Because rap music is primarily a highly constructed beat with a rapping ‘flow’ over top, it’s easy to overlook the complexities of the musical fabric when attempting to understand the ‘language’ of rap music. It’s far too easy to treat rap as simply a poetic genre with music thrown in, or a flow-focused art form where music then plays a subservient role rather than having any individualized value of its own, worthy of deliberate and isolated evaluation and study.
When thinking about rap albums and their language, it becomes super important to take a deeper look at the manifold ways in which meaning is created and the role of symbolism in the fabric of a rap album. While the textual life of an album can, and usually does, have micro and macro arches and narratival stories, so does the music (at least in my opinion). So, when time is taken to try and understand these possible musical ‘arches’ (or long-range arches), a whole new world opens up that helps the researcher understand what the rapper is trying to say musically speaking with his tracks and albums. When it comes to popular music analysis, and especially rap music analysis, considerations of the genre’s musical nature are hardly foregrounded. Rather, attention is primarily put onto the idiosyncratic natures of the flows, textual themes, and broader discourses on sociocultural and political influences. However, this is to the detriment of the genre, as without the musical backing (more specifically, a key), the track has no ground to stand on. After all, last time I checked rap is a music genre after all, no? Ergo, an effort must be taken to fix analytical procedures to highlight this.
In this post, I will argue for the position that a more improved way of understanding rap music can be realized through foregrounding the role of musical key and their relationships to each other as colored by contextual parameters like artist, genre, and most importantly textual theme. Marrying the parameters of musical key and textual theme can provide a rich avenue for the comprehension of how rap albums make complex networks of narratives and stories, utilizing the music as a way to render tangible the story that the lyrics are offering. Work of this nature has not yet been academically prioritized, and in my Doctoral work I hope to argue for this type of methodological practice. Namely, coalescing musical analysis with linguistic and contextual analysis in order to more accurately understand how rappers create and espouse their worldviews and thoughts through their work and chosen “language.”
Having conducted a very brief analysis of the debut album “AA Language” (2022) by Mircea Papusoi (or Aarne more colloquially), a Romanian-born rapper residing in London, I will demonstrate the benefits of key-based study in partnership with wider influences such as textual themes, artist, and even language.
As you can see from the chart below, eight parameters were used in the study of the album, and what was found proved that the important of key choice was a tenant of considerable importance, as the presence of a singular major key was an indicator that the minor tonality was no accident. Rather, it was a deliberate choice on the part of Aarne, and as such it had to be treated as a significant conveyer of meaning. Further, only one track is in English, while the predominant genre of the track is trap, with Latin-inspired infusions as well as drill and house/EDM as well. Also, the sheer amount of artists on the album also was a significant contributor to the intentionality of the minor tonality.
[To see the full chart, click here]
However, for the sake of this analytical post I will refrain from going too far into the findings themselves, and instead focus on their relationship to the main parameter of this study. Namely, the role of key relationships and the advantageousness of leading an analysis by a focus on their role in creating meaning on the album. As can be seen in the secondary chart in the bottom left, while there were nine keys presented on the album, only five were repeated more than once, leading to the realization that they were, in some way, connected with each other. However, it was unclear in what ways their relationship was being formed. If the chords are isolated (in the order as they appear on the album), the read as follows:
Cm – Gm – Am – Bbm – Em[Song no. 1, 2, 3, 4, 10]
These five chords clearly demonstrate that the ‘tonality’ of the album lies in C minor, although the usage of the E minor rebels against the standard conventions of the C minor, as the b3 and b,7 are not respected in the E minor key. However, there is Eb minor on the album, although only belonging to a singular song as the chart demonstrates. Whether this methodology is the best solution towards the comprehension of album-wide key progression is unclear, yet there is a strong argument that the first track more or less defines the tonic (central tonal focus) of the album. The progression of these keys can be seen in the notation below:
After having isolated the main keys of the album, I wanted to understand how the keys were being manifested on the album through different ways, namely through the artists, textual theme, language, and other contextual parameters to the tracks. When the track’s respective themes were put together, they created a narrative that spoke to a thematic telos of personal development and achievement. As the hero goes through the stages of life and the tests they face, he soon overcomes the temptations and rises to the occasion, finally coming to terms with life’s many obstacles and winning in his desire to succeed:
[The top most is track no. 1, and the rest follow in sequential order]
As is demonstrated, the usage of key can be the manifestation of a very clear thematic progression of ideas within an album. Disregarding the symbolic nature of keys as espoused by Schubart (1806) in his famous evaluation of the subject, the rapper’s choice to set tracks in certain keys as opposed to other ones plays a huge part in the tangible embodiment of narrative, meaning, and ultimately the personal philosophy and ideology of the artist, even if those things are not inherently clear in the album or track itself.
More connections can be drawn from my findings such as the artists who are connected to these themes, the genres that are used to invoke the themes, the psychological influence of the tonality on the reception of the track, the language used in conjunction with key and themes, along with how these keys relate to the other ten tracks and their keys not included in this ‘progression.’ Other avenues include how “Russianness” and domestic aesthetics are expressed on the track, a clear indicator of this being the almost ubiquitous influence of trap and trap-related musical textures, a clear sign of the album’s and the artist’s fidelity to the aesthetic ethos of the “Russian New School”. For now, it’s enough to say that this album is definitively a “New School” member.
Thank you for reading, and if you have thoughts then I’d love to read them.