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How to Use Wordplay in Rap

Improving Your Use of Language When Rapping

Last Updated: December 2023 | Article Details: 3255 words (16 – 18 minute read)

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Learning how to use wordplay in rap is an essential skill for any aspiring rapper. Rapping isn’t just about rhyming words together to form random strings of nonsense.

Some outside of the culture may feel that’s the case, but the truth is rap is one of the most creative forms of lyricism around. And the emphasis on this technique is part of the reason why.

It is foundational to any great emcee. And if you want to be great, you need to study and practice poetic devices.

In this guide, we’ll explain what it is, why it’s important, different ways to play with words (with examples) and finally give you some tips to help you improve this aspect of your rhyming.

If you’re a complete beginner to the art of the emcee, I highly recommend you start with our How to Rap guide first (read now).

If you’ve already read that, let’s get into the art of wordplay in rap…

Rapping in Front of Crowd

What is Wordplay in Rap

Wordplay is a common poetic device that’s used in a number of different art forms.

It’s when you take common language and use it in an unexpected, unconventional or surprising way that still makes sense to the listener.

You’re literally “playing around” with “words.”

This can obviously mean a lot of things, so the concept of wordplay can have a lot of different things associated with it.

In terms of using it in rap, it can be thought of as taking a word, phrase or line that has a very real, literal meaning and using it to convey an idea that’s very different from it’s common use/meaning – often in a humorous, unexpected or amusing way.

But it’s also used to poke fun at or insult someone. Rap is a competitive sport, and so naturally wordplay can be used at someone else’s expense. It’s all in good fun… Usually…

General Concepts

There are lots of different types of wordplay that you can use in your rapping.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of them:

  • Puns: Exploiting different meanings or sounds of words in a humorous way
  • Double/Triple Entendres: A figure of speech that can have two or three different interpretations or meanings, one that’s obvious while the other(s) can be humorous/dark/sexual/etc.
  • Homophones: words that are pronounced exactly the same (sound alike) but have different meanings
  • Homonyms: Similar to a homophone, but words with similar sounds that can be interpreted differently.
  • Idioms: phrases that have figurative meanings that are different from their literal meanings
  • Punchlines: a final part of a story that delivers an unexpected/surprise twist that is often clever or humorous
  • Acronyms: Using the letters of a word to come up with a phrase (or vice-versa)
  • Hyperbole: Describing something with an extreme level of exaggeration

Microphone Month at Sweetwater

Rap-Specific Techniques

Here are a few techniques that were popularized by rappers (and no, these aren’t the official names of the techniques, and yea there’s a lot more ways to implement wordplay than these, but chill):

  • The Pause + Punch: Describing something with a short pause after, followed by an unexpected word/phrase that encompasses the description in a clever way
  • Spelling it Out: Taking words or phrases and literally spelling them out to provide a unique way of describing something
  • Literally Figurative: Taking a figurative expression/phrase and using it as a literal description
Improve Wordplay

Why Wordplay is Important

Rap is an artform that focuses on this type of language use because of it’s spoken nature. In the past, there was a huge importance placed on clever lyricism.

Even though rap evolves over time, there is still a lot of emphasis placed on the clever use of language.

If all you’re doing is rhyming words in a basic way, there is nothing for a listener’s mind to latch onto and be surprised or impressed.

Wordplay isn’t necessary in EVERY rap you write – sometimes a good story is all it takes – but it should, nevertheless, be a part of your overall repertoire.

Modern rap has a much heavier focus on vibe/feeling than lyricism, but you’d be wrong in thinking that it doesn’t still play a massive role. Even the most vibey rappers you can think of will still use wordplay in their rhymes, even if on the surface they seem basic or nonsensical.

Examples of Clever Use in Rap

In this section we’ll go over a few of the techniques mentioned above, and use popular lyrics to help describe them, so you can implement these devices better in your own rhyming.

Puns in Rap

Puns can be found everywhere in rap music.

J. Cole

“She Shallow But the Pussy Deep” – J. Cole No Role Modelz

In this bar, Cole is using the ideas of being shallow or deep in a punny way.

On the surface, someone who is shallow only cares about superficial things like money or entertainment, whereas someone who is considered “deep” is more interested in more complicated ideas like philosophy or politics.

The pun occurs in bringing together the intellectually shallow/deep concept with the concept of a shallow/deep pussy and playing them off each other.

But by contrasting the idea of her being “shallow” with her having a “deep” pussy, he’s describing how good the sex is with that woman, despite her lack of intellectual prowess.

“Ask Beavis, I Get Nothing But Head” – Big L 98 Freestyle

This is one of the greatest bars in hip-hop history (learn more). Obviously, “head” is another word for a blowjob. But there was a famous cartoon show on MTV called “Beavis and Butthead” about two friends in the 90s.

Big L cleverly uses those names (and thus calls back to the TV show) to describe how great he is with women. It’s a classic pun.

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Double/Triple Entendres

Entendres are some of the most clever types of wordplay you’ll come across in rap.

“Rub her like a condom / contemplating dangerous sex” – Ab Soul The End is Near

In this line, Ab soul is talking about having sex without protection, which is considered dangerous sex. The double entendre comes in the form of the phrase “rub her” which can also be heard as “rubber.” A rubber is another name for a condom – which is something you’d use to protect yourself from STI’s and unplanned pregnancy.

So he “rub her” as in massages her, as an act of foreplay. But the line also acts almost as a simile as well – a rubber is “like a” condom. And while rubbing/massaging the lady during foreplay, he wants to have sex without a condom.

Solid double entendre.

“No we not kiddin / So I guess you could say we groanin” – Tech N9ne Sex to the Beat

In this line, Tech is talking about sex (obviously). But there are three meanings to the line:

  1. We’re not doing “kid” things (kiddin) we’re doing “grown” things (groanin)
  2. When someone “kids” (jokes) you laugh. If it’s not funny, one might groan in disappointment instead
  3. Moaning (or groaning) is a sound that most people make when having sex

Steller triple entendre.

Homophones & Homonyms Used in Rap

One of the most classic examples of a homophone used in a rap song is from none other than Shawn Carter…

Jay Z Homophone

“I’m not a businessman / I’m a business, man…” – Jay Z Diamonds from Sierra Leone

Obviously the homophone is “businessman” and “business, man.” In this one bar Jay is describing his business acumen but saying he’s not actually a businessman like you’d think – suit and tie and all stuffy.

Instead he’s saying he’s an entire business – a complete brand all unto himself.

Roc-a-Fella Records

This next example isn’t exactly a rap bar, but it’s a great example of a homophone, still.

Jay Z and Dame Dash created the record label called “Roc-A-Fella.” The name comes from the famous “Rockefeller” family of business titans.

Roc-A-Fella and Rockefeller are pronounced almost exactly the same, but one means to knock someone out (i.e. “rock a fella”) while the other conjures up ideas of wealth, prosperity and global domination.

Both of those ideas are exactly what the two wanted to portray with their label name and brand.

Idioms Used in Hip-Hop Songs

There are lots of idioms that get used throughout rap music.

One example would be from Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” where he raps the words “Wait Till I Get My Money Right.”

On the surface the phrase would sound like someone waiting to receive some money that they’re owed. But it’s actually an idiom that means “wait until I’m in a place financially where I don’t have to ever worry about bills or expenses again.”

Another example is the cliched line “Life’s a Bitch, and Then You Die” which makes appearances in several songs, including the Nas and AZ classic “Life’s a Bitch.”

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think someone was calling life a female dog. That’s the literal interpretation of that line. But in reality, it’s an idiom that describes how difficult, unpredictable and often annoying/frustrating life can generally be for a human.

Punchlines Used in Rap

Punchlines are the bread-and-butter of a lot of rhymes. They’re everywhere.

You can spot a punchline by it’s initial setup. It’s similar in the comedy world. You set up a premise in the first line and deliver a clever punchline right after.

Kanye West Punchline

“Killin Y’all Niggas On That Lyrical Shit / Mayonnaise Colored Benz I Push Miracle Whips” – Kanye West Last Call

This one single line made me a MASSIVE fan of Kanye West, and solidified him as a true lyricist in my mind.

The setup is the first line, where Ye is talking about how lyrical he can get and that he’s “killin em” with it. Not a unique claim in rap.

But the punchline is where it’s at. He’s showcasing how lyrical he can be (i.e. how great he is with wordplay) by describing his car:

  • A whip is a slang term from the 80s and 90s that refers to a car
  • A Benz (Mercedes-Benz) was a much sought after luxury car
  • Mayonnaise is a white colored condiment/sauce
  • Miracle Whip is a knock-off version of mayonnaise

Thus the punchline is saying he drives an amazing, white-colored car in the cleverest, most lyrical way possible. In fact, this is also a double/triple entendre.

Acronyms in Rap Songs

There are two very well known uses of acronyms in Rap.

The first is from Wu-Tang Clan’s C.R.E.A.M.

The song is about money and the title itself is the acronym. It gets repeated throughout the chorus.

The acronym CREAM stands for “Cash Rules Everything Around Me.”

Another example of an acronym in rap is the song title to Eric B and Rakim’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y).”

The acronym, and it’s meaning is right there in the title.

Using Hyperbole

This is a relatively straight-forward concept. It’s using colorful or expressive language to really exaggerate your point for maximum effect.

Hyperbole by Gucci Mane

“An ounce of what I smoke cost double your mortgage” – Gucci Mane Time to Eat

In this line Gu-wop is talking about how great the weed he smokes is. High quality weed is usually much more expensive than mediocre or low-quality stuff.

Having high grade marijuana used to be a flex, and Gucci is letting you know how high-grade his weed is by comparing it to the cost of a house mortgage.

Does it really cost double a mortgage payment? No, but that’s what the hyperbole is for.

“We ridin’ round with guns the size of Lil Bow Wow” – 50 Cent Wanksta

In this line 50 is telling you how big his guns (real guns) are. The bigger the gun, the more intimidating it is.

Lil Bow Wow was a rapper who popped off at a really young age and is.. well, short. But having a gun the size of a small human is pretty exaggerated.

Were the guns really that big? Of course not. But good hyperbole is a useful device in rhyming and getting your point across in a clever, non-boring way.

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The Pause + Punch

It’s hard to say who came up with this device in rap music. But it was definitely popularized a lot by Drake and Lil Wayne.

This is a technique were you describe something in detail, and then give a single word (or phrase) ending that encapsulates or sums up the description in a clever way. The word is almost like a punchline.

“Swimming in the Money, Come and Find Me… / Nemo” – Drake Forever

In this line drake is obviously describing how much money he has by saying he’s swimming in it. He tells you to come find him, before a brief pause and the word “Nemo.”

The Pixar movie called “Finding Nemo” is about a fish that gets lost in the ocean and his friends try to find him. So Drake uses that concept to help say how rich he is.

This “pause + punch” was used a lot in rap, but you don’t hear it all that often anymore. It may have been overdone.

Spelling It Out

This is where you literally spell something out in a highly rhythmic fashion – often a name.

It allows you to have a really rapid rhythm/flow (learn more) while also allowing you to rhyme with the sound of a particular letter, instead of having to rhyme the actual word.

The most famous example is probably from Uncle Snoop:

Snoop Dogg Spelling it Out

“It’s the capital S / oh yes I’m fresh / N double O-P / D O double G Y / D O double G / You see” Dr. Dre Nuthin But a G Thang.

Snoop is just literally spelling out his name.

Literally Figurative

This is something hard to describe, but when you hear it you know it. It’s where you take an idiom – which is a figurative phrase – and add a setup or punchline that uses it in a literal way.

“And battling me is hazardous to your health / So put a quarter in your ass cuz you played yourself” – Big Daddy Kane on Marley Marl’s The Symphony

This is a world famous line where Big Daddy Kane is taking the idiom “you played yourself” (which means to have inadvertently done something that was damaging to you or not in your best interest) and using it in a literal way.

Back in the day, we had video game arcades where you’d put a quarter in to play a particular game. So if you take “play yourself” literally as if you’re an arcade video game you’d have to put a quarter in to play. And there’s only so many slots where that quarter would fit.

Tips to Get Better

If you’re looking for ways to improve your ability to play with words, here are some tips that you can use. It takes a lot of practice to do this stuff well. And not every shot you take will make a basket (see what I did there?). But the more you work at it, the better you’ll become.

Be Over the Top

Exaggeration is big in literature. It’s one of the devices we talked about – hyperbole. When you’re rhyming, sometimes it can be good to be over the top with what you’re saying.

You don’t want to do it too often, but every now and then think of how you could make your idea “bigger” or “crazier” or “wilder” than just simply stating it outright.

A lot of times you’ll use metaphors and similes to achieve this, but just try to be creative if you do.

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Don’t Just Say It, Describe It

You could just say your idea, but that’s boring. A better way to do it is to describe what you’re trying to say, instead of just putting it plainly.

Like if you’re trying to say how crazy you are, you could just say “I’m crazy” or you could describe just how crazy you can be using colorful language and visual imagery. Describing something, rather than just saying it, gives you more opportunity to play around with concepts/ideas and word-use.

Think of Eminem in his song Marshal Mathers where he describes walking dead dogs – he’s describing just how off-his-rocker he can be by using a very image-rich picture with his words.

Think Deeper

Whenever you have a bar or rhyme written, try to think deeper about it. What exactly are you trying to say – what are you describing, and how can you say it without “saying it.”

Think deeply about how the idea you’re working with relates to culture, society, politics, film/tv and everything else in life. Pull from different areas to spontaneously come up with ideas that are comparable to the thing you’re trying to say.

Read, Listen and Watch

One of the best ways to get better at writing is to read a lot. A great way to get better at rapping is to listen to a lot of rap. But beyond that, even watching things – tv shows, documentaries, etc – can help expand your mind with interesting ideas and concepts.

When you have those concepts in the back of your mind, you’re more likely to pull from them to come up with new and interesting ideas. So pay attention to a lot of the various art and literature that’s out there. Listen to conversations (i.e. podcasts) about different things so you can expand your knowledge.

That’s a great way to have an arsenal of ideas/concepts to pull from for your wordplay.

Immerse Yourself in Culture

This tip is similar to the previous one, but it’s about ALL culture. Popular culture is the best place to pull ideas from because it means a lot of people will be familiar with what it is that you’re trying to say. But it can go beyond that – pay attention to what’s happening in the news, in politics, in finance, in art – literally everything.

Again, having all of these different ideas in your head will allow you to pull from this knowledge to come up with clever ways of saying things that relate to concepts people at large are familiar with. It’s easier to be clever if you’re well versed in many different areas of life.

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    Final Thoughts

    These concepts and ideas may be difficult to really internalize if you’re just starting out rapping.

    But don’t worry, if you keep trying to “get it,” eventually things will click for you.

    Really pay attention to the lyrics of the songs you love. Make sure you’re reading Genius lyrics and annotations to really try and understand what someone is saying with their lyrics. It’s not always “obvious.”

    The more you look at examples of good wordplay in rap, the better you’ll get at coming up with your own ideas.

    If you are ready to get your music out there to the world, I highly recommend you use Tunecore – they’re an affordable way to release unlimited music to Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and more.

    Thanks for reading this guide on wordplay in rap! I hope it was helpful.

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    About The Author:

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    Omar Zulfi

    Omar Zulfi is a music producer, rapper, singer, songwriter and digital entrepreneur. He is the founder and head writer at Deviant Noise. Learn more about what he's doing by clicking here.