Coltrane, “Lyrical” and The Art Of MCing

The notion of being lyrical is often misread in hip-hop by the connotations put on it by those who for the most part don’t like lyrics. In that context lyrical has some sort of direct relationship with the actual words, usually implying the excessive use of words.  “Spiritual, miracle, lyrical!”

Outside of the hip-hop context lyrical has little to do with the words at all. Back in the 90’s I sampled from this John Coltrane interview where he’s talking about being lyrical for the opening of this track I produced for Kinetic NRG

The definition has always stuck with me. Of course Trane is talking about lyrical without words. This in contrast to the harsh tones he had become known for. Earlier in the interview the interviewer talks about critics saying he was angry because of the tone of his playing. This is what leads to him explaining how now he’s trying to be more lyrical, “that’s what I mean by lyrical, more beautiful”.

Now taking that definition and applying it to hip-hop what does lyrical mean? For me it’s never been about the words themselves but rather how they are strung together in a way that naturally flows from one to the next. We tend to think of that as flow, but flow is really about cadence. Being lyrical in this sense is about the fluidity from word to word with or without concern for cadence.

Lyrical does not necessarily have to deal with the actual rhyme patterns.  It is the internal relationship between the words often neglected in recent years as MC’s focus so much on just getting to the punchline. Just getting to the punch line is the opposite of lyrical, no matter how clever the the punchline is, if the words which string them together are not carefully taken into consideration.  Outside of the musical context, lyrical poetry is just this, the careful selection of words for the poetic affect. In hip-hop this often leads to internal rhyme schemes but it also plays into so many other literary devices from onomatopoeia to puns and entendres.

These literary devices parallel the harmonic devices Coltrane talks about in the sample at the end of “Thin” and I think the track itself does an amazing job of bridging the lyrical traditions. Kinetic always took so much care in each word and how they were enunciated to connect them. Even without catching the meaning of every line (which Kinetic was always very critical about here included), the connections between the words can be heard.  That is lyrical.

Written by avanturb

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