The words to most hip hop songs tend to strike listeners as shallow. Today’s musicians rap about the life of the rich and famous, with women, jewelry, and luxury cars coming up every other line. But before it came to that, writing hip hop lyrics was actually an art that required skill, coordination, and of course, a way with words.
If you’ve hung around hip hop circles, you may have heard artists talk about flow. It’s an important part of hip hop writing. Flow refers to the way words are sung or rapped in relation to the rhythm; a good hip hop flow has the two elements in perfect unison. Some of the most memorable hip hop songs feature well-timed poetry and precise timing, with key words falling on all the right notes. It’s subtle, but it does a lot more for the music than it’s often given credit for.
One way to get your flow right is to listen to other hip hop songs, and note how the drum sequence matches the words and vice versa. Many writers come up with the words first and then try them out on different beats. The more songs you listen to, the more you’ll get a feel of what beat works with which words, taking into account the meaning and mood you have in mind. Be careful not to copy flows from existing songs; the mistake is easy enough for new writers to make, but it can be a costly one.
Rhyme is also essential to hip hop writing, as songs over the decades have demonstrated. Although it’s not necessary—many popular rappers have made hits with far-from-perfect rhyming—it helps pull the piece together and allows for better flow. Your rhyme scheme can remain the same throughout the song or change as it progresses, but if you choose the latter, try to use no more than three patterns in one track. Too many melodies is as hard to write as it is to listen to.
Finally, you need to stick to a theme. We’re talking between songs, not between lines. You don’t have to write about the exact same thing every time, but your collection does need some coherence. For example, a group of poems about change, friendship, and identity struggles can fit under the theme of young adulthood. The most reliable trick is to bank on your own experiences. If you write honestly about what’s on your mind, your songs will come together on their own.