Hip Hop is arguably the most popular genre of music to listen to, but how exactly do you write the music lyrics we hear? How do you go about it, exactly?
Well, in this article, I’m going to outline details for how to write a rap verse that’ll make you and your friends proud!
Rap: A Brief History
Rap music happened in the streets, beautiful at times and horrible in other instances, just like the streets are known to be. Rap in the form of a “volley” or some type of back-and-forth sport began publicly in the communities of New York, with a major credit having been given to DJ Kool Herc & Coke La Rock’s teaming up in the Bronx.
DJ Kool Herc was definitely becoming a force in the city by throwing legendary house parties, where he would spin and mix vinyl records on turntables. Through this method, he was creating the signature flavor we still love today when we hear percussion, sound-shots and song samples being chopped, scratched, and reversed into the natural beat of our favorite tracks.
When Coke La Rock came along, after meeting Clive Campbell (Herc) in school and began laying rhymes over the instrumental beats at the young age of 15, it became clear that this new art form was going to infect the streets like so many significant contributions from the black community that had come previously.
This was not the same as the jazz music of the South or the rock-and-roll music on the radios in Michigan or even the blues music that Harlem and Queens knew for so long. This was outrageous, and it belonged to the young crowd—specifically the young African-American crowd.
The energy between DJ’s and MC’s became the epitome of a relationship bond that would eventually change the whole world’s perspective on the divide between prose, poetry, percussion and polyphonies.
How to Write a Rap Verse with 16 Bars
Now that I’ve ranted about the social studies behind the art form, let’s discuss more of the technical aspects and linguistics you might come across when venturing through not only historical hip-hop but even the more radical outliers who fall under some of the subcategories of rap.
One of the main phrases you’ll hear rappers, producers, and beat makers mention is “a sixteen”. Most normal people would rightfully be wondering what the heck “a sixteen” could be. Sixteen of what? Good question. Next time someone asks how to write a rap verse, maybe you can hit them with your own sixteen.
Rap verses are broken down into smaller sections, with sizes having been determined by the artist(s) and/or producer(s). Rappers call these sections “bars” or maybe even just “lines.”
When it comes to structure, it’s helpful to understand how many bars you have allocated for your single verse before a hook should come in. In the physical sense, the easiest way to break your own verse down into bars is to write it in rhyming phrases, separated by blank line spaces or maybe even punctuation of your choosing – for example:
“I’m not the same man, and I’m happy to say it. // They told me the price, and I was happy to pay it.”
“I’m not the same man, and I’m happy to say it.
They told me the price, and I was happy to pay it.”
Either way you write it, it’s still filling the same amount of time on the song, so some rappers might call a “sixteen” while others may call an “eight” or “thirty-two” depending on how you write and rap.
However, if a producer asks for thirty-two bars, you can generally assume he’s counted out his verse length according to the measure and time signature of the song, so it would be a true “thirty-two.”
Often times, when you receive a copy of a song to be featured on for a single verse, it will already have the hook recorded and laid within its respective boundaries on the track, so you can easily hear where you should stop and try to wrap up the point of your verse.
And usually these verses will have room for about sixteen bars. Sometimes it only needs an 8-piece or maybe it needs a 20-bar verse (16 bars and then a four-bar pre-chorus, maybe) or maybe you have someone who really believes in your abilities and wants a whole 64-bar verse.
Whatever the case may be, it helps if you stop and listen to the beat so you can understand the terms of the project at hand.
However, for instruction’s sake, let’s pretend you’re starting from scratch, with nothing but a 3-minute beat playing on a loop. This is going to sound like I’m over-simplifying and maybe even beating a dead horse but please – listen to the beat. You would be surprised how much of a difference it makes when the beat maker already injected their own phrasing into the structure of the beat.
Listen for contrasts in sections and changes in the beat. Notice how the percussion stopped playing and you begin to only hear the main melody with the bass. Notice when the energy is subtly rising, caused by a reversed cymbal or laser sound in the background. These are key changes that will help decide how the energy should flow in your verse and hooks.
There are no rules that specifically dictate what part of the beat MUST be for the hook or MUST be for your verse (unless your producer/beat maker says otherwise) but it can be very apparent what type of energies belong on certain sections of different beats. The best advice for figuring this out is to let it happen naturally.
Sometimes, a song doesn’t need a repetitive chorus that plays three times, and many times rappers will literally title their song, “No Hook” because of their innate desire to simply keep rapping and speak their piece. With that said, please don’t forget that the most memorable radio hits have a very catchy hook, usually one that can interest everyone from all walks of life, of different ages and backgrounds.
How to Write a Rap Verse with Examples
With so many learning and communication styles, it’s impossible to pinpoint one style of creation and crown it as the standard for all rappers. Many rappers must deliver their lines to themselves for weeks at a time, making sure each syllable is deliberately placed with the intent to slice through the beat precision guided by muscle memory.
Some other rappers think that if they write down and perform their bars too many times, their lines will begin to sound stale and over-rehearsed. Regardless of your own method-to-the-madness, let’s cover a few of the greats and review their styles for creating. You may learn a couple new things that could add to your own process.
A very popular method of song creation in the rap world is to “freestyle” using aimless cadences, naturally-whimsical melodies, and specific words and ideas into a microphone while recording.
Kanye West is a huge influence in this realm of idea-logging, with the way he records nonsensical music and then re-writes it to fit his original musical vision while also delivering his intended message. I’ve utilized this method myself on many songs, and I will say that being able to fully stick to the original intended idea is such a sweet victory. There’s nothing like the fresh ideas that begin to incubate the VERY FIRST TIME you hear a new instrumental.
If I have any say in what you should try, go home and use your phone’s video camera to record your first freestyle over a fresh new beat. Don’t stop rapping, even if you don’t have any words. Make the general sounds and vibes come out onto the recording, and go back and listen. Try to add real lyrics and messages using the general rhyme schemes and cadences you naturally did without thinking too hard.
The rest of the song usually begins to form in front of your ears, with the rap chorus or hook showing itself naturally through the essence of your freestyle. Yes, Kanye is a name that holds a lot of negative and positive connotations, but one thing about the man is undeniable: He follows the natural vibe of his own music. If you ever have the chance to come into contact with that feeling in the studio, you will understand why I so strongly back this form of creation.
In the same circle, you have another larger-than-life contender who does not at all write down what he delivers on the microphone –- Jay-Z. Like his fellow mogul, Future, HOV is known to deliver one to two lines at a time and then retreat from the mic to do some more critical thinking about his next moves.
I use the term “moves” in plural, because as you dissect the music, it’s apparent that Jay-Z always has an end goal in mind for his verses, using his descriptive story-telling flow in perfect succession, always having a start, middle, and end to his ideas, without ever leaving an open-ended idea, yet still forcing the conversations and thoughts to continue.
Now, although these two examples I’ve given are widely-known as uber-lyrical, conceptual, visionary rappers, there are also examples of rap verses by artists who are less linguistically dynamic, and have less of a range in the form of conceptualism.
Take Blueface for example, with a huge reputation for being entirely off the beat while rapping about surface-level materialism and partying. This is not to say that he is not a talented artist; in fact, I would say quite the contrary. It takes a real special level of skill to capture the hearts and minds of the average listener without being overly-emotional or characteristically lyrical or deep.
How do the generic, pop-culturally relevant lyrics and shaky voices keep up with the poetry masters of hip-hop, like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar? Some artists don’t rap inside difficult structural pockets, or discuss important, relevant subjects, so how do they keep getting radio plays and streams?
The answer to this question lies deeper than the technicalities. It goes back to the reality of what rap music was created for. Rap music is the only genre that is not inherently focused on music. Yes, as a producer, you must understand SOME level of music theory or at least how to play in key, but as a culture, the trophies of rap aren’t given to the musically talented or the best performers.
Rap is the only music genre in which the realities of people’s lives tend to dictate their success in the industry. It’s been said that the industry is more of a “popularity contest” and that you can only really be relevant if you’re a clout-chasing celebrity or a thug with a ton of street credit. What I’m saying is that you could have all the technical understanding of musical structure and rhyme schemes and even flow and cadence pockets, but without a cultural representation of your image, most rap fans don’t have enough knowledge about you to care.
You MUST have some sort of image in the rap game, and hopefully that image being portrayed is close to the actual way you live. If not, the horror stories will catch up with you faster than you believe. Whether your image is a soft, kind-hearted R&B singer with a guitar, or maybe you’re a bodybuilder who served 10 years and is ready to knock other rappers’ heads off, the people still need to be able to understand WHO you are.
That means YOU need to know WHO you are. Maybe you are poetry soldier with a lyrical chip on your shoulder. Maybe you’re just a young lady who’s proud to be sexy and wants to make money. Whoever you are, you must make sure to FULLY be that person, with no regrets or regard to how others perceive you. The ability to remain yourself through all the temptations to be different will attract the right type of attention, always.
This confidence and ability to fully represent themselves (or maybe they have a team helping them do so) is what puts artists like Blueface in the spotlight, along with his more technically gifted contemporaries. There is a certain skill-set that comes with being a star, and before you can be the best rapper, you must be the best version of yourself so the rest of the world can relate to you and see the best parts of what makes you the person you are.
You can write, re-write, practice, change, analyze, chop, edge, nudge, change your verse IN ANY WAY you see fit. Make new flow pockets, re-use cadences, use slant rhymes, do whatever you have to do to make yourself happy with the product. But above all else, let it all come to you in a natural way, because those who “try hard” are the same who “die hard.” It will be widely apparent if your skills need brushing up, based on rhythm and execution, or even just style alone.
Does All This Technical Stuff Matter?
You might be thinking to yourself, “Wow, this seems like a lot of soul-searching just to write a rap verse. It couldn’t really be that hard.” And the truth is – you’d might be right.
When it comes to technicalities, THEY REALLY DON’T MATTER. There will always be another rapper who comes on the stage after you, who does some really repetitive hook (you might hate it) and gives almost no energy to their writing process and really doesn’t work too hard at all on their recording. And you know what–they just might crush it on stage.
Stranger things have happened.
At the end of the day, however, I think it’s important to master the technical stuff, because it’s helps inform how you can navigate all your creativity. Think of it all like understanding the fundamentals of football. Sure, you may not need to study all the X’s and O’s. Maybe your talent will take over on the field, and you’ll just dominate.
But, if you hit the playbook. If you show up to practice on time and put in the work to understand all of the tiny details, you’ll have longterm success on the mic (and in the business) because you’ll be that much further ahead of your peers that doesn’t want to put in the hard work or execution.
Here’s Where to Start
I’m going to break this entire process down for someone who has no production experience, no studio access, and is not in charge of the musical structure/composition of the beat. This process I’ll be walking you through is just ONE example of ONLY writing a rap song. Production and publication will happen in time, but first you must be sure to finalize your product so you don’t walk in and waste time that you paid for at a studio.
1 – Introduction – Let the beat build up and fill the room out for you. If you really don’t have much to say, that’s fine. Let the music speak. Sometimes, the rapper/engineer will cut out the intro and the song will immediately take off with the high energy of the first verse.
Usually, however, this is the time of the song when you can introduce yourself, maybe give a shout out to your producer, or maybe even work in an audio sample that’s important to you. A lot of times, you can leave this part of the project until you are actually in the studio. That way you can physically document the real feelings and experiences at the time of the recording
2 – Phrase 1 (Hook) – You are not required by any law to start with a chorus or really to do anything that’s been done in music before. But personally, I love the idea of starting off with a light version of my hook for the 1st phrase, maybe even just the first half of the hook. That way, you can break off into the verse, and when people hear the 1st phrase of the hook come back, they’ll be excited by the familiarity.
Then as soon as that part wraps up, here comes an equally catchy 2nd phrase of the hook that they’ve never heard before.
3 – Structure and Filling – Once you’ve laid down an idea for a hook and even written a verse, you can probably start to see how to rest of the song is going to play out at this point. Maybe you need the beat to run on longer, which is fine.
Your mixing engineer can handle that for you when you get to the recording process in the studio. Maybe you don’t have the best singing voice, but you have a really good idea for some lyrics on the hook. That’s fine too! Grab other artists and collaborate! Don’t be scared to throw some Auto-tune on your voice and see how it sounds at the studio! You really never know how much opportunity lies ahead of you until you open up your horizons and allow yourself to be fully creative and free.
Sometimes, I like to rap my first verse a second time after the first real chorus, to find out if my verses should be the same length or if they differ. Your mixing engineer might even throw your chorus on repeat at the very end, like a chant.
There a ton of different ways to go about the final structure, but your first and foremost job is to make sure you have enough bars to fill your sixteen. Next time someone asks you how to write a rap verse, that’s the first number of which you should think. I personally can’t wait to hear your final product. Best of luck!
This article was written by Shawn A.
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