January 1, 2019

On the Repetition of Rap

Black Hippy

Repetition triggers our “there’s a puzzle here” sense; things accrete in significance as they echo.

Jayson Greene

Somebody finally wrote about what repetition of words (rap, in this case) does to our brain. Via Jayson Greene at Pitchfork:

As humans, we are hardwired to crave this kind of repetition, especially when it varies slightly each time: Technically speaking, we seize upon similar clumps of raw sensory data in a process called feature extraction and then bundle them together in a process called perceptual binding. When we recognize a powerful phrase dancing from place to place in a rapper’s catalog—the same each time but in a different context—we are pleased on a subliminal level, in part because we are recognizing our own hard work. The pattern may have been there already, but we discovered it. When a rapper repeats a phrase for the thousandth time, it stirs all three zones of memory at once: echoic, which is parrot-level memory; short-term; and long-term. This is a profound sensation, and the artist who triggers it for us ends up looking pretty powerful by association.


Rap music does this to people. Constantly scribbling over itself, scuffing out the marks made before, it is an inherently repetitive art, and thus a Petri dish for cultivating obsession. Repetition and obsession are intricately linked, and when I try to prize them apart I start to feel dizzy.

Jayson Greene, Word Is Bond: Black Hippy and the Power of Repetition

I love the idea in this article of how many rappers not only use repetition within a single song, but across songs and albums.

Black Hippy—the crew, or movement, or something, that Kendrick Lamar heads along with Schoolboy QAb-Soul, and Jay Rock—have invested a lot of energy into this sort of pattern recognition, and it accounts for a lot of their mystique. You can trace this behavior back to their earliest records, before the world was paying attention. The way they passed resonant phrases from one member to the next suggested a shared philosophy, an alternate universe with its own logic and laws.


Tricks like these pop up everywhere on Black Hippy projects. “What’s your life about/ Enlighten me/ Is you gonna live on your knees or die on your feet?” Ab-Soul demands on Section.80’s “Ab-Soul’s Outro” and then again on Control System’s “Track Two”. Schoolboy Q’s “bet I got some weed,” “you gon’ get some dick tonight,” and “Figg, get it, get it” chants pop up on both his Setbacksand Habits & Contradictions albums, little breadcrumbs linking one project to the next.

Jayson Greene, Word Is Bond: Black Hippy and the Power of Repetition

I’m convinced repetition is one of they keys of successful story writing, and definitely something I tried to use on almost every single short story I wrote for 101 Tales of Future.

Seeing how repetition in rap can cross albums, and even artists, it inspires me to build repetition across multiple works of fiction. Repeating names, sentences, places, slogans, turns of phrases, (or even just a scream), etc, can give the reader the satisfaction of discovery.

January 1, 2019


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