Uniqueness is a strange metric. It’s highly subjective, making it prone to hyperbole and bias. Plus, in this omnivorous Internet environment, what’s strange to you is simply someone’s cultural identity (not sub-culture, not niche). But, with New York no longer the center point around which Hip Hop turns, an explosion of styles once considered “regional” are filling the empty space and we can celebrate those artists whose unique deliveries (aided by the motley cultural identities they’ve soaked up) have given Rap its character.
But what the hell is delivery? Well, we’re defining delivery/flow as how you say words and as how you string them together within and throughout a beat. So Tupac has an aggressive delivery and an elongated flow; Jay Z puts it this way, “Here’s a melody, ‘Duh, duh, duh, dud, da, duh-duh,’” Jay-Z explained on a 2002 episode of 60 Minutes. “Me, I’ll rhyme like, ‘La, la, da, da, da, dah-dah.’ So, I’m so in sync with the beat, that when the music’s going, I’m doing [the same thing] with words though.”
And that’s what’s so great about Rap as an art form. Jay-Z’s calculated, pellucid rhyme schemes stand in grand contrast to the atomized stories of Nas, which, themselves, are leagues away from the varied intuition of a Pimp C. So below, we present a list of 11 emcees who all have very unique deliveries for a variety of reasons, whether it be influenced by dialect or just personal creative tenor, and even though nothing is new under the sun, we can still stand around and appreciate the bars. This is not a ranked list, but feel free to argue amongst yourselves as far as who employs the most unique delivery.
Sample Verse - “Elvators (Me &U)”: “And I replied that I had been going through the same things that he had / True I’ve got more fans than the average man, but not enough loot to last me / To the end of the week, I live by the beat, like you live check-to-check / If you don’t move your feet then I don't eat, so we like neck-to-neck…”
“We started playing and I was messing around, so those vocals that you hear on the end—I was actually in the control room on the microphone,” André 3000 told Sam Hockley-Smith in a 2012 Fader interview regarding the song “DoYaThing.” “I wasn’t even in the vocal booth. I was running around the studio and I was sweating and running and we were playing.” There aren’t many rappers that would refer to anything that they do as “playing,” but it’s that playfulness that separates Dre and Big Boi from their competition. André 3000 & Co. laced their albums with the musical conversations of their metropolis: Southern slang, Funk, Soul, and the Blues.
As one of the masters of rhyme, 3-Stacks is not only multisyllabic and ferocious on any given verse, but he’s also brutally honest, hilarious, experimental and precocious. He goads the listener into thinking he’s going somewhere and then goes somewhere else entirely. He weaves into, out of, around and through beats, sometimes hitting on the down note and sometimes manipulating his cadence, speed and tenor to influence the beat itself. On “Return Of The G,” he weaves what is essentially a hook with “Return of the gansta, thanks-ta…” with a scathing critique of the people wanting to put OutKast in the proverbial “gangster” box off their Southernplayalisticadillacmuzic successes. While on T.I’s “Sorry,” he takes the name of the song literally to say, “And this the type of shit that make you call your Rap partna and say I’m sorry I’m awkward, my fault for fuckin’ up the tours.” But it was his initial double time rapping divided by one-tic pauses that set up the slow down he knew was coming. And, unlike some, nothing feels rushed or forced with 3000. And never one to shy away from conflict he ends his verse with, “There’s this quarry, that is dug so deep in a father’s chest / When he feel that he’s broken up his nest / And he figured, shit, he was just doing the best that he could / Which end up being the worst that he could / And all some pussy nigga on the Internet can say is that verse ain’t good / It’s boring… It’s boring?” Immediately something hot bubbles up in your chest as you realize these people are buying houses off Rap money, and then it hits you: you’re the one that’s boring.
Sample Verse - “Dusted N Disgusted”: “I’m heated, them niggas cheated, played me false / We had a meeting, shit ’posed to been squashed / I noticed one killa that’ll double dribble and set ‘em up y’all / She likes the Monie in the Middle, play tetherball / Thick ass bitch, high yellow city-slicker / Scarecrow crevice somethin’ vicious, aka posie pussy fictitious…”
On “Dusted N Disguted,” E-40 also turns out to be Mr. Versatile. Fonzarelli, is known for his variation within his own rhyme schemes, looping his breaths to create sounds that buoy his lyrics. Not only that, but he’s probably the only rapper that can make entire verses longer through breathing and delivery, doubling four bars into eight, or eight into 16 with seemingly no regard for the beat. But Charlie Hustle is like a Jazz musician experimenting with double or quadrupled notes, and a lot of times it feels like his improvisations lead to brand new forms of language like “fo shizzle,” for example. As 40 Water pointed out in a December, 2013 interview with HipHopDX, it’s a mixture of innovation and implementation.
“As time go by, you think, ‘These dudes…’” 40 explained. “They’ll take any of your words and turn ‘em into some songs and claim it, but that ain’t really why I did it… I just week wigglin’, and I move on.” Whatever the case, it creates such a distinctive flow that he’s unmistakable whenever he sets anything down on wax.
Sample Verse - “Midwest Choppers”: “Gotta give it up, I’m a veteran like Edison / I’mma light ‘em up and get in your head again / I’m better than ever, never let ‘em feather a debt they be fetishin’ / Sever it hit the mic and then we peddlin’ medicine / I’m a chopper, chopper, chopper!”
Tech N9ne’s register is a gruff alto, and although many people refer to his style as they would that Chi-town triple time flow or the Bone Thugs melodic multiples, Tecca Nina distinguishes himself by his clarity. Based on what he told DX in a June 2011 interview, it’s one area of personal pride.
“It’s not because I’m rapping fast or whatever, but really making sense and putting lyrics together as mathematics,” Tech noted. Facts. But he also brings an element of the strange to his delivery, inundating his styles with a series of howls, screams, and yelps. “Midwest Choppers 2,” from Tech’s Sickology 101, is a signature example of his unique vocal range. He opens up his verse here creepily singing: “I am the definition of the murder…The 9 is now coming to serve ya…” But afterwards, he immediately takes aim at the object of his aggression: “Gimme the mic and I bet that you duck / It’s what you better do when I’m busting / I be flipping, I’m incredible, never get on my level.” The US is often seen as 50 little countries in one, and no better is that illustrated than in Hip Hop where you’re constantly winding down on the microscope; Missouri to Kansas City to 57th Street to Tech N9ne. This also serves to magnify the Midwest’s contribution to the Rap aural lansdscape. In short, there’s nothing “fly over” about Tech N9ne’s flows, or the independent success of Strange music.
Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Sample Verse - “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’”: “Sure enough when I rock that stuff / Huff puff, I’m gonna catch your bluff tuff / Rough, kicking rhymes like Jim Kelly / Or Alex Haley I’m a Mi... Beetle Bailey rhymes / Coming raw, style hardcore / Niggas be coming to the Hip Hop store / Coming to buy grocery from me.”
ODB seems to have built a complete and consistent musical style out of absolutely nothing, and then left it to the rest of the world to figure out what it meant. That’s where NYC comes in: a huge city of millions forces you to be truly different in order to stand out, just like ODB did.
The syllables and words ODB chose were whatever ones proved to be the most immediate and natural to him to express his meaning at that exact point of time. He worked this way even if it meant that sometimes it seemed like ODB himself couldn’t possibly be sure of what the meaning was in certain lyrics, and that the right syllables and words could completely change from one line to the next.
Ason Jones’ flows and cadences, unlike most others, were made by fitting the music to his words, and not his words to the music. This seems to be the only possible explanation for his flow when he bursts into sudden song on “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’,” or for his inaudible mumbling during the same verse. This dizzying change in his flow’s direction, rather than being marked by calculated oddity bespeaks an unpredictable erraticism that has never quite been replicated on the mic. There truly was no father to his style.
Sample Verse - “Slow Jamz”: “You ain’t know Twista can work it like The Whispers / Hit the stop light, groovin’ to some Isleys / The rims still moving so I bump a little Spinners / While I’m smoking on a B, dipping through the streets / Bumping R&B, and I got the heat rolling 23s / And I do it / With my Earth in the wind smokin’ fire / Let me get your sheets wet listening to Keith Sweat / Put you in a daze with Maze / Fulfilling our every temptation, slow-jamming, having deep sex / You Ready for the World, girl?”
As an emcee, Twista has to be very careful in the syllables he chooses in order to be able to get out his rapid flows in an easily understandable way. As Twista detailed when talking to ThisIs50's Jack Thriller in a 2009 interview, experimentation is the key.
“Really, I was trying different styles and coming with different flows… I just felt it was time for a change with what I was doing,” claimed the Chi-town emcee. While he pumped out raps at a Guiness Book of World Records rate of 11.2 syllables per second in his younger days, his flows remain decipherable. You can chalk that up to the melodic nature of his syntax. Need proof? His two highest charting records were both Soul samples marshalled by Kanye West. That would be “Slow Jamz” and “Overnight Celebrity,” as both songs melodies allow his rapid fire cadence to find its sweet spot in between the notes. These are far different from the intertwined and melding vowel sounds of someone like MF DOOM. The two styles could not be more different. This is a great reason why the style of someone like Twista is called a “chopper” style: it sounds similar to the rat-tat-tat of the gun for which it’s named. It results in an aggressive style that fits right in with the Soul, Funk and House the Chi is notorious for.
Sample Verse - “Cash Money Is An Army”: “I’m tired of these stanky hoes smilin’ in my grill, shit just too real / And I’m in a battlefield, tryin’ to get my mills / It ain’t no secret I got skills to pay the bills / I’m climbing up the fuckin’ hill / Cash Money highly respected without a major deal / I’m still that Chopper City nigga that like to chill / Your head still a banana, if you slip it will get peeled.”
The influence of New Orleans Bounce permeates B.G.’s flow, as his style is often an equal mix of traditional Rap delivery techniques and a melodic half-sung flow. B.G.’s flow featured some of the sing-song melody commonly associated with Twista, Bone and Hypnotize Minds, but he was also adept sprinkling in bars of raw prose that came in fits and stops. The intermittent switching between half-sung Bounce cadences and Uptown rhymes was sometimes so random, even B.G.’s longtime producer Mannie Fresh didn’t always know what to expect.
“From him doing the hook, I already knew how it had to sound,” Mannie Fresh told XXL.com in an April, 2014 interview. “It got to have some kind of cool melodic sound to it that's just going to make you bop your head. [B.G.] has this flow about him that was kind of slur-ish, but I’m like, ‘You got to understand everything that he says.’”
Fans understood, as B.G.’s Chopper City In The Ghetto was eventually certified platinum by the RIAA, and soon enough Jay Z was co-opting B.G’s signature pose on “Takeover.”
Sample Verse - “Vomitspit”: “Snooze, all hell loose / Rake it / Take it like the good, the bad, the ugly / Break it, rollin’ through ya hood in the caddy buggy…”
Every MF DOOM song is a quintessential MF DOOM song. That’s because, Rap-wise, he largely comes to you with only one flavor, albeit a tasty one: a monotone delivery of cryptic images and phrases. With this possibly boring approach, MF DOOM injects lively life into his style by using any and all kinds of syllables in very unexpected combinations. The constantly changing vowel sounds that he uses—here a diphthong, there a consonant cluster—are emphasized and so come across as the music itself, and sets his Rap apart from that of any other rapper when the words seem to make little sense beyond them. He’s able to do this in a way that other emcees can’t because to a great extent DOOM has placed obvious poetic meaning in the backseat, behind his rhymes and musical effects.
This results in an approach that positions itself far from Hip Hop’s original genesis as an art form that took hold because of its reliance and belief in the incisive, explosive effect of the perfectly chosen and spoken word. It’s no accident then that MF DOOM is English by birth, even though he eventually moved to New York. Perhaps it took someone other than a Yankee to force rap to explore what it had previously taken for granted.
Sample Verse - “2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted”: “They tell me not to roll with my Glock, so now I got a throwaway / Floating in the black Benz, trying to do a show a day / They wonder how I live with five shots / Niggas is hard to kill on my block / Schemes for currency and dough related / Affiliated with the hustlers, so we made it / No answers to questions, I'm trying to get up on it / My nigga Dogg with me, eternally the most wanted…”
There’s an understandable amount of intrigue surrounding the origins of Tupac Shakur’s elongated rhyme cadence. It’s the one staple of his delivery often imitated by the likes of Master P, Krazy, Ja Rule and others but never quite duplicated. The note bending is evident on a track like “Dear Mama,” where ‘Pac rhymes, “Even though you was a crack fiend mama / You always was a black queen mama,” with the emphasis on the words “fiend” and “queen.” But even when Shakur switched subject matter and employed more similes and metaphors, he found a way to adapt his signature style to more uptempo tracks.
“Two years ago, a friend of mine / Told me Alize and Cristal blows your mind,” ‘Pac rhymed on “Got My Mind Made Up.” The elongation of the vowels was clipped, allowing for a cadence with additional syllables. While there was much attention paid to the region Tupac claimed—he was born in Harlem, New York but also logged time in Baltimore, Maryland and Marin County, California—it should be noted just how malleable his delivery was. Whether ‘Pac was rhyming over production from Easy Mo Bee, Dr. Dre or Johnny J, he got his point across while appealing to listeners across the globe.
Sample Verse - “Foe Tha Love of $”: “You give up the cash, or that was your ass / ‘Cause me and me nigga was hungry / And bitch, if you stallin’, you might just catch one to the temple / And um, Bone raw doggin’, so nigga just make this shit simple and run / To catch one nigga, me fill ‘em with bullets and dump ‘em in rivers / Remember, me killa now…”
The relationship between singing and rapping is a close one: when is Rap a melody, and when is Rap poetry? It is almost always both, but some in the Rap genre lean one way, like your Nate Doggs or your T-Pains, and others lean towards a more straightforward delivery, like MF DOOM. Early in their career, mentor and Ruthless Records founder Eazy-E issued the members of Bone thugs-n-harmony an edict.
“[Eazy-E] said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t focus on all the rapping. Sing that,’” Bizzy Bone revealed to Frank The Butcher in a January, 2014 Karmaloop interview. “And we was like, ‘C’mon you know we like 16 bars…12 bars,’ and he told us, ‘Nah. Sing that…harmonize that. Do that.’ And that was kind of like his thing with us to not be afraid to let people hear our vocals and our voices.”
Krayzie Bone himself brings that singing/rapping relationship to the forefront on “Heated Heavy.” In order to really hear the harmony and vocals that Krayzie mentions, a listener should pay attention to how his voice goes up and down in pitch. For example, Krayzie starts out the verse with a lot of tension in a higher voice: “Hell yeah, stackin’ my artillery shop / To the enemy we fuck up the cops.” By the end of the verse, his voice has been brought back down to a more relaxed level in order signal the end of his opening four bars: “And get the fuck away and don’t get caught / You better hurry nigga.” This kind of careful planning that extends not just over one or two bars but the entire verse is a mark of Krayzie Bone’s rap, something that could come only with a career long in the game.
Sample Verse - “Break The Law 2001”: “I know this nigga who got punked out after every class / He was a bitch in school and now he tote a gun and badge / Put on a uniform and now he think he superbad / Man fuck your vest, you still get laid to rest under the grass / I do not give a fuck because you are a officer / I put you in your coffin sir, you fuckin’ wit a slaughterer…”
Despite the fact Migos took offense to 2 Chainz tracing the origins of Quavo’s cadence from the 2013 song “Versace,” Chainz was on point when he rhymed, “This flow come from Drizzy, he got it from Migos, they got it from Three-6…” Simply put, what most people currently refer to as the “Migos Flow,” or rapping in triplets may not have been created by the Memphis collective Hypnotize Minds, but they certainly put it on the proverbial map. The late Three-6 Mafia member Lord Infamous was known for the combination of his gravely voice, macabre subject matter and distinct Memphis, Tennessee drawl. But arguably his most notable attribute on the mic was an emphasis on the last three syllables of his couplets.
LORD INFAMOUS AND SKINNY PIMP BEEN RAPPING IN TRIPLETS SINCE 1992 OR B4. No offense to MIGOS but I WILL NEVER CALL IT THEIR FLOW
— Lola aka Boo (@GangstaBooQOM) March 3, 2014
As fellow Three 6 alum Gangsta Boo noted via Twitter, Infamous and Kingpin Skinny Pimp likely made use of a somewhat simplified and modified version of a poetic tercet before any of the Migos members were born. As with most trends, sometimes the pioneers are forgotten with the passage of time. But with “Trap Back,” 2 Chainz made sure the man in possession of one of Hip Hop’s most distinct deliveries got his posthumous due.
Sample Verse - “Monster”: “Forget Barbie, fuck Nicki cause she’s fake / She’s on a diet but her pockets eating cheesecake / And I’ll say bride of Chucky is child’s play / Just killed another career, it’s a mild day / Besides ‘Ye, they can’t stands besides me / I think me, you and Am should ménage Friday…”
Nicki Minaj has been walking the Hip Hop/Pop tightrope since her debut and follow-up albums Pink Friday and Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded featured songs like “Super Bass” and “Starships,” but what gets overlooked is Nicki might be the second fastest crossover star in Hip Hop history with a right to claim the space. There’s the Pitbull’s of the world who’ve moved from making traditional Hip Hop onto greener Pop pastures, but Nicki’s bars are nothing to ever sneeze at. You may be able to tell when she’s rhyming for a different audience, but any rapper who has once rhymed, “Pink whip, thick ass, give em’ whiplash” and can then get little girls to dance to one of their hits on Ellen has figured out something others are still trying to.
When the black Barbie is rapping (like we want her to rap, of course), she is charismatic and precise, and, you know, she’s back to rapping. On Young Thug’s breakout hit “Danny Glover,” she spits New York nostalgia wherein she throws bar over bar on top of each other like some teetering Jenga set. There’s more. On “Lookin’ Ass Nigga” she comes for people’s senses once again, pinpointing a cadence that seems to flow in both directions. But it’s her alter-egos that make her stand out. On “Monster,” she raps as both Nicki Minaj who’s soft voiced style is conversational and Roman, her aggressive moniker that growls in a grizzly pitch. So, multiple personas each with it’s own specific set of flows? We’d say that makes for a unique delivery.
Additional contributions by Martin Connor. Martin Connor is a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native who has contributed his own unique brand of incisive rap music analysis to both academic institutions, including Eastern Kentucky University, as well as a variety of blogs, such HipHopDX, RapGenius, and his own website, www.RapAnalysis.com. You can Google 'Rapper's Flow Encyclopedia' for more of his work, or follow him on Twitter @ComposersCorner.