I’ve written before about how one of my reasons for loving to learn languages is that it expresses something, be it a thought, action, feeling, or atmosphere in a better way than my native tongue. One of the reasons this is so is because different words naturally have different rhythms to them that make them beautiful.
I intuitively knew this was a major reason for my love of songs in Japanese and Korean, as well as German podcasts (something about the way they talk, man) but I didn’t fully grasp it until I began listening to two Korean rappers: Gary and T.O.P.
You see, without the baggage of my native language to drag me away from the rhythm and beauty of the words, I completely fell in love with just the sound of how these two men were using words. Usually I’m too caught up in being barraged by what-even-in-the-heck with English rap – which is not to say that it’s bad, but that the combination of the rhythm and harsh words mixed with the vivid imagery of the best rappers tends to completely overwhelm me.
The major reason for this is that Gary and T.O.P are genuinely good rappers, but for completely different reasons. (I probably could have included Tiger J.K. in this list, but what I find interesting about his rapping is its emotional intensity, which can also be overwhelming.)
Let’s begin with T.O.P, since what I like about his rap can basically be boiled down to a single thing: he knows the value of a single word. When T.O.P raps, he enunciates in a way that seems to me as if he has sat down with each and every word and just kind of wrapped it up in himself, somehow. There’s an attention to every syllable, and an enunciation of every syllable, that I absolutely love.
A really easy example would be the portions of his rap in Fantastic Baby – his enunciation of the last word in each line of his first bit easily shows what I mean. But instead, let’s go with the more difficult example:
It’s harder to hear in this song because he is speaking much more quickly, but if you listen closely, you’ll understand what I mean. There are no consonants that are brushed over or liquid, even though there is plenty of potential for them to be with how he’s speaking. Additionally, there’s a kind of intuitive understanding of the sound of the word. When he stretches a vowel or places emphasis on a consonant, it seems natural.
There’s a wonderful balance between his use of vowels and consonants – notice how he says “ilsaeki” and “michige.” In the first word, he stretches it out as if it’s an entire line in itself, so that most of the time I don’t even realize it’s one word. In the second, he stresses the “ch” so that it’s somewhere between “tch” and “sh.” Even though that should be all you hear with that word, it’s not – he still manages to hit the rest of the vowels and give full attention to the beauty of that simple word. This means what when he manipulates a word, like “ilsaeki” again, or “hang gi” in the chorus, there’s an inherent sense of beauty to the word.
If T.O.P understand the beauty of a single word, Gary understands the beauty of words working together to form a cohesive unit of rhythm. I’ve heard Gary’s rapping referred to as off-beat rap that still somehow manages to fit the rhythm of the music. This is so accurate I can’t even explain. Instead, take a look at the song below – one of my favorite songs of LeeSSang, Hard to Be Humble. Gary is the second rapper of the song – he comes in just after the first chorus, but the best example of his style is his second rap verse after the second chorus, again following the first rapper. (P.S. I originally had the official MV up but f-ck it, this live is awesome.)
Hard to Be Humble
Ah, Gary. What would we do without you? It’s obvious to me that almost anyone who listens to Gary’s rapping would be able to pick it out from a crowd of millions. Although he doesn’t have T.O.P’s same strength of the single word – he occasionally slurs them, mashes them together, and drops vowels – that’s part of the reason why he works so well. He is able to place words in a beautiful string that has a rhythm and music all its own, that still manages to fit the typical rhythm of a song. Instead of having a line to match every measure or sixteen, his words spill over into the next measure, don’t match up with the beat. He places emphases in the off-beat, then switches back to on-beat as he sees fit and as suits that specific line and song.
Of course, this is not to say that Gary doesn’t understand the beauty of single words. I can’t explain the joy I get from miming “KA BUL KA!” in the bridge, or the way he lengthens “andureowo” from the end of one measure to the next. There’s an intense beauty, a kind of worship of the word that Gary has when he focuses on a single word. But unlike T.O.P, he picks and chooses when to let an individual word’s beauty shine, and when to sacrifice it at the cross in pursuit of a larger beauty. This is Gary’s strength, and what makes him appeal to so many as a rapper. (For those who are unaware – LeeSSang is basically the biggest rap duo in Korea, having just kind of appeared out of nowhere by virtue of their music as opposed to being manufactured by a company like many other groups – they are known for something called the “LeeSSang syndrome,” and every single album/song they have ever released has achieved all-kills of music charts for long periods of time.)
Gary understands that beauty does not exist in isolation, and that everything is relative – for the beauty of one word to stand out, the beauty of another has to be sacrificed. This makes him the all-around best rapper I have ever heard, and is why I fall in love with his songs despite not knowing what he’s saying at first. For what it’s worth, though, Gary’s lyrics aren’t too shabby neither.
This all being said, I have a new and complete respect for rappers in every language – and I feel like I’ve gained an insight into what makes good rap and what makes bad rap. I hope to be able to pay attention to the rhythm and beauty of words in my own writing, and I look up to these two (but mostly Gary, let’s be honest xP) as role models in my pursuit of that goal.