2014-09-12T16:43:31+00:00 2016-02-04T04:23:34+00:00

Let Rap's Freestyle Mythology Die


Stop dictating freestyle etiquette. It's tacky and rooted in poisonous ideology. For years, fans and pundits alike have gone on witch-hunts crucifying any rapper reading pre-written raps in a "freestyle" in comment sections around the web. The most recent victim was the much maligned Troy Ave, who was "exposed" rapping from his phone during a radio freestyle on Sway in the Morning. The ensuing slander was really quite laughable; so what if he wrote it? It's time to let the smart phone spitters live. If the raps are dope there's no reason to judge the method. No rapper should feel pressured to uphold an outdated freestyle model or maintain the perception. It's time to let the fantasy of unscripted freestyles die.

Freestyle culture is built on the principle of improvisation. But if you take some time to really assess its history, there haven’t really been many rappers that have done it well, and the notion of rappers being freestylers has dissipated with its segue into the mainstream. Over the last decade, with the emergence of Internet distribution and televised radio interviews, the word has taken on new meanings: A freestyle in the modern age is now a verse offered up on the spot or a verse with no other designated purpose used when jacking for beats. It is senseless for us as a culture to allow the term to evolve without changing the standards for how it is critiqued. If freestyles carry new connotations, why should rappers endure ignominy based simply on the old one?

The bogus ideal that is drilled into our heads repeatedly, both subliminally and overtly, is that real rappers — "true emcees" — are capable of freestyling without premeditation. Proof of anything less is seen as a slight second only to ghostwriting in the Pantheon of Rap Sins. Such a standard is wack, however, because it puts more value on the process of creating the art than on the art itself, and it puts constraints on artists who don't operate well on the fly, artists who may be brilliant at what they do but just don't do improv well. A terrible freestyle shouldn't be valued just because it's impromptu and we shouldn't shortchange the artists who don't arrive at their final product in an impetuous manner. Drake is a thoughtful guy; he's not conditioned to "freestyle". His art doesn’t lend itself to that skill set, and he isn’t the only one. Rap is as much a medium as it is a craft, and not everyone can wing it. That isn't saying that a good off top freestyle shouldn't be championed; it's simply time to remove the stigma from simply being a sufficient writer.

Freestyling has a deep, unwritten mythology among rappers. It is commonly implied that any rapper who refers back to a written verse for any moment of — supposedly — on the spot rapping is a heretic blaspheming against real hip-hop. It's the reason Troy Ave attempted to hide his phone for his Sway in the Morning freestyle, and the reason Sway exposed him. It's the reason Drake's Blackberry freestyle for HOT 97 has nearly 5.5 million views. It's why purists talk ad nauseam about the progenitors of the form being battlers that were capable of rapping on a whim. This old guard way of thinking is tired. It's cool to see a rapper go off top but not cooler than seeing Pharoahe Monch or Danny Brown rap an incredible album verse live on air. Don't stigmatize writers; support good raps.

It's okay to read raps from your Blackberry for a radio freestyle in 2014. It's okay to memorize old bars. It's okay to recycle freestyles. If the bars are hot, what does it even matter? No one was buying that those internal rhyme schemes were off top, anyway. It's time to stop maintaining this illusion, constantly hovering over rap like a fog of condescension, that a rapper who can't freestyle (or one who tries to hide it) is a lesser rapper than one who can. If you're the kind of person that is still holding rappers to KRS-One standards of freestyling in an era of Internet transparency and platform synchronicity you're romanticizing an aspect of rap that no longer has an arena. Even battle rappers aren't expected to freestyle anymore. Let all raps stand on their own merits. Freestyling as it was is dead. It's time to let go.


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