Spoken word refers to any kind of poetry that is performed orally. It can be in the form of comedy, hip hop, poetry slams, jazz poetry or anything in between. Most spoken word is in freestyle form and even spontaneous – the line of demarcation between rap lyrics and spoken word is subtle and often arbitrary. Russell Simmons deserves some credit for bridging the two genres together with the launch of Def Jam Poetry through HBO, which ran from 2002-2007, and featured prominent hip hop artists doing acapella spoken word performances. Check out some of the highlights here. spoken word and hip hop/rap are closely related, but you know the difference when you here it. Rap caters to meter and rhyme more than spoken word, while spoken word is more similar to talking or “preaching”, and can be done with or without music. The best hip hop music of today implements newfound ways to redefine its poetic roots.
Kanye West’s the College Dropout might just be one of the most influential albums ever made. It introduced us to an artist who hasn’t left the spotlight for over a decade, sustaining his controversial role in pop culture for longer than most. His consistent musical innovation has allowed him to remain relevant for so long in an industry that has changed so much since the early 2000s. One of the standout tracks (you could say this about nearly ever song) on College Dropout is Never Let Me Down, which is energized by Kanye and Jay-Z verses, and a poignant choir on the hook. But the song is notable due to its climax: a thunderous spoken word by James Ivy Richardson III (J. Ivy).
J. Ivy speaks over an evolving gospel-esque flow of hums and drum kicks. It’s an uplifting and empowering verse, which comes off as more of a sermon than of the rap variety. It’s overtly biblical – giving nods to the man upstairs throughout. As the music disperses from behind him, Ivy exclaims”Let it be known that God’s penmanship has been signed with a language called love, that’s why my breath is felt by the deaf, and why my words are heard and confined to the ears of the blind, I too dream in color.” It’s not just the subject or wording of the verse that builds a connection with the listener, but it’s the spoken word style itself. The offbeat, irregular flow separates it from the routine of the beat and choir beneath it, making it impossible to ignore exactly what he is saying. Ivy’s spoken word reaches a pace that is ever more universally relatable. Whereas Kanye and Jay’s verses serve as more head-nodding narratives, Ivy’s spoken word is something uniquely personal for each listener individually.
College Droput was way ahead of its time, and Never Let Me Down perfectly exemplifies what it means to be on the cutting edge of music. Kanye’s music wasn’t the first to marry gospel and hiphop, nor was it the first time spoken word was incorporated into song, but it gave spoken word a reserved seat at the mainstream table. This spot has been largely vacant for the last decade or so, but Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper are discovering how to tap into it. Experimenting with gospel sounds and themes on their newest projects, To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB), and Coloring Book/Surf has resulted in exciting new approaches to join spoken word with hip hop.
The most obvious example from Kendrick’s genre-less TPAB is on the second track of the album: For Free?. Also, check out the video it’s hilarious. On the song, Kendrick (raps? does spoken word? performs a poem?) over a hectic improvisational jazz arrangement. The song is crowded and meant to overwhelm. Partly because of the provocative lyrics about how “his dick ain’t free,” but also partly because the vocals/lyrics and music are attacking you from two different angles. On the contrary, most hip hop songs are packaged as a one-dimensional sonic experience. On For Free?, the music and spoken word lyrics are equally as unpredictable, making every listen a unique one.
Kendrick returns to spoken word halfway through his album, on the first verse of the most intensely introspective song of his career: U. Alongside a spooky bass line, scattered horns and muffled screams, Kendrick engages in a heated debate with himself about the regrets and shortcomings in his life – something like a battle with his alter ego. The opening verse is formless and chaotic, with statements often punctuated with scorn. It’s not a rap verse; it’s a rant in the form of spoken word. Similar to For Free?, he is able to coexist with the music, while not pandering to its cadence. It’s as if the music is his environment and he simply exists there, but is unaware of its influence. In this sense, spoken word achieves a theatrical effect.
Chance The Rapper’s recent releases, Coloring Book and Surf are among the most innovative albums of the last couple years. He begins Miracle, the opening track on Surf, with a verbose and punchy spoken word over minimalist synths before diving into a rhythmic groove halfway through. Further into the mixtape, he features NoName Gypsy on Warm Enough to join the spoken word fun. His album Surf is experimental in nature, with a much greater focus on his band (The Social Experiment) rather than Chance’s usual Chicago hip hop sound. The musical direction, which is as jazzy as it is hip hoppy, laid the framework for the accompanying free flowing poetic lyrics. Noname Gypsy appears again on Finish Line, offering another lethal dose of spoken word with a biblical stamp on it. Both Kendrick and Chance’s new music has gravitated away from traditional hip hop beats, towards a more improvisational, jazzy, soulful, gospel world. This new musical background liberates the lyrics to be more expansive and less routine – more active rather than reactive.
People who care about lyrics in music should look forward to the rise of spoken word’s influence in hip hop and other genres. This musical direction is a more conscious and meticulous form when done well. It contrasts the trap movement, where there is little attention to lyrical content and much more emphasis on beat drops and onomatopoeic vocal grooves. We’ll be looking forward to the next wave of artists creating spoken word music. Let’s hope the tide returns established waves – and makes way for new ones to crash as well.
By the way, check out anything by Andre 3000 and you’ll realize it’s impossible to really tell what the difference between spoken word and rap is.