How to Rap and Write Hip-Hop Lyrics in 2020
Learn everything you need to know to become a rapper
Last Updated: October 2020
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So you want to learn how to rap?
When you’re starting out, hip-hop songwriting (i.e. learning how to make a rap song) can seem like something so far out there you don’t know where to start.
In this post we’ll tell you what you need to know about how to write rap lyrics and perform them for the modern era.
We’re going to talk about lyrics, melody, structure and more to help you write a rap song you can be proud of.
Since we’re talking about melody as well as lyrics, you might want to learn how to sing better.
Quick Note: We assume you know what it means when we use the terms “lyrics,” “melody,” “bars,” and “beats.” If you’re not sure check out our quick music theory guides before you read on.
Table of Contents
- Quick-Start Step-by-Step
- Hip-Hop Music is King
- How Hip Hop Songs Were Written Back in the Day
- How Rap Songs are Written Today
- How to Rap in 2019 and Beyond
- How to Write a Rap Song – STEP-BY-STEP
- Rap Verses
- Rap Choruses
- Extra Things to Keep in Mind
- Final Thoughts
Quick Start – How To Spit Bars
Before we explain everything about how to write rap in depth, here’s a quick-start guide if you only have 5 seconds to read this post:
- Find a Beat/Instrumental That You Love
- Choose an Overall Topic to Write About
- Find the Rap Flow and Cadence You’ll Use by Freestyling Giberish
- Brainstorm Lyrical Ideas / Rhymes / Phrases
- Fit Your Lyric Ideas Into Your Flow/Cadence
- Refine & Rewrite the Lyrics, Flow and – if applicable – Melody so they’re not sloppy/off-beat
- Structure the Lyrics into a Full Rap Song
Hip-Hop Music is King
Hip-Hop made headlines as it became the primary dominant music genre in America. Now, for anyone like me who has been a Hip-Hop die-hard since the early 90s, it’s always seemed like the dominant genre.
And it’s always been more than the music – it’s a culture. Study the elements and know the history. It’s a movement – an intelligent movement (s/o to the teacha KRS-One)
But the music side of the culture (i.e. rap) officially outpaced “pop” as the primary genre of music consumption in the United States.
So now everybody rappin’… And I ain’t mad at it. Hip Hop is life.
But rap has changed over the last 4 decades and will always continue to evolve. And if you’re not keeping up with current sound trends, it’s going to be tough to break through.
That’s not to say you should be trying to chase fads – you should always bring your own style, voice and personality to anything you do musically.
Staying Current vs. Staying True in Your Hip Hop Verses
If there’s one thing you need to know about how to rap better, it’s this:
Make sure you don’t sound dated with your cadence, flow and lyrics when writing a rap if you’re trying to gain mainstream popularity today.
New up-and-coming rappers don’t have any issues staying current because they grow up and live in the modern styles. But a lot of O.G. rappers have problems with this.
They either sound super dated (old school) or they sound like they’re trying too hard to be like “the kids.”
There’s a middle ground that some really dope emcees have been able to find, though. They stay current and relevant, without trying to be something they’re not.
Having said that, if that’s your vibes (ex/ golden era 90s lyricism, or 80s party toasting) that’s cool. Do you. there’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s an audience for that stuff.
But if you’re trying to gain any level of “popular” or “mainstream” success, it’s not the current look, fam.
Hip Hop Songwriting Back In The Day
Hip-Hop has always been all about BARS.
Lyricism was king.
You had to be witty and clever to be a rapper back in the day. You couldn’t get by on rhyming random shit together.
You needed skillful wordplay, metaphors, double entendres and storytelling.
There was a huge focus on lyrical skill and putting together words and concepts in unique and interesting ways.
It was more about the message than the vibe.
Of course, cadence and flow (the rhythm and speed of how you say your words, how you ride the beat, your timing, etc.) was crucial. But you didn’t get respect for great flow/cadence but wack lyrics.
There was some use of melody, especially for the hook and to accent certain parts of a verse.
Bone Thugs N Harmony were notorious for their rapping ability and their ability to harmonize and use melody effectively.
But again, people (both fans and artists) really cared about the lyrics back in the day.
Rap Songwriting Today
Arguably, lyrics are less important today.
Sure, subject matter is still important, but there’s less of an emphasis placed on clever word play.
It’s more about the vibe, the flow and… the all important melody.
At the beginning of this post I mentioned Hip-Hop was the dominant genre.
I think that’s been helped by the fact that melody has become more and more prevalent and important in Rap and Hip-Hop music over the last several years.
Now I’m a hip-hop head through and through. And I’m a lyricist. But be real – melody has always been a big factor in popular music.
It’s what draws people ears. It’s what makes music catchy.
So it makes sense that a more melodic Hip-Hop/Rap style would easily overtake traditional Pop. Because even before melody was so prevalent in rap music, hip-hop culture was making WAVES. Add the melody in and it went nuclear.
Nowadays, a catchy melody in the VERSE (not only the chorus) is almost essential to a hit Hip-Hop song.
Cadence and flow is also still important. Acts like the Migos made the triplet-style flow popular and a lot of modern music uses this (or a variation) of this type of flow.
So nowadays, to sound current your rap verse should focus on both the flow and the melody.
Even if you’re a lyricist that cares about wordplay and storytelling – incorporate modern flows and melodies into your songwriting.
Think of people like Tech N9ne and Royce Da 5’9 – they’re both O.G. rappers that still sound current (and not corny) plus still get insane praise for their lyricism.
And MCs like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole are both “newer” rappers that successfully use lyrics and melody together to achieve huge success.
It’s possible to do it all if you want. And if you just want to make fire ass vibes in the studio, you can do that too.
How to Rap for Beginners
To some degree, how you write your own rap song will depend on what lane you’re in – lyrics vs. vibes vs. both.
What is a Rap Bar
A “bar” in hip hop music means a couple of things.
First, it refers to a single line of rap lyrics that fits into one “bar” of musical time. A bar of musical time is basically how you count out music to the beat (i.e. “1 – 2 – 3 – 4”). If you don’t understand what I’m talking about read this quick guide on musical time and rhythm. It will teach you how to count bars in rap.
Second, it can be used to refer to a REALLY DOPE line that someone spit. Something that’s extremely clever and makes you go “wow.” Picture you listening to a song and hearing a lyric line that was amazing and screaming out “Damn! THAT was a BAR!”
If you’re good to go on these concepts, here’s some tips on how to write a rap verse.
Traditional Rap Lyrics – How to Write Bars
There’s still a huge market for solid Hip-Hop lyricism. Fans of traditional Hip-Hop still exist and they love music. They’re looking for great stories, clever wordplay and real-ass street poetry.
But even Kendrick and Cole toy around with melodic ideas in their music. And they’re some of the best storytellers and lyricists out right now.
So if you’re trying to make music like the above mentioned lyricists, then keep paying extra attention to your wordplay, metaphors, punchlines and flows.
You flow needs to be ON BEAT.
I know Blueface and City Girls are huge right now. But if you want to be a lyricist, you can’t be off beat.
And you need to be saying something clever/impactful/interesting.
So practice your timing and make sure you are editing and re-writing your lyrics so that your flow is “in the pocket” (i.e. perfectly timed, solid rhythm/groove and on beat).
Think about how you can take an idea or concept and say it in a new, interesting or clever way. Don’t be cliched and say the same old shit that everyone else has already said.
Play around with melody where you can, but don’t sacrifice the lyrics for the sake of the melody. Focus on the message and how you spit it.
Modern Rap Lyrics – How to Set a Vibe
If you’re trying to make music like some of the newer cats like XXXTentacion, Drake, Tory Lanez, Travis Scott and others then you better learn how to write solid melodies.
Remember, lyrics are still important. The newer artists just mentioned still have solid lyric writing ability. But they incorporate melody a lot more into their verses..
Another big part of modern rap verses are the adlibs – the random sounds and shouts that happen in between lyrics. These play a huge role in setting the vibe of the track.
Keep your lyrics sparse and spaced out and pay attention to how you can fill up the empty space between these lyrics with some dope sounding adlibs.
How to Write Rap Lyrics
For the absolute beginners out there looking for hip hop verse writing tips, here’s a quick rundown on how to make a rap.
1. Find a Beat
Most rappers nowadays find a beat online that they vibe with and start writing their lyrics to the track. Some definitely still write without a beat, but if you’re starting out it’ll be easier to catch the pocket with your flow if you write to a track.
2. Choose a Topic to Write About
Want to know how to start a rap song? Get inspired by things.
One thing I’ll tell you is this – you have to live life to be inspired.
And you should take inspiration from the world around you. and just write about the things you learn, see, experience and observe.
Don’t be fake – if you’re not a gangster, don’t talk that gang shit.
But on the other hand, if you’re telling a story it can work.
Before you start putting your pen to paper, try to have an idea of what you want to write about. Usually you can get ideas from the emotion of the beat you’re listening to – is it dark/shady, happy, inspirational, etc.
3. How to Start a Rap – Brainstorming Lyrics + Flows + Rhymes
Now it’s time to start writing rap lyrics. Sometimes, you’ll write straight through – Bar 1 to Bar 16. (If you don’t know what a “bar” is in rap music, it’s basically a line of lyrics that lasts as long as 4 counts – “1, 2, 3, 4” – of the beat you’re using. Learn more about the concept of bars here.)
Other times you might just start brainstorming dope lines that you’ll try to use somewhere.
Sometimes it’s really useful to just start freestyling “giberish/nonsense” to get an idea of the flow/cadence you want to have on the beat you chose.
Then you can just match your song idea to potential words/phrases you could use and fit it into the flow you freestyled. And just keep building up the lyrics, bar after bar for 8, 12, 16 or more bars of music.
If you’re trying to get mainstream success, you probably won’t ever write a verse that’s longer than 16 bars. But if you want to really show off your shit then you can write tons of bars – The Game wrote a song called 300 bars and runnin, so do your thang if that’s what you want.
Whatever method works for you just start crafting the message/story you’re trying to tell.
Rhyming Your Words
As far as rhyme schemes go here’s a couple basic templates you can follow:
A / A / B / B (First two lines rhyme together, second two lines rhyme together)
A / A / B / A (Bars 1, 2 and 4 rhyme, but Bar 3 doesn’t)
Not everything HAS to rhyme together, but it does sound a lot better if it does.
Try not to use too many basic rhymes if you can help it (ex/ bar and star OR fix and mix). Sometimes the story/message is so dope that simple rhymes are fine. But try to use complex rhymes when you can – rhyme multi-syllable words together or rhyme single syllable words with multi syllable words, etc.
And always try to find interesting/cool ways of pronouncing words so you can rhyme them with words that aren’t really supposed to be rhymed together. (Eminem, Kanye, Lil Wayne and T.I. are good with this type of rhyming)
4. Structure Your Song
Now it’s time to get your song into a proper rap song structure. That means putting the lines you came up with together into verses and chorus sections.
If you want to make a rap song you need much more than a single rap verse.
It has to have different sections. So here’s the basics on how to write rap songs for the modern era.
Different Song Sections
A common question is “How many bars in a verse?” Normally rap songs had 2 or 3 16-bar verses and 2 or 3 8/16-bar choruses.
But that’s not always the case anymore. Sometimes you’ll see 8-bar verses or 12-bar verses. Sometimes you’ll find some songs that have 2 different 12 bar verses followed by a 4 bar pre-chorus that repeats after verse 1 and 2, before hitting the chorus.
The main thing you want to keep in mind is the STRUCTURE.
Sometimes, if you’re a lyricist, you might want to just drop 32 or 64 bars straight, no hook – and that’s totally fine too.
But most songs are structured like this
- Verse 1
- (Pre-Chorus if you want)
- Chorus 1
- Verse 2
- (Pre Chorus if you want)
- Chorus 2
- Verse 3 or Bridge
- Chorus 3
Rap Verses – How to Write Rap Bars
So if you don’t know by now, the verse section is the part where you ill rap lyrics will go. It’s where the story/message in the song gets fleshed out with details. You bring the listener in deep.
It modern popular music most verses are either 8 bars or 16 bars in length. They’re usually more lyrically dense the chorus (which we’ll talk about next).
This is where you get your shit off.
Hip-Hop Choruses – How to Write a Rap Hook
The chorus is also referred to as “the hook.” It’s the catchy part of the song. It’s also where you give a simple, concise breakdown of what the song is about overall. It’s the “summary” of your “story.”
Choruses can be either melodic (by using a singer or singing your lyrics), rhythmic (rapping lyrics without any melody to it) or a combination of both.
Lyrically, choruses are usually much less dense. There usually aren’t as many words used, but there are exceptions to this. Also, it’s usually the part of the song that has the MOST or the LEAST amount of energy, depending on what feeling you’re going for.
The key thing to remember about your chorus or hook is it NEEDS to be catchy. This is the part of the song that is supposed to “hook” the listener. That’s why it’s also referred to as the hook.
Spend a lot of time on this section and get it right.
A pre-chorus is a section (usually 8 bars in length) that comes from pop music. It’s not always used in rap songs or hip-hop music, but recently it’s become more popular. It comes in right before the chorus section and helps to build up in energy to it (the chorus is usually the highest level of energy in the song).
It can be either melodic, rhythmic or both in terms of lyrics. But it’s separate and distinct from the verse section. It’s a little more catchy or “hooky” than a verse but less catchy than the chorus section.
And usually when you use a pre-chorus, it’s the same exact lyric/melody everytime the section comes around. With verses, Verse 1 and Verse 2 are usually different lyrically (and sometimes melodically). But Pre-Chorus 1 and Pre-Chorus 2 will normally be the EXACT SAME lyrically/melodically (sometimes there are slight variations).
You don’t have to use a pre-chorus. But it’s good to know that the option is there for you.
Stuff to Remember When Learning How to Write a Rap Song
Here’s a few things you need to always keep in the back of your mind when you’re songwriting. This will help you really cut through the noise that’s out there in the music industry.
Keep Things Fresh
Don’t be boring. Keep shit fresh and interesting. A good rule of thumb is to change something up in your rap verse every 4 bars. Otherwise, things can get monotonous and boring.
So change up your flow, cadence, rhyme scheme, intensity – something.
Keep things fresh and interesting to the listener.
Don’t Make a Rap Using Too Many Words
Something new rappers fall into when writing rhymes is using too many words to express an idea. That can lead you to being off-beat.
Now, we mentioned rappers that have success while still rapping off beat (Blueface, City Girls, etc.). And if that’s what you want to do, that’s fine. It can sound dope sometimes – it’s a style choice nowadays.
But if you’re trying to be ON BEAT and you’ve got too many words in a line, it won’t fit within the bar of music and will sound sloppy.
Syllables are important! The number of syllables has to fit and sound “in the pocket.”
If you’re new to rapping, this might be tough at first, but get lots of feedback on your lyrics/rhymes.
If you can’t fit all the words you want in a bar, cut some out or say things differently so they fit. Re-writing is IMPORTANT. Don’t fall into the trap of just writing what comes to your head first and never changing a thing. That’s amateur shit.
Don’t Be Afraid of Rewriting Your Rap Verse
I know everyone wants to say they just step in the booth and spit or write a full song in 10 minutes. And if you can pull that off, cool.
But don’t ever be afraid of re-writing. Changing shit up because you think it sounds or fits better is good practice. Most songwriters re-write. Including rap writers.
You want to make sure you’re writing the best lyrics you possibly can – whether you’re super lyrical or more melody based.
Take the time to make it sound legit.
THIS IS IMPORTANT. Only the most talented people can spit something flawless on their first attempt/take. But even the most talented rappers take this art seriously and refine/rewrite their lyrics for MAXIMUM IMPACT. Don’t sleep on this. It’s the cornerstone of good songwriting.
Rap Writing Techniques
So… Should you write with a pen/pad (or phone) or just freestyle?
This totally depends on how you feel most comfortable writing – there’s no right or wrong way. Some people are better at just freestyling and stringing stuff together, while others are better at sitting down and writing their thoughts out on paper (or in your phone).
Whatever works for you – do it.
One thing I will say is this – if you’re trying to be super lyrical, it might work better for you to write using a pen and pad (or phone). If you’re trying to be more melodic and catch a vibe, then freestyling might work better for you.
Try both ways and see what works for your situation.
Final Thoughts – Don’t Beat Yourself Up at First
If you’re just starting out, it doesn’t matter what you do your stuff’s probably gonna suck. That’s ok. Everyone does.
Don’t beat yourself up about it.
JUST KEEP WRITING. More and more – aim to write 100 songs over the course of a year. You’re going to get so good you’ll look back at your early stuff and be embarrased and laugh about it.
Just keep working on it and I promise your music will get better and better and better.
Once you’ve written your hundred songs, then you’ll be at the starting line of being a rapper. So keep putting in the work.
THE ABSOLUTE BEST THING you can do is continue studying and learning. There are 2 books I highly recommend you read if you want to become a great rapper. Check them both out below (affiliate links):
These are the best books on the art of rapping – it consists of quotes and insights from literally all the GOATs in the game – past and present.
Gems, Gems, Gems… Get these books. Learn more about them using the affiliate links below:How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-Hop MC
And that kids, is how you write a rap. Now go be great and create.
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Plus, there’s a lot of shitty rappers out there, sharing it with them may help make them better!