Game

Producer: Simonsayz
Example of self-confident lyric exclaiming the virtues of the given MC’s formidable skills:

I am the American dream
The rape of Africa, the undying machine
The overpriced medicine, the murderous regime
The tough guy’s front and the one behind the scenes
I am the blood of this city
Its gas, water, and electricity
I’m its gym, and its math, and its history
The gunshots in the class
And you can’t pass if you’re missin’

Lupe Fiasco was a last minute addition, I like his first 2 albums and have seen him give an amazing live performance with a full band.5 I wanted to include Kick Push, but it didn’t feel right to me on this list. So I picked this track from Lupe’s The Cool. He is a gifted storyteller and this song has great lyrics. He embodies evil things with a deep pocket shuffle flow.

B.o.B – Beast Mode

Producer: Infinity
Example of self-confident lyric exclaiming the virtues of the given MC’s formidable skills:

Or maybe I’m angry, maybe I just need a little more patience
Or maybe I’m crazy, maybe I just get a little too anxious
Sometimes I rhyme like I’m inside Einstein’s mind
Look at the time fly by, plenty of times I died
Looking at these jive guys claiming they lost they mind
You ain’t really seen shit

This was the first real B.o.B. song I heard and apparently I’m lucky. I love the the changes in flow and style; triplets, sextuplets and lots of energy.

Big L – 98′ Freestyle

Producer: Lord Finesse
Example of self-confident lyric exclaiming the virtues of the given MC’s formidable skills:

My game is vicious and cruel Fucking chicks is a rule
If my girl think I’m loyal then that bitch is a fool
How come you can listen to my first album
And tell where a lot of niggas got they whole style from?
So what you acting for?
You ain’t half as raw, you need to practice more
Somebody tell this nigga something, before I crack his jaw
You running with boys, I’m running with men
I’m a be ripping the mics until I’m a hundred and ten
Have y’all niggas like “damn it this nigga done done it again”

An all time classic, when I first heard this song my jaw dropped – and then I heard this. 

* * *

Analysis:

To paraphrase the saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins; “a great musician can play an entire concert with only one note.”

8th notes.

8thnotes

These bad-boys are the primary metric we use to help understand the hip hop microphone
soloist’s rhythmic style. There’s a lot to be done with 8th notes. They are prominent if not predominant in all of the 8 tracks.

8th Note Swing/Shuffle Feel.

8thnoteswing

The foundations of Jazz, Blues, RnB, Rock and many other American genres. Can be heard interlaced with poetic lyricism and phrasing to create deep groves on the tracks from Rakim, Big L, Nas, Lupe and even Twista.6

16th notes are a common feature of the microphone solo too.

16thnotes

These guys can be thought of as fast rapping. Approximately twice as fast as the 8th note flow.
Switching between the 8th note and 16th note flow tastefully and stylistically is used with great effect to create motion, drama and tension and release. 16th notes are most prominent on Rap God and Beast.7

I love the feeling of triplets and sextuplets.

Triplets  3over2tripletsSextuplets

Jay Z’s I Can’t Get With That has a classic sextuple feel. Also B.o.B includes some great triplet and sextuple flourishes in Beast Mode

* * *

Conclusion:

A great microphone soloist can switch between 8th notes,16th notes, triplets, sextuplets and other rhythmic features at will. Or keep an 8th note flow in the pocket with accents, syllable phrasing, rests and great lyrics.

After living with these songs for awhile I realized Its Been a Long Time is my favorite. It doesn’t have the most complex rhythms, but it does have the deepest groove, original phrasing and amazing lyrics. It might be my favorite beat too… but I have chosen to not write about production at this point.

Also I tended to pick lyrics from the last verse of every track, I’m not sure why, I think it is a testament to these artists musicianship and talent. A great microphone soloist always leaves us wanting more of their style.

 


  1. Rap Genius claims that this line relates to the beef between Eric B and Rakim, (that might be true) I wasn’t even aware of that conflict when I first heard this track. 

  2. Since Lose Yourself, Guess Who’s Back or Drug Balled. 

  3. It seems I “have a thing” for multisyllabic fast-flowin’ lyrically-conscious east coast rappers. 

  4. Also Hero is a bit of an exception here because it contains on RnB singer… but Nas still sings/raps the chorus so in my opinion it counts. 

  5. It was a huge surprise and one of the best hip hop shows I’ve seen. 

  6. Shuffle feel makes me think of serious omissions, GZA, Lil Wayne and Black Thought – I know… 

  7. 16th notes make me think of other serious omissions, namely Busta and Tech N9ne – I know… 

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