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Rapper and researcher: What makes the shit dope?
Rap music is more popular than ever. As a rapper and a scientist, Kjell Andreas Oddekalv looked into the magic of it.
“For quite a while, rap has been the most popular music genre globally. Rap music accounts for a large part of the streaming in the US, and the same can be said for Norway, Sweden and Denmark,” says Kjell Andreas Oddekalv, who will soon defend his PhD thesis What Makes the Shit Dope? The Techniques and Analysis of Rap Flows.
Oddekalv is a rapper in the Norwegian band Sinsenfist. He is also a researcher having spent the past years working on a PhD on rap music. When he did his master's degree a few years ago, the field was still under-explored.
“This has changed, not surprisingly, as rap has become the major mainstream genre,” says Oddekalv.
Enjoyable to anyone
In his master's degree thesis, Oddekalv analysed the rhythm in rap vocals of three Norwegian artists: Elling Borgersrud in Gatas Parlament, Runar Gudnason in Side Brok and Lars Vaular.
For his PhD thesis, he broadened the perspective and dived into the techniques rap artists use. What is the relationship between lyrics and music? What is happening in those magical moments when you just think: "What did they do there?"
“Since the birth of hip-hop, mixing genre expressions has played a big part. As long as it sounds cool, you can include it, whether it is from reggae, funk, or perhaps EDM (electronic dance music),” Oddekalv says. “One of the reasons behind rap’s popularity is probably that everyone can find something they like.”
While hip-hop is a culture, rap is a vocal technique derived from this culture, Oddekalv adds.
He also believes that many people like rap because it gives them a feeling of belonging. For instance, the Norwegian duo Karpe raps about being part of a minority.
“In a globalised world, rap is a global kind of music. Anyone can find a part of themselves in it. It is accessible to everyone,” says Oddekalv.
The playful rap
In his PhD he talks about the rap flow, meaning the relationship between lyrics and music. He describes rap as playful; playing with things humans like.
“Rap music is a mix of what we expect and what we don't expect. Our brain loves it. There is a certain structure, but it does not get boring. One can find aspects of this playfulness in all music genres, but rap has many tools for it,” he explains.
In rap, the meeting between lyrics and music becomes quite important, and the song “Helt om natten, helt om dagen,” (Hero by night, hero by day) by the Norwegian rapper Lars Vaular is a good example, according to Oddekalv.
“The first part is symmetrically organised: The lyrics start at the first beat, and the rhyme lands at the fourth. However, in the next part, the rhyme lands unexpectedly. The lyrical structure is not parallel to the musical structure," he says.
Listeners are different
This creates ambiguities, layers and ruptures in lines, in the music, he explains. “I think that’s quite cool."
Rappers often use a technique where they let the rhyme land on the first beat instead of the fourth. Oddekalv has labelled the technique 'one-rhyming'.
However, he emphasises that all listeners – and listening experiences – are different.
“In the field of music cognition, we find broad support that meeting and breaking expectations and musical ambiguities are important for how we orient ourselves to music. However, what is expected and what is ambiguous may vary from listener to listener. Some may like one broken expectation, while it may annoy others,” he says.
The magic of the microrhythm
In his research, Oddekalv listened to a lot of music. He also interviewed rappers, and he analysed the timing in rap music down to the micro level.
“A lot of magic can happen in microrhythm. Where is the syllable in relation to the drumbeat, for instance? I have done many analyses of that kind," he says.
In his PhD, he developed an analytical framework for rap music, where you can look at both the macro and micro level of the music.
“How aware are rappers of these techniques?”
“As far as my limited data shows, it varies. Some people are very aware of specific details in their flow. The most common, however, is probably that you have learned things by listening to, and making rap, and that you do things without reflecting on what you do on a detailed level.”
Understanding a phenomenon
Oddekalv has not become any more analytical as a rap artist than he was before.
“However, I understand things better, for instance, why a song sounds good," he says.
“Why is this research important?”
“For music lovers and professionals, my findings can be very useful knowledge. However, I also think that when people care about something, there is value to understanding more of it. You can see music analysis as a kind of basic research that helps us understand a phenomenon better," he says.
Oddekalv is happy to come with music tips: One of them is the American rapper Chika and the EP "Songs About You", which he spends a lot of time on in his analysis.
“Chika plays with the boundary between song and speech and demonstrates the between-space that rap finds itself in. She is an archetype of good 'flow'; lines and bars interact, and stressed syllables land in unstressed positions in the musical metre," he says.
Another example is the Norwegian rapper Linni.
“He is an extremely productive artist with an impressive range of style and expression. He can be very precise when he wants to, and he can play around with timing, too. Linni is a fun case for people who want to delve deeper into the fact that rap can be many kinds of things," Oddekalv says.
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