This article is about developing bars as a technique in writing raps. I have received the question, "What are bars?" on many occasions and have briefly touched on the subject in a previous MC Improvement Article/visitor e-mail. In this article I will expand on the topic as well as describe an effective way of writing a solid 16 bar verse.
First of all…what are bars, exactly?
Well bars are simply a form of dividing a verse into segments. Each segment, or "bar", consists of one line. The following is an example of two bars by Jay-Z:
"And all you other cats takin' shots at Jigga/
You only get half a bar, 'F*ck ya'll ni***s'"
As you can see both "lines" or "bars" rhyme at the end. This is usually the case, but as verses are created more and more organically by artists (read: freestyled) they many times won't end so picture perfect…but don't worry about that for now. In case you're a little confused, you'll get a clearer picture through future articles.
So Why 16 bars?
If you're a hip hop fan, you have undoubtedly heard the term, "16 bars" at some point. Maybe something along the lines of, "Nas dropped a sick 16 bars on that mixtape."
The reason that "16" became the standard is because the music industry strategically determines the most effective duration of a typical song. Usually the shorter the song is, the better for the record's success. The shorter the song is, the more times that it can be played on the radio, the more times that it can be played on the radio, the more popular the song will become, the more popular the song becomes…you get the picture.
Also taken into account was the average amount of time a run-of-the-mill listener would wait between hooks before becoming tired. You have to keep in mind that not all listeners are looking out for the real substance of the song (the verses) but instead merely tune in to listen to the beat and the chorus. A verse that's too short will leave something to be desired (substance) and/or may grow old fast (since the hook/chorus will be played more frequently). A verse that's too long will lose many mainstream listener's attention.
So in time, the typical "16 bar" format was created. About the same time, the typical 8 bar chorus came into popularity in hip hop. This was long ago…dates mean little. Don't get this confused, though…not every song sticks to the 16's and 8's formula. Ghostface Killah came out with the single, "All That I Got Is You" which was one long verse…with one long hook at the end. Therefore, a lot of songs vary from the classic 3 verse and 3 hook layout, and they even vary from the classic 3-minute-a-song set-up. Some songs are 7 minutes long. But if you pay attention, most of these "odd" songs are usually not released as singles and if they are, they are usually released by more well-known artists with a well established fan base. The fact is that most pop or "popular" songs still follow the typical format most preferred by the radio and recording industry…and that is the "16-bar verse" and the "3 verse" format. (Note: Actually, with the increased popularity of catchy "breaks" "bridges" and "hooks", artists are increasingly neglecting the 3rd verse of their songs.)
In case you're wondering, the radio industry prefers shorter songs so that they can vary their playlist in order to reach more listeners. Reaching more listeners and keeping more listeners is important to radio stations so that the advertising spots they offer are attractive to advertisers.
There are even radio stations that have been known to speed up the pace of their songs so as to shorten their length of play…of course these songs tend to sound nothing like they were intended to, but that's the cost they are willing to take.
Writing 16 Bars: Part 1
So how should you go about writing the actual 16 bars? Well, there's two broad methods; to a beat, or without a beat. I recommend you write any verse to a beat. Firstly, because a lot of beats follow very similarly timed or even exactly similar drum patterns, therefore, one of your verses may be able to adapt very smoothly to various beats. Second, and more importantly, when you write to a beat that you're listening to, you can more easily play with your bars. By that I mean you can stretch your words or adjust your flow and say something like:
"Shopping sprees, coppin' three, deuce Beamer IS's/
Fully loaded…ahhhhh yes! (haha)" - Jay-Z
That was from "Can't Knock The Hustle" and when Jay-Z was at the top of his game lyrically (in my humble opinion). But, you can see how his pause during that second bar built up the punch line to that lyric. This is facilitated by listening to a beat while putting together your verse.
You can also choose to just write. Forget the beat, just write. A lot of times we don't have the luxury of having a beat playing when creativity strikes. That's ok…you can make it work anyway. If you are intending to put together a whole verse, however, it is best to at least have a beat in your head if not in your ears. And I don't mean a popular rap beat, necessarily…just a simple drumbeat will do. The idea is to have something in mind that you can bounce to…literally…if you find yourself bopping your head while you're formulating a rhyme…that's good!
Writing 16 Bars: Part 2
When you write lyrics, there is a very important principle which will benefit many of you to understand. It has already been made clear that bars tend to rhyme at the end (mostly). But what about the center? Though rhymes don't necessarily need to rhyme in the middle (meaning the middle of the first bar rhymes with the middle of the second), there does many times seem to be a pattern to the emphasis throughout bars. By this I mean that there are usually two emphasis (or accents) in each bar.
Usually, somewhere during the middle of a bar there is a break, a pause, or an emphasis in a syllable, and then there is another similar emphasis towards the end of the bar. A good example would be 50 Cent's second verse from "In Da Club":
(Note: The "bolded" letters indicate the emphasis I spoke about)
"And you should love it, way more then you hate it
Nigga you mad? I thought that you'd be happy I made it
I'm that cat by the bar toastin' to the good life
You that f*ggot-*ss nigga tryin' to pull me back right?
When my joint get to pumpin' in the club it's on
I wink my eye at ya b*tch, if she smiles she gone
If the roof on fire, let the motherf*cker burn
If you talkin' about money homie, I ain't concerned
I'ma tell you what Banks told me "Cous' go 'head switch the style up
If the n****s hate then let 'em hate then watch the money pile up
Or we go upside your head with a bottle of bub'
They know where we f*ckin' be..."
Hopefully you have a better idea of what I mean by now. If you simply think about each individual bar as having two parts then you can attempt to pause at the beat-break (the drum beat or bass tends to pound twice per bar) present around the middle of each bar and allow your flow to synchronize with the beat. This is CRITICAL. Treat your voice/words like an instrument that like any other instrument must be in tune with the beat.
Don't be afraid to adjust your flow by using emphasis, stretching out your words, shortening words, chopping words in mid sentence and continuing them in the next bar, accenting syllables, (by that I mean accenting certain syllables even when they normally shouldn't be) etc…just to make them fit appropriately to the end of the beat. You might even consider using synonyms to make the bar fit the beat.
Your Lyric Content
There are many ways to start a verse. You can tell a real story, describe an event, narrate a fictional scene, etc. Your approach will vary depending on your style. Let's say you're writing literally about what you're doing at the moment...actually writing a rhyme… (or at least that's how you choose to begin)…you can say something like:
"It cost me more to be free than a life in the Penn/
Makin' money off of cus words, writin' again/
Learn how to think ahead so I fight with my pen/
Late night down Sunset, likin' the sin" - 2pac
Or perhaps you can say it like this…
"F*ck a pad and a pen, I write rhymes on the IBM/
Ebonics is dead and binary language is in" - Canibus
Obviously, both of these approaches are distinct. The hardest part about writing a verse, though, is starting it. Once you begin, and you know your style, it's just a matter of keeping it going.
Now, as far as ending or wrapping up a verse…you can do many things with that as well. You can follow the example from 50 Cent (above) and end your verse half-way (and allow the beginning part of your chorus or "hook" to end the last part of your final bar for you). You can also just complete the bar but on the same vibe as that of your chorus, for example:
"What's the worst they can do to a ****a, got me lost in Hell/
To live and die in L.A., on bail…(and my angels sing)" - 2pac "2 Live and Die in LA"
The idea is to let your verse end on a vibe that easily flows into the mood that your hook provides.
Playing around with your voice or tone (intonation) is also a great way to add a bit of flare. Adding something unique to your flow seems more and more necessary in this highly competitive market we call the rap industry. It is not necessary to create a gimmick (there is a fine line between a gimmick and a unique style…but interestingly, most mass consumers of media don't notice or care what that difference is) but it is important to have something distinctive about your flow to help you stand out and be remembered.