Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Under the Music: How Migos' Quavo Mastered the Ad-Lib

Rap music is at an all time cultural high. From the clothes we wear, to the icons we follow, to the songs on the top of the charts, all of it is owned by hip hop and rap these days. What started off as a small experiment in a Bronx party back in the 70s has evolved into a fully fleshed out way of living of its own. How the genre has grown from simple beats, to more creative flows, to a nice blend of high production and skillful lyricism (or "spitting") is such a fascinating evolution to observe. One of the more unique aspects of rap that has developed over the years is the "ad-lib. An ad-lib in rap is a word or sound uttered by the MC or producer that's sort of like a calling card. What's really unique about this is that it's uttered on the beat, so even though it's a jarring switch from the lyrics, it fits right in when it's heard (ex: Travis Scott's Straight Up!). From Rick Ross's belly grunt to Metro Boomin's iconic song identifier (He don't trust you), a lot of these ad-lib's have grown from fun identifiers, to full on brands. But there is one rapper in particular who I believe uses the ad-lib to it's fullest potential on any given song. See, Atlanta rapper Quavo, from the hip hop group Migos, has developed his ad-libs beyond being part of his brand. His ad-libs make up and are essential to his songs.

Now you might be thinking, well of course Quavo uses ad-libs, I hear them all the time. His aren't even the most iconic or most used by general hip-hop fans. That may be true on the exterior, but take a closer look to some of his music. If you listen closely, almost the entire song is filled with his voice, and any empty space he uses to breath or pause is supplemented by an ad-lib. I never noticed this until a friend of mine pointed it out, and it blew my mind. There was always something special about Quavo to me and I could never quite put my finger on it until now.

Now why is this important? Well first I'd like to link an awesome video by Vox on Kanye West and how his voice pushes the envelope on all of his music.

The key here is that the voice can be manipulated in ways to make it sound like the most unique and pleasing sounds that instruments couldn't normally produce. It adds texture, depth, and even a more personal connection with the song. Devil in a New Dress is my favorite example of this, the main "instrument" for the beat is a voice. Initially it's hard to pinpoint what exactly it is but there's just something about that beat that seems so different and piercing, and it what it really is is that voice (and that Mike Dean guitar solo hrnng). Now let's a look at typical "Atlanta Rap" song beat. 

As you can see (or hear), the beat is fairly bouncy and carries you throughout the songs, and the rap itself is sort of riding the beat like a surfer rides a wave. But you can also see how spacey and shallow the beat itself can be, and all the rapping can't cover that up. This is where Quavo's ad-libs come into play. Let's take a look at one of my favorite Quavo song's which actually isn't his, Oh My Dis Side by Travis Scott. Listen to the song first without too much in mind.

Okay so what did you hear? Well I'm sure you noticed a plethora of ad-libs sprinkled through out the song, just off of the fact that I'm telling you Quavo has mastered the ad-libs. But take a listen to the song a second time. And this time, actively seek out and count on your fingers how many times Quavo (bubblier voice) utters a sound or a word that isn't a verse. If you lost count don't worry, there are literally too many to keep on two pairs of hand let alone one. Quavo leaves absolutely zero space for voices in the song. Where Travis takes a breath on a verse and you expect to hear nothing, Quavo comes in and fills the void in the most satisfying way. It makes the song carry and flow more succinctly. And it adds energy and presence that wouldn't otherwise be there. This is profound too, because when the song switches up the beat half way, Quavo doesn't slow down and he also doesn't keep the same vibe. He matches and appropriates the exact feeling and sound that matches what Travis is rapping about. If he was doing it along the lines of the first half of the song, it wouldn't work. But Quavo analyzes the beat, and appropriately choses what to say and what not to say and when to say it all. Phenomenal! And finally when his full verse comes it at the end, the song really comes to a head. My favorite thing about this is weather he knows it or not, Quavo uses selective attention to disguise some of his "texture" ad-libs. There are the ad-libs that are a lot punchier and more memorable from the song, and it distracts you from the more subtle and understated ad libs that basically hide in plain sight. And that's why the song feels extra melodic and alive. How Quavo was able to basically hide his voice plainly is a song is nothing short of outstanding to me. What I want to highlight about all of this is that it takes a lot of developed music sense and theory to understand where to place these noises and how it should sound. Quavo really knows his stuff, and to write him off as an ATL mumble rapper who has nothing to say really isn't fair to the amount of attention to detail he gives to his music. A lot of rappers these days send their beats to artists they wanted featured on it, and the artist sends it back with their verse. In these cases, artists are never in the studio together for the same song. But here, you can tell Travis Scott and Quavo were in the studio the whole time together, and really spent a lot of time perfecting this song to be exactly what they wanted. It is my favorite Quavo feature ever, and to me best highlights his brilliance of pushing the envelope of the genre.

Now of you go into any Migos songs, you can see that they too are riddled with ad-libs. 
While I don't want to take away credit from the group as a whole, I believe Quavo is the one who stresses the importance of these ad-libs to the group for all their songs. It is his features that still carry them beyond the group. But this is the ad-lib used to its maximum potential. What was once seen as a silly one trick pony to some, has been taken, and realized as a genuine sonic tool. Quavo has really found something that can put him and his group ahead of the rest of the pack. Rap music as a whole is sort of at a spear head right now. So it will be interesting to see where this is all taken in 2017 and beyond. But the first place I'll be looking is the new Migos album which drops January 27th. Bad and Boujee is already number one in the world on the Billboard top 100, people are starting to recognize that there's something here. Rap can seem goofy and extra a lot of times, but all of it has been important on capturing and executing a vibe and emotion that all music is capable of at its purest form. It's understanding music theory a lot more, and it's understanding what we as an audience enjoy in a song. This ad-lib mastering is important, like the movie Jaws is important. What should have been a corny gimmick was taken and executed on the utmost professional level to become something that changes the game. And I'm so excited to see what music's follow up to the ad-lib is.