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New American Songbook

When Hip Hop Improvises

Mikamote / CC BY-SA 3.0

The Brooklyn underground emcee RA the Rugged Man recently held a contest to find the so-called "Definition of a Rap Flow.” While we’ll thankfully never know how many thousands of very awful submissions he received, we do know who won in RA’s book: a 17-year old phenom called A-F-R-O who delivers a freestyle so far above the level of anyone walking this earth that it’s nearly celestial.

Freestyle is the art of spontaneous rap. It's a spur of the moment, in-the-now, full-contact poetry, often performed in competition against another rapper. It’s weaponized pentameter. Whether the content is meant to build up or break down, a freestyle is improvisation, practiced in the same manner as jazz musicians craft their solos. It can be written, conceived prior to recitation, or it can be completely environmental, happening totally in the present.

A freestyle is, even more radically, the hip hop iteration of Logos—the living, breathing incarnation of the Author in the world. The best freestyles project the image of their creator as an immutable fact in the universe: they are, by their words, ‘I AM’.

Or, they are until the next rapper drops a freestyle that hangs their head so low they’re looking at the bottom of their shoes as they walk off stage.