If you are interested in rap at even a basic level, then you need to know about flow. This article explains what flow means in rap music, as well as providing tips and tricks for aspiring rappers to improve their flow. Let’s dive in.
What is ‘flow’ in rap?
What does ‘flow’ mean in rap music? The definition of flow is the combined effect of the words and rhythm in a hip-hop song. A good flow is one in which the lyrics line up against the beat in a rhythmically satisfying way.
As the word suggests, a good flow should have a sort of liquid quality. Like water in a stream, a good rap flow should effortlessly and naturally glide across the beat. It should feel lucid and flexible, and not forced or laboured.
What makes a good rap flow?
Any rapper who can match and meld their lyrics to the right beat can make a good rap flow. That being said, it takes a bit of experience, and most of all, a good ear to be able to create a great flow.
Although non-musicians may not necessarily understand what goes into a good flow, most hip-hop heads will agree that a good flow has the following sort of qualities. It should be rhythmic, natural, and in some way original. Let’s look into these three qualities.
A good rap flow should have a strong and well-defined rhythm that fits well with the beat. This is achieved with a combination of rhythm, emphasis, and word-choice, which affects both the number of syllables and the texture and tonality of the voice.
Great rap flows should always sound natural and organic. Except in very rare cases, the words should not break or disrupt the beat, and it should not feel like the rapper is struggling to fit words in. Be aware, however, that a ‘natural’ flow doesn’t generally come into existence without effort. Although you want your flow to sound effortless, that doesn’t mean you can create it without effort!
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel with every rap flow, but the best and most memorable flows generally have some special character to them. Generally in music, listeners like to hear certain familiar tropes. That means you don’t need to try to be revolutionary. However, you should avoid clichés. Mix things up with something just a little unexpected to make your flows stand out.
How do you find your flow in rap?
Now we have some idea of what a good flow should sound like in theory, how do you find your flow to create a good rap verse? If you are just getting into rap, this can be a long journey – your first verses will not sound like Kanye’s! That said, here are some guidelines to help you find your flow.
- Don’t force things
To begin writing a flow, you need two things – some lyrics, and a beat. Not all lyrics will fit every beat. If you have some lyrics that don’t seem to fit, don’t force them. That doesn’t mean you need to throw them out. Keep hold of them. They may work with a different beat.
- Feel and move to the beat
Spend time just feeling the beat and moving your head to it. You don’t need to immediately start laying down bars as soon as you hear the groove. Let it seep in and become familiar to your ear. In order to master the flow in the song ‘Like Toy Soldiers,’ Eminem allegedly listened to the beat for weeks in order to match his lyrics perfectly with the complex snare drum beat.
- Be flexible
Be open to tweaking your lyrics to make them fit better with the beat. You can often remove or add a syllable here and there to improve the flow, without even altering the meaning. Ultimately, don’t get too attached to any idea. Allow yourself to ‘go with the flow’ at all times.
- Let your subconscious do the work
Don’t overwork it. Spend some time away from the lyrics and from the beats. Refresh your ear by listening to some different rappers, listening to a different genre of music entirely, or not listening to music at all. When you step away from the creative process, your subconscious will still be working in the background. When you come back to it afresh, you may hear it differently, or come with new inspiration.
- Keep at it
It’s important to give yourself a break, but you also need to keep at it in the medium to long term. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and getting good at the rap game can take years. If you are consistent with your efforts over days, weeks, and months, and if you follow the tips in this article, you are bound to see improvements.
How to improve your rap flow
If you’ve got a few rap bars under your belt and you’re looking to up the quality of your flows, then here are three simple tips to improve your rap flow.
- Listen to the greats
A lot of young rappers want to become better rappers overnight. The reality is that, like any creative pursuit, you need to work to get better. You are not just going to wake up one day with the skills of Tupac Shakur. The first thing you should do is listen to the great rappers of our time and of previous generations.
- Learn other rappers’ flows
The single-best thing you can do to improve your own rapping is to learn other rappers’ flows. Let’s make this easy – choose your three favourite rap verses, and start with those. Since different rappers have different approaches, try learning one verse from each. Notice the differences in speed, rhythm, word-choice, and tonality.
- Write more
Aside from learning other rappers’ verses, the best thing you can do is simply to write more. Be prolific. Form the habit of writing often, whether that’s every day, or at least twice a week. At first, this might not be that fruitful. If you’re doing this at the same time as studying other rappers, over time you will start to come up with better flows.
How do I change my flow when rapping?
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut using the same flows over and over. Literally every rapper has come across this problem. So how do you mix things up to keep yourself sounding fresh?
As discussed above, turning to other rappers is always a good way to go. Learn a rap from one of your favourite rappers. This might sound crazy, but try mixing that in with your bars. Hearing your flows side by side with another rapper’s flows can give you new rhythmic ideas.
Another way to mix up your flows is to play about with rhythmic emphasis. The basic concepts of poetic metre are really helpful here. There are five main types, and you can apply these to your lyrics.
Iambic metre is based on two syllable cycles and places the emphasis on the second syllable.
Trochaic metre is based on two syllable cycles and places the emphasis on the first syllable. This has been very common in staccato flows in trap music in recent years.
Anapestic metre is based on three syllable cycles and places the emphasis on the third syllable.
Dactylic metre is based on three syllable cycles and places the emphasis on the first syllable.
Spondaic metre is based on two cycles and places emphasis on both syllables equally.
Rap flow examples
Every great rapper fundamentally has great flows, so you can turn to really any of the GOATS for examples of top-notch rap flows. Some classic examples are Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Jay-Z, MF Doom, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Method Man, Kayne West, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar. When in doubt, turn to the rap greats for inspiration.
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