7 Rap Songwriting Secrets NOBODY Tells You
While we all know that for a rapper…
The capability to have an acrobatic flow, dynamic vocal tone, and lyrical wit are essential skills to master in order be considered among the greatest rappers of all time…
An often forgotten value that an artist MUST have is the ability to create life-changing songs for the audience to relate to and sing along with for the rest of their lives.
In today’s article we’re going to breakdown 10 rap songwriting secrets that nobody tells you about.
We’ll not only be discussing WHY the greatest rappers of all time use each one of these Hip-Hop songwriting tactics…
…But also HOW you can do it too if mastering rap songwriting is a goal for your music this year…
Or if you’re a fan of the art form who is curious about the secrets of rap songwriting that the greats use.
Now, before we begin if you ARE one of those readers who actually wants to make a full-time career from rap, be sure to pick our free video course The Top 20 Songwriting Secrets of Full-Time Rappers which will tell you exactly how to get started writing songs worthy of a full-time income (we’re talking six-figures a year and above, as we’ve done) by clicking HERE… but without further ado, let’s go in countdown order…
#7 Same Words and Melody, Different Voice
Let’s start this off with one of the easiest rap songwriting secrets for rappers to create a catchy chorus (also known as a hook):
Keeping the same words or even melody in a chorus or bridge and simply changing the vocal delivery or voice tone to give it more life and energy.
If you look at a track like Joey Badass’ “Devastated”, the chorus is technically just a 4-bar “scheme” repeated twice… totaling in 8 bars:
I used to feel so devastated
At times I thought we’d never make it
The major key difference that makes this chorus feel “bigger” or “longer” is that he does a distinctly strong vocal change when the beat drops for bars 5-8. This is an expert example of great advanced rap songwriting techniques.
He actually does the exact same technique for the bridge (or verse 3, depending how you look at it) with the “put my pain in a cadence, turn my brain up a wavelength” section…
Where he performs it one go around in a calm voice and then does the exact same section AGAIN but with doubled voices and more vocal intensity.
NOTE: If you’re pretty new to this and need to better understand the definitions of “bridge”, “hook”, “bars”, and so on, click HERE to get our free How To Rap Dictionary where we give you the top 100 definitions every rapper needs to know.
#6 Short Intro Rolling Quickly To Catchy Section
Both in that particular song “Devastated” and many others by rappers such as Kendrick Lamar – whose songwriting we’ll break down in a second…
Often modern rappers have shortened their instrumental intro and rolled QUICKLY into a catchy section (such as the chorus) in order to capture the listener’s attention.
Due to the shortened attention span of your average listener, hip-hop songs (especially in the mainstream – even for “lyrical” rappers) have been shortening.
According to a report done by Stat Crunch, the average song length of a song on the Billboard Hot 100 has decreased by a full 20 seconds… over the past FIVE years alone.
Now, historically, the intro – the section of the song where the beat is first introduced, without or without vocals – is usually 8 bars (or lines of rap over the beat).
That means in the past… for a full 8 bars you’d be listening to just the beat playing or the beat with some ad-libs and trash-talking to get into the mood of the song.
However, since we’ve just learned that a slightly shorter song is one of the keys to getting closer to the definition of a modern “hit”, new rappers might consider cutting out that extra 4 bars and just get right into the track.
You definitely usually WANT to have an intro of some sort, but 4 bars is long enough to get people in the mood of the beat and add any short ad-libbing you want to do.
In the next secret, we’ll show again how even lyrical rappers like Kendrick Lamar do this EXACT same “shortening the intro” trick… but a quick pro-tip if you ARE an up-and-coming rapper watching this: be sure that you’ve purchased the proper type of beat lease from the producer where you can “manipulate”, or change the beat… otherwise the producer can come after you for messing with their portion of music.
#5 Shorten The End of The Song
Now, as promised, let’s explain how even “non-mainstream pop chart rappers” are following a faster, more efficient song structure these days.
On the flip side to #6, one of the secrets to shortening song length and increasing song “catchiness” is simply making the end of the song shorter in addition to the beginning.
Digital Music News does a great analysis of how much quicker song structure has become, even for lyrically respected artists such as Kendrick Lamar:
Breaking down Kendrick Lamar’s albums and songs… (we) found in good kid, m.A.A.d. city (from 2012), the 5th track, ‘Money Trees,’ starts in the 19th minute.
In To Pimp a Butterfly (from 2015), the 5th track, ‘These Walls,’ starts in the album’s 16th minute.
And in DAMN. (From 2017), the 5th track, ‘FEEL.’, starts much sooner, at the 12th minute.
The average track length on good kid, m.A.A.d city from 2012 is 5 minutes and 37 seconds.
All tracks (from this 2012 album) are 3 minutes and 30 seconds or longer.
Some tracks even surpass the 6-minute limit, including ‘Money Trees,’ and the 12-minute+ ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dyin’.’
The entire album lasts 68 minutes and 23 seconds.
DAMN. (From 5 years later) has average track length stands at 3 minutes and 57 seconds.
The entire length of the album stands at 54 minutes and 54 seconds.Digital Music News Breakdown
Looking at this graphic for a minute, you can see that although “DAMN” includes some of his biggest hits from that album such as “DNA” and “Humble”…
We still arrive at the 5th and 10th songs MUCH faster than in his earlier albums, partially because of the intros starting off quicker AND the endings of the tracks not wasting too much time.
We should also note that J. Cole, Kanye West, and Nicki Minaj have both shortened their song length by more than 10% over recent albums.
#4 Introducing The Chorus Within The First 30 Seconds
Now, let’s build on how newer artists can step-by-step change their song length without artistically compromising their work.
Spotify’s own website explains to us:
Streams are counted in Spotify for Artists when a song is streamed for over 30 seconds.
That means that you need to keep the listeners attention in a BIG way for at least 30 seconds.
Now, we should all understand that the chorus is the most “entertaining” part of the song, even in hip-hop, for the mass audience.
While many “hip-hop heads” enjoy the lyrical dexterity, storytelling, and consistent wit of longer “Five Fingers of Death” style rap…
…If you’re looking to spice up your songwriting SPECIFICALLY and get a more broad audience flocking to your music…
One of the easiest tricks in the book is FRONTLOAD the song, so to speak, by getting them a catchy, memorable chorus QUICKLY…
…And then fill in your lyrical skills a bit later in the song.
It’s a bit like a movie theater or a club… convince them its worth paying the ticket price or ENTRANCE FEE first.
Additionally, part of the reason fans consider a track “boring” is that they don’t have anything “memorable” to latch onto early in the song.
While your average fan may not have the right words to describe it, often when they say “it’s not catchy” they’re saying its taking TOO long to get to the chorus.
#3 Simplify Your Flow In The Last 4 Bars of Each Verse
Another secret rap songwriting technique that almost every professional uses is to slow the flow down right before the beginning of the chorus…
…And make it feel like another part the COULD be a hook if they wanted to.
In popular songwriting, this is sometimes known as a “pre-chorus”, or a section of the song that helps transition and build tension from the end of the verse into the main hook or chorus.
Artists like J. Cole and Kanye West use the technique several times on all of their major records and one hidden benefit of it is that is means you can “finish the song faster”.
The way you can finish the song faster is by having 4 bars at the end of each verse that are intentionally SIMPLER…
…Both for the audience to listen to and for you to write…
…So that it’s an easier song to create and translate into a major catchy anthem for people to listen to.
When you simplify the last 4 bars of each verse, you vastly increase the chances that people will consider your track to have “hit” potential as opposed to “skip” potential.
#2 The J. Cole Method of ”Layering the Hook”
J. Cole’s “Power Trip” is a masterful example of how to “beef up” choruses while keeping the listener feeling like it’s still a catchy, simple, chart-ready song.
Let’s look at each section of the song in combination:
“Got me up all night” along with variations of, “All I’m singing is love songs” etc.
B) “YEAH” / “WE ARE”
We have the: “Yeah” in the intro but it also turns into the, “We Are” in the chorus. So he’s going to layer that in and out through intro and hook.
C) VOCAL RUNS
That’s the background voices and “oo’s” you hear to add fullness to the track.
A Pre-Chorus is a section slightly different than the chorus, but leads into the chorus.
It’s in between the verse and the chorus and builds tension. It leads into the chorus to make the release of the chorus much more emotionally impactful.
#1 Write More Songs Than Needed
Our final secret here is to write more songs than needed for every project or release that is planned.
The philosophy behind this is as follows:
First, nobody shoots 100% from the field, even Michael Jordan. Thus, in order to get the best possible chance to create a hit, it’s important to be humble enough to know that it may take 2-3 songs to get in momentum to that major hit before deciding which one is best.
This is part of the reason that every single major rapper from 2Pac to Eminem to Kendrick to everyone in between makes MORE songs than NEEDED to release on an album.
That means if you release a 15 track album, you’ll probably need to do 40-50 songs and pick the best.
That rolls into the second reason: simply put, you want more options to choose from in order to decide which is the best “cohesive body of work” to release.
Third, you want to have “loosies” or one-offs that you can use for possible feature collaborations, soundtracks, mixtapes, and so on. Having a few extra tracks laying around for people to work with you on is crucial to a major career.
One could argue that Drake built an entire career off of working with “loosies”… both songs that he basically made and GAVE to an artist to build off of (“Blessings” by Big Sean and Drake comes to mind) and then songs he had laying around to help other industry folks get into, such as “Popstar” ‘by’ DJ Khaled, and so on…
…And the last reason to write more than you release is simply to allow yourself to the freedom to change your mind if you end up liking a song you didn’t at first that you wrote (it happens)… or if you THINK you like a song or that it will catch buzz, then a few months pass and you release that beat is out of style…
…You don’t have to release it and you have MANY other tracks to choose from.
By doing it this way, you can have both the QUANTITY and QUALITY of music rather than just “hoping” that by only writing a few songs you’ll get quality over quantity… which isn’t always the case if you’re not writing enough.