Musicalizing language: flow and voice in rap music
Musicalizing language: flow and voice in rap music
International conference, 18-19 November 2022, Paris Cité University (Grands Moulins)
MCs often refer to their own vocal performances through the term “flow,” which describes the way they articulate language and make it sound. This notion intersects with elements of musical rhythm, prosodic cadence, accentuation, timbre and vocal pitch, as well as authority and subjectivation. It therefore associates the verbal and the vocal in specific ways which, because they do not rest upon a clearly measurable correspondence between musical language and verbal language, allows for nuance and subtle effects. The study of flow should make it possible to think about the association of the musical and the verbal within the art of the MC, provided that we make use of both literary (themes, prosody) and musical tools (rhythm, timbre, pitch). This conference with be devoted to a reflection on the analytical tools necessary to study flows in rap music all the while avoiding the twin traps of technical reductionism and metaphorical impressionism.
A first line of approach would be to listen to the discourse of the MCs, as they are often prolix about the qualities of their flow and/or voice, especially in egotrip type tracks. This should help us understand what sound characteristics are highlighted, and whether or not there appears to be a system of shared aesthetic values around these aspects of performance. Very often, as a counterpoint to "my flow", lies "their flow", that of the MC’s rivals, which is not up to par, lacks flexibility or originality... It might also be of interest to turn to the world of fans and other self-professed "rap nerds" who play an active role, through long discussions on various mediums (online forums, youtube channels, podcasts), in the constitution of an ever-temporary and partial consensus around what makes a good flow, what type of flow is "fresh" or outdated.
A second avenue of reflection could revolve around case studies, on two scales: that of an individual MC, whose flow works as his/her vocal signature, and that of variously defined groups (regional, generational, gendered, musical sub-genres). Participants may propose to analyze the flow of a particular rapper. It may involve, first, the methodological isolation of the various characteristics of said flow: its rhythm, in particular the relation between its prosodic accents and the musical accents of the beat, as well as the rhythmic variations of the flow in one particular track (accelerations, decelerations, breaks); the features of the voice itself, such as variations in timbre or pitch. These different sound characteristics could be linked to various enunciative postures. This work would possibly combine the methods developed by musicologists over the past few years (Adams 2008, 2009, 2015, Condit-Schultz 2016, Duinker 2019-2020, Komaniecki 2017, 2020, Migliore 2020, Ohriner 2016, 2019) with the study of verbal content and ethos built into speech.
Participants may try to show how flow allows rappers to build an ethos, a scenography even, that multiplies the characters they embody in the short duration of a music video. Because flow is linked to the physical characteristics of the voice, the body of the MCs and the way they stage it are also involved. Many artists practice different flows to give voice to several characters, playing in particular on the pitch of their voice to signify (usually caricatured) male or female characters. Flows can also rely on vocal markers associated with certain social groups. Certain sub-genres (for example nerdcore) even play on reversing the stigma of a voice and/or accent widely perceived as antinomic with the universe of hip-hop to turn it into an aesthetic stance. Moreover, through flow, the body is also the site of musical experimentation and can be augmented by objects or accessories – see for instance dental prostheses/grills which affect pronunciation, or the use of autotune.
Diachronic studies on the evolution of flow - and the criteria through which it is evaluated - in France, the United States or any other country would be welcome, as they would prove useful to better historicize the notion, as well as reflections on how a particular flow (old school, mumble rap, etc.) has become emblematic of an era and a generation (Mahiou 2021) or the marker, not only of an individual, but of a group, a region (flow from the South of the United States, "Philly flow"), a gender identity or even a crew (the Time Bomb flow, the retro flow of Entourage/1995 in France…). This reflection, in the spirit of ethnopoetics (Vettorato 2008, 2013) and recent works on the performative and aesthetic aspects of rap (Carinos and Hammou 2020, Nachtergael 2021), would thus place flow at the crossroads of individual style and the collective dimension of cultural practices.
Proposals for papers, of approximately 300 words, in French or in English, followed by a short bio, should be sent before June 1st to firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Applicants whose proposals have been selected will be notified by July 1, 2022.
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