When you ask what key rappers are in when they perform, a common reply is that they’re in the key of “G.” It’s an inside joke that means the artist is “gangsta.”
The truth about what key rappers use when performing is a little murkier. Since most rapping occurs within the pitch dynamics of a person’s typical voice, you’re not following a scale sequence when listening to the composition.
You’re following more of an expressive pitch. If you were to look at the notes on sheet music, you’d see one long chain of sequenced tones that deliver an enjoyable song.
If a key change were to happen, the rapper would need to step up their entire vocal expression at least one semitone (half note) within the song. Although hip-hop songs sometimes do this in the chorus when people sing, that tonal shift doesn’t usually impact how the rapper performs their lyrics.
What Key Are Rappers In?
The truth about rapping is that it can be in a major or a minor key. That’s because the lyrical performance gets based on the mix or sample that creates the chops and loops. Since the pitch is more relative than absolute, only melodic notations or choral interludes have key-based definitions.
When you think about the key in which rappers perform, it’s fair to compare their lyrical expressions to a bass drum.
If you hit the bass drum in the middle consistently, you’ll receive a rhythmic beat that satisfies the listener. It is a predictable component of the arrangement.
You can hit the bass drum in different places to create new sounds or tones. If the mallet hits along the edge instead of in the middle, you’ll receive a higher pitch. You could strike the edge of the percussion instrument with the handle to create a dynamic clicking or clanking noise that could be part of the music.
Although you can create these changes, it doesn’t alter the key because there isn’t note transposition occurring. Rappers can change pitch throughout the piece, but that modulation is not the same.
What Is the Difference Between Modulation and Key Changes?
Although “modulation” and “key change” are terms that some people use interchangeably, it’s not quite the same thing.
Rappers would typically fall into the modulation category. That’s because they perform with planned pitch changes as they send out their lyrics with rhythm and expression. It’s like reading sheet music while playing the trumpet that says to go from a G to the C# above the scale.
You’re modulating the tone because it’s a planned event to go up that high while hitting a sharp.
If there is a key change in the music, it’s an abrupt switch to an entirely different set of notes. This device is found in many songs after the bridge, interlude, or second chorus as a way to give the listeners something new to think about in the piece.
Not all key changes involve modulation, but every modulation requires a key change.
You aren’t required to change the signature either, although it’s helpful since doing so can remove the accidentals that appear in the performer’s music.
It’s helpful to think about it like this from a compositional view. A rapper might hit all three notes in the key of C at different points: C-D-E-F-G-A-B. If you hear pop music in this key, it typically only uses these seven notes at every level, including the bassline, chords, and melody.
If a key change occurs, the composer uses a different scale. Let’s say the shift at the end of the piece is from C major to D minor. That means all of the notes (not just the melody) would switch to D-E-F-G-A-B♭-C when playing the music.
The rapper could continue singing in the different pitches throughout the scale, including accidentals, to replicate a similar experience. It is only when the entire number moves up (or down) a semitone or more that a key change occurs.
Why Does a Song’s Key Matter When Performing?
When you listen to music, it can inspire numerous emotions. It makes you laugh, smile, cry, or get angry.
If you’re listening to music while studying, it can help you retain the information. When you want to spend time with someone you love, songs can encourage romance and intimacy.
Why do we respond to music the way we do, whether it is something classical from Bach or rap from Snoop Dogg?
The answer is that a song’s key can inspire several different emotional responses. Composers have put their music into specific formats for over 300 years because they’ve had a particular result in mind that they want the listener to experience.
Here is a review of some of today’s top musical keys and the emotions that often come up when listening to compositions written in that way.
- C Major: This key provides simplicity. It generates emotions that reflect innocence, purity, and the good things that life offers. The listener should feel content and at peace with things after the song concludes.
- C Minor: When this key gets used for music, the notes often inspire sadness.
- D Major: Music written in this style tends to be aggressive, energetic, and inspirational. It creates joy while using structured rhythms that inspire passion and intrigue.
- D Minor: This melody tends to be somewhat serious. It almost feels elitist in some ways, as if the composer is telling everyone else about how pious they are. It can also inspire feelings of melancholy and mischief.
- D♭ Major: Musicians and composers create items with this key when they want to capture grief.
- E♭ Major: This key is the one that writers use when they want to inspire feelings of loyalty, devotion, and love.
When you add sharps to your music, it causes the sounds to get louder and brighter. If you keep adding them, the sparkle gets even more intense.
If you add flats to the songs instead of sharps, the music tends to become more soft, pensive, and subdued.
As a general rule, you can expect the major keys to sound regal, happy, and have light energies that encourage the listener to think about the good stuff. With the minor ones, you’re getting into darker emotions that require a more introspective look at life.
What Are the Best Rap Songs?
When you look at the list of the best rap songs ever released, you’ll find a few trends in all of them. These compositions tend to inspire emotion, arouse devotion, and play with the concepts of speed, rhythm, and tempo to create listener responses.
Here is a look at some of the best rap songs that accomplish these outcomes.
1. Juicy by Notorious B.I.G. (1994)
The artist establishes the environment right away with an intro speech in this song. When he starts rapping, the relationship connections continue building. You can hear the mix in the background evolving to give the composition movement.
Once you get to the chorus, where the backup artists start singing, you’ll listen to them matching the key from the music in the background.
As for Notorious B.I.G., he keeps time with the percussion to produce the rhythm that helps everyone stay connected to the narrative until he reaches the hook.
2. The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (1982)
This composition establishes the mood by repeating the 8-bar mix at the intro. You’ll also hear other musical changes to create transitional changes. You’ll listen to different rapping techniques to establish emotional shifts while using narrative descriptions to discuss the issues affecting society – and still are today.
3. Doo Wop (That Thing) by Lauryn Hill (1998)
The sing-style rap in this song uses the idea of a specific key to create some attitude for the listener to enjoy. Once you get to the verse when Hill starts rapping, you can hear her subtly shift to more of a speaking voice. As the composition transitions to the chorus, you’ll move back to something closer to a formal signature.
Even the music video from this song plays off of that style. On one side, you’ve got people from the 1960s, while on the other, it is 1998 (when the song came out).
4. Rosa Parks by OutKast (1998)
Although OutKast might have reached the top of the charts with more of a rap-pop fusion, the beats found in this piece are some of the illest you can find out there. The lyrical delivery speed is fantastic, and you can find a few pauses included to create hooks.
This piece offers the epitome of how you can connect with an audience using other methods than a key change to produce hooks and emotions. You’ll hear a few delivery speed changes, but it is the overall rhythm that brings everything home.
5. Runaway by Kanye West with Pusha T (2010)
The piano intro for this rap song is unique and expressive. Kanye transitions it into the rhythmic beat that includes the loop, but the entire introduction lasts for over a minute. That makes more of an environmental piece.
When the artist finally starts, he’s singing more than rapping. The verses have more rhythm, but it is still more of a singing than a rapping voice that gets featured within the piece.
It’s Not Only the Key That Creates Emotion
When you listen to any music, whether it is rap, country, or blues, you’ll discover that the tempo and rhythm play as much of a role (and sometimes more!) for the emotions that someone develops while listening.
Most rap music tends to be relatively fast compared to the average composition. That means the overall expression tends to be one of happiness. If you hear a slow, rhythmic beat from a rap song, you’re getting something with more sadness or grief to it.
That’s why you’ll hear different changes to a rapper’s rhythm when they perform. Since there aren’t specific keys in many songs (unless it’s a sing-rap style), you’ll hear an artist speed up or slow down when rapping to create the intended emotional response.
Why does this technique work to create connections between the music and the listener? When you look at the composers from the Romantic and Baroque periods, they realized that each body had a unique rhythm to it. All of us breathe, blink, and think in different tempos at our baseline.
We also know that adrenaline causes our breathing and blood pressure levels to rise when something scary happens. That causes the heart to beat faster to keep up with the need for energy. By replicating music and rhythm in ways that mimic these responses, each composition can produce similar outcomes.
Although we use computer algorithms to create the same results today, the compositional basics remain the same. When you look at chord progressions, key signature, tempo, and more, you can get in touch with your listeners on a deeper emotional level.