Triumph and the Chorus

you look at popular music today, it suffers for a lack of variety in structure and form. In rap music particularly, the chorus, or the hook, as the chief resemblance of melody, is generally so simple of a diddy, not unlike a commercial jingle, that it’s repetition throughout a song tends to distract from the meat of the song, the lyricism. To repeat, the repetition of a chorus distracts from the meat of a song. Just go ahead and try and picture any rap song you like in your head right now, are you hearing lyrics or are you hearing the hook? This is unfortunate because the true genius of the genre lies not in the hook but the only true modern form of poetry that can be found in the mainstream: a rapper’s lyrics, delivery, storytelling, philosophizing, protest, grandstanding, and sometimes even romance.

Wu-Tang Clan, a hip hop collective and long some of the titans of the east coast scene, I think collectively have demonstrated one possible solution to the stalemate that rap has found itself in, through the song Triumph, found on the Wu-Tang Forever album. The song pays tribute to each member of the collective through an extended solo for each, but most importantly it does away with the feature in question, freeing the listener to focus on what’s important.

Wu-Tang Clan — Triumph

Repetition can serve an important function in music or elsewhere by drawing attention to important points. When professional songwriters build in a chorus, they generally do so knowing that this is going to be the feature that is most memorable from a song to listeners and thus increase sales / lead to a paycheck. Unfortunately repetition has a downside. As is the case in hip hop, it distracts from the meat of the song, or from what is important.

A long distance runner, after years of feet pounding the pavement, faces the risk that his legs will one day just give out on him from repetitive stress disorder and he will lose what has long been his chief form of high. The office worker drone, after years of sitting at the same desk and driving the same rush hour commute, will one day find that he needs a change to avoid a similar risk.

The Catholic Church’s form of worship is built on repetition. A congregation is serenaded with many of the same hymns and prayers dating back centuries. Through repetition the word is slowly worked into the subconscious, and we become better people for it. Through repetition and gradual change, the form of worship has been allowed to evolve over two millennia, and we can thus know of its value by simple deference to the Lindy effect. Even the content of scheduled gospel and readings have a form of repetition through the church’s three year cycle. This repetition adds coherency to the message. The bible is often confusing and sometimes even contradictory and a worshiper has great benefit from being exposed to a coherent presentation in the form of a worship service over the years.

While it is true that repetition of a message adds coherency, it also sacrifices complexity for it. Consider a painter drawing a mountain as a simple triangle verses the true fractal aspects that are found in nature. One of Mandelbrot’s contributions was his popularizing the concept of fractals in natural and artificial environments. Consider Lawren Harris’ painting ‘Isolation Peak — Rocky Mountains’ verses mountains as they are usually found in nature to illustrate. One appears a smooth triangle that features the same kind of smoothness and symmetry that you may find in a Wes Anderson film, while the other is highly fractal and self similar at different scales.

Lawren Harris — Isolation Peak
Badlands National Park

In popular music, the answer to the simplistic nature of pop has long been the inclusion of a single coupled with other songs in album format. Even though each song was itself fairly straight forward musically, the grouping of them together would serve as the source of complexity. As anyone who has ever created a mixtape for a girlfriend knows, the grouping of a collection of songs can illustrate a story, theme, or message. Some performers spend the same amount of care assembling an album as they do grouping songs for a concert set list or a dj mixtape.

Unfortunately, the modern development of streaming services has challenged the album format. The first shift was when consumers began to purchase MP3 singles via iTunes, and the second which we are now entering is the shift to subscription or free streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, or Apple Music. These services face a similar challenge as Netflix does with their movie recommendation engine. The structure of mainstream music really came to maturity in an environment of albums, where in the best music it wasn’t just the single that gave meaning, but it was how it was presented in the context of other songs. It wasn’t just a jingle, it was a journey. Some services are still relying on professional dj hand-picked playlists, while others may rely on one developed via machine learning or some combination thereof. I am sure it is a chief challenge of these services to find the right balance and it will be a source of competitive advantage to those that get it right.

As for the question of singles verses albums, there are some true artists who illustrate their artistry not only with their albums but their whole catalog of music, taking the abstraction up one more level. Van Morrison started his journey with Them treating his music practically as a shouting match. It’s a wonder he didn’t do more damage to his vocal cords than he did. But if you follow his journey it went through a whole gamut of rock, romance, poetic spiritualism, and religious inspiration. His catalog and progression is a journey on par with any in music.

Van Morrison — Born to Sing

Wu-Tang’s Triumph takes this kind of progression and captures it all in the space of a six minute journey. It is a form that should be emulated and I think could even save rap from itself.

*For further readings please check out my Table of Contents, Book Recommendations, and Music Recommendations.

Albums that were referenced here or otherwise inspired this post:

Wu_Tang Forever — Wu-Tang Clan

Wu_Tang Forever

Moondance — Van Morrison

Moondance

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or further readings please check out my Table of Contents, Book Recommendations, and Music Recommendations.

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Nicholas Teague

Writing for fun and because it helps me organize my thoughts. I also write software to prepare data for machine learning at automunge.com. Consistently unique.