PC: L. Alex Frank (Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/)
As a vocal artist who enjoys listening to and performing many different genres of music, I am often surprised by the judgments that some people make about the value of one style over another. For example, I have encountered more than a few diametrically opposed opinions about the relative merits of rap versus vocals (huge categories in and of themselves). But, with genre crossing becoming increasingly mainstream, the divide between these genres seems to be narrowing. And, to those who wonder whether one is really better or a more legitimate art form than the other, my answer is: absolutely not.
From my perspective, music is woven in a tapestry of style, meaning, and difficulty, not organized on a hierarchy of worth. Rapping and singing, like any other categories of music, have different characteristics, serve different purposes, and are rooted in different cultures. So, what are their respective merits? On a very practical note, one can typically say more words in less time when rapping as opposed to singing. If one has much to say that does not condense well into a few shorter, loaded phrases, then rap—and its cousin, spoken word—can allow the needed space and pace. It is often better for telling a complete story, or for sharing specific examples in a complex narrative.
In contrast, singers must focus on many things at once: the melody and its relationship with both their voice and the harmony as well as their riffs, improvisation, tone on notes of various lengths, and so on. Rappers must still be musical, but they do not necessarily have to hit exact pitches. They can sit more in the rhythmic groove of the song. In addition, they can use their timbre somewhat more freely to convey emotion. A singer can growl and inflect their tone to convey crying or being out of breath, for instance. But a rapper can completely shout, which is a more raw, human form of communication.
So, for some messages, rap can be more effective than singing. I’ve heard some people describe rap as purely aggressive and angry. But, other genres can express anger, too. Consider “Alive” by Sia or “Come Scoglio” from Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Why might some people take anger in stride in a variety of other genres but not in rap? The answer may lie in considering which social group is responsible for the majority of rap music produced in the United States. Accusations of anger are frequently used to discount the voices of people of color who have been and continue to be targeted by systemic racism. But, anger is a justified response to oppression of any kind. So, the association of anger and rap may not lie so much in the style’s intrinsically better ability to convey anger than singing can as it lies in the historical and contemporary social context of many of its artists.
The rapping of lyrics often has a different effect than the singing of lyrics. Essentially, rapping can offer a slightly different angle on the same material. Singing requires more focus on tone of voice and usually precludes too many syllables in too little time. So, it can imitate vocalizations that take more time, like crying. But, rap allows for more impactful attacks on consonants and vowels. This is because, in faster speech, the onset of the syllable, not its duration, often conveys the emotion. So, rapping more easily imitates vocalizations whose impact lies at their onset, like shouting or growling. It can release an explosion of pent up energy. Now, of course, any emotion can be conveyed in any type of music. But, if an artist had a great deal to say about injustice, they would have good reason to consider a style of music that allows for more words and more powerful articulation.
So, rap is absolutely no more or less worthy than any other art form. Different types of art simply better convey different messages. And, the social context of both artist and audience is paramount. Music is communication. Every artist and listener speaks at least one of the many dialects of the language that is music. And, similarly to polyglots or those who can skillfully code switch across dialects, genre-crossing artists strive to find the musical styles that allow them to effectively convey their messages and stories. Once they put their art out into the world, their audience will find them. And, some listeners will discover an unexpected appreciation for the resulting musical fusion and diversity. Happily for us, this fusion has begun to go deeper even than genre. Pitched rapping, for instance has recently become staggeringly more popular, blurring the line between the two techniques. I, for one, am excited to see what happens next.