A Word on Flow

by Tom Loughney ’16

A friend of mine recently asked me about how I defined flow and its importance, and it got me thinking a bit on my experience with qualifying flow. When I first began exploring hip-hop critiques, most everyone utilized the term without ever really explaining what it was or what it meant. I remember my frustration with the nebulous use and nature of the word, so hopefully my thoughts will help those just starting out with hip-hop to gain a general sense of the ideas and importance behind flow.

Flow is a lyrical technique that grows more complex as it is applied to different musical and thematic styles, but, at its core, flow is the rhythm and cadence of a rapper’s lyrical delivery. Simple as that. The vocal aspect of flow varies from MC to MC[1] in the same way that playing techniques vary from musician to musician. Andre 300 and Big Boi of Outkast have a relatively smooth, laid back flow in many of their songs – like “Spottieottiedopaliscious” and “West Savannah,” while MC Daveed Diggs of Clipping favors a more relentless flow, as shown on songs like “Intro” and “Story 2.” The base upon which a flow is built is the rapper’s particular speech patterns – their cadence, accent, and speech idiosyncrasies. This means that the way one artist will deliver a word, such as “door,”[2] can alter their rhymes and rhythmic delivery, changing the flow of their lyrics. The effectiveness of a rapper’s basic flow is dependent upon the successful execution of their line deliveries, as they relate to their particular speech patterns.

Some hip-hop artists, who are particularly comfortable in their own flow, are able to spit rhymes at an incredible pace. While being able to deliver lyrics at a rapid tempo is impressive, there’s still a lot more to flow than just being able to speak really fast. Having good flow means more than your ability to say words – it also means having a dynamic range of deliveries and rhythms to your lyrics.

A good artist will know when and how to change their flow from song to song[3], and even be able to effectively change it within a song itself. For example, in “Backstreet Freestyle” by Kendrick Lamar, Kendrick’s flow during the first chunk of the song is cocky and confident. As the song intensifies in the third verse, so does his delivery. He increases his tempo, and adds a bit of an edge to his voice. This is something that sets artists like Kendrick apart from the rest of the game – they possess and utilize a wide range of rhythmic deliveries. This not only allows them to get more out of their music, they also avoid sounding like rhythmic one-trick ponies.

Backseat Freestyle” brings up another good point that delves into the more complex application of flows – having a flow that matches the musical, thematic, and emotional tone of a song[4]. Kendrick sounds confident because the beat is driven – “Backseat Freestyle” is a musically confident hype track, and Kendrick’s lyrics and delivery mirror that to great effect. On other songs, however, Kendrick can sound sensitive, angry, or sorrowful, depending on the mood of the song. He knows how to match his delivery with the tone of a song, and this is one of the most important pieces of standout flow.

To offer up a counter-example: Earl Sweatshirt is a great lyricist whose flow severely lacks dynamic emotional delivery, diminishing the impact of his music. He sounds exactly the same in every song, from “Burgundy” to “Chum.” Despite the two songs having production and lyrical content that evoke very different emotions, Earl’s delivery remains the same. Other artists like Aesop Rock suffer from a similar problem, sounding the same in every song. In a lot of ways, it’s similar to “The Incredibles Effect.”[5] If every flow sounds sad/happy/driven/angry, then none of them do because there’s no differentiation.

Conversely, Eminem’s delivery drastically varies from song to song. On “Kim” – a song where he is talking about murdering his ex-wife – he screams his violent lyrics. It is intense, to say the least. On “Stan” – a more reflective song – his flow is sedate and melancholy. The discrepancy between Eminem’s emotional deliveries grants each of these songs their own respective emotional impact.

Another great example of an MC with a dynamic flow is MC Ride of the recently dissolved Death Grips. On “You think he loves you for your money…” Ride’s flow is insane and schizophrenic – matching the fragmented, violent vibe of the song; however, on “Get Got,” which has a more subdued sound, his flow is more calm and passive. Not only does utilizing a dynamic range of emotion preserve a song’s emotional impact, it’s also a great way for an artist to show off their performing abilities.

To be clear – I’m not saying that an artist is bad[7] or that their flow is bad if it doesn’t perfectly match my criteria above – there’s a lot more to hip-hop than just flow, even if it is a big part of what makes or breaks the genre. Also, just because an artist doesn’t meet my standard for good flow, doesn’t mean that I think their flow is horrendous. I personally really enjoy Earl Sweatshirt and Aesop Rock, even if they don’t achieve the transcendent flow of someone like Kendrick Lamar. I hope my thoughts on flow have been helpful and interesting.

This has been FLOW

[1] For example, Kendrick’s vocal flow is crisp and a little high pitched, Kanye has a more nasally vocal flow, and Rick Ross’ vocal flow sounds like a dying beached whale.

[2] I.E. door versus do’ (pronounced, “doe”)

[3] Unless your name rhymes with “Lick Moss,” and you’re huffing and puffing your way through every song in generally the same fashion

[4] Unless your name rhymes with “Sick Sauce,”[6] and your songs all have the lyrical and emotional weight of a Home Depot

[5] If everyone’s super, then no one will be

[6] “Dick Boss,” “Kris Kross,” “Mick the Albatross.” I could do this all day, people

[7] Except Rick Ross. He is very bad.

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