Rhyming vs. Rap

I just saw a great video of Neil Young covering the theme song “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

It’s fascinating on many levels including the fact that Neil Young makes the song sound like an epic saga of the American dream as well as the fact that Young is apparently familiar with TV show. But on a linguistic level, I noticed that that while Young’s acoustic folk style preserves the original rhyme scheme of the Fresh Prince classic, it loses the “rap” quality.

The difference is that the rap is emphasizing an overall stress pattern in a the folk version is not. In other words, rap is both rhyme and rhythm. The stress pattern in the rap version is distinct from that in spoken English, which is probably one reason why many report that rap lyrics are harder to understand. It’s hard to systematically define the metrical scheme Will Smith is using (especially since I think it changes), but there is a tendency to put a heavy stress on the final syllable (“I’ll see when I get there /
I hope they’re prepared / for the prince of Bel-Air”).

I’ve written about rap as poetry (not always great poetry), but I think Neil Young’s rendition effectively shows the more classically poetic side of rap sometimes lost in the rhythm. I am amazed at the linguistic complexity of the good rap, especially since none of the artisans have ever gone to a formal rap academy. Then again, there was no bluegrass or jazz academy back in the day either.

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