In his critically acclaimed song “Empire State of Mind,” rapper Jay Z used conventional rhymes such as made-Wade, as well as partial rhymes such as life-light. Long considered part of the verbal artistry of hip-hop, this latter type of word play also reflects a sophisticated awareness of what consonants sound like in different parts of words. In a recent study examining the songs of seven individual rappers, researchers found that partial rhymes such as life-light, in which the last consonant differs, occurred very frequently. Previous laboratory work had already shown that different consonants at the end of a word often sound similar to people, and the new study suggests that rappers capitalize on this fact to create pairs of words that seem to rhyme, even when they do not. The study also showed that partial rhymes such as follow-tomorrow, where the middle consonant differs in ollow versus orrow, occurred in the songs only infrequently. Consonants in the middle of a word rarely sound similar to people, and rappers appear to recognize this tendency, using such pairs sparingly. The implication is that—not surprisingly—rappers possess a subtle but deep understanding of how people perceive speech.
This article was originally published with the title "How to Rhyme Like a Rapper" in SA Mind 26, 6, 9 (November 2015)