One of the best guest verses in the history of hip-hop is the one that Chance The Rapper does on Kanye West’s beautiful “Ultralight Beam.”
The song is built around an eight bar loop. (See this post for an analysis of the chord progression.) Chance’s verse goes through the loop five times, for a total of forty bars. It’s not at all typical for a rap song to include a one and a half minute guest verse–it’s almost enough material to make a whole separate song. By giving up so much space in his album opener, Kanye is gaving Chance the strongest endorsement possible, and Chance makes the most of his moment.
I won’t talk much about the content of the lyrics–for that, you should go to Genius to see annotations by Chance himself. Instead, I’ll consider Chance’s verse from a musical perspective. To make sense out of my transcription, you’ll need some background, particularly on the time signature.
Nearly all rap songs are in 4/4 time with a sixteenth note pulse. Here’s what that means. You count “one, two, three, four” for each measure, and since you’re dividing the measure into four parts, these basic beats are called quarter notes. Each beat is further subdivided into four smaller parts, called sixteenth notes. If you listen to “So Fresh So Clean” by OutKast, there are drum hits on all sixteen sixteenth notes in each bar, so it’s easy to distinguish them.
“Ultralight Beam” is different. The beats are subdivided into thirds, not quarters, meaning that each bar is divided into twelve pieces rather than sixteen. This gives the song a time signature of 12/8, known informally as a shuffle.
You don’t encounter much 12/8 shuffle in hip-hop, but it’s common in older African-American styles, most notably the blues and gospel (which is what Kanye is evoking here). You also hear a lot of shuffle in country and rock.
Chance complicates the situation in his verse by mostly rapping in 4/4 anyway. Aside from his first and last few lines, his flow is almost all straight sixteenth notes. This creates a fascinating polyrhythmic tension against the underlying shuffle. It sounds amazing, but is awkward to notate. To spare myself a headache, I decided to go ahead and transcribe the verse as if the song were in 4/4, and write triplets in the few places where Chance does actually respect the 12/8 meter.
Chance sings parts of his verse, so I was able to notate those parts in the conventional way. Where he raps, I use x-shaped noteheads showing the very approximate pitches. I thought about using slash notation, which is purely rhythmic, but like all rappers, Chance uses pitch in a definite and non-arbitrary way, and I wanted the chart to reflect that.
So here’s my transcription. Noteflight will play it back for you on piano, which I don’t recommend doing because it sounds comically terrible. You can get a PDF version here.
I’ll refer to each pass through the eight bar loop as a section. Chance’s first section, labeled A in my chart, is straight ahead gospel singing on the C minor pentatonic scale. The fifth bar is completely empty, which is a conspicuous hole. Apparently, there was another line in that bar, “No one can judge,” which got cut in the version that was released initially, the one that I transcribed. Kanye later reinstated the line as part of his post-release tinkering with the album.
In the second section, labeled B in the chart, Chance begins rapping in his characteristically verbose and fluid style. Phrases and ideas come tumbling out in a rush of eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and sixteenth note triplets. Chance is probably the only rapper who would rhyme “Pangaea” with “Zambia.” At the end of the B section, he does some nifty wordplay: “my daughter look just like Sia, you can’t see her.” Sia is a singer and songwriter known for hiding her face behind a giant wig, and Chance uses his black Chicago accent to pronounce “see her” exactly the same as “Sia.”
In the C section, Chance settles into a regular rhythm, a steady stream of sixteenth notes accenting the third-to-last one in each bar (the words “Braille”, “trail”, “hell”, “fail”, etc.) You don’t need to know any technical music vocabulary to hear the tight pattern of syllables and accents. At the very end of the section, Chance switches to staccato eighth notes on “ain’t one gosh darn part”, using them to highlight his punchline–that “gosh darn” is deliberate irony against the backdrop of Chance’s casual profanity elsewhere. He unexpectedly sings the last few syllables of the line, “you can’t Tweet.” This sets up the next section, which is almost all sung.
The D section begins with a remarkable bit of production. Chance sings the line, “This is my part, nobody else speak” on the same C minor pentatonic he used at the beginning of his verse. Then he sings the same line again on the same melody, but with noticeably different voice quality. I’m certain that the two lines come from two different takes. So why are they both in there? Here’s my guess: in one take, Chance tumbled through the lines leading up to the D section and ran out of breath after “nobody else speak.” So he had to stop, back up, and punch in another take starting at the top of the section. Maybe while listening back in the studio and deciding where to cross over from one take to another, Kanye and his co-producers heard both passes through the line, liked the effect, and decided to use both of them instead of whatever phrase was supposed to come next. I can’t be sure that’s what happened, but it’s the likeliest explanation. Whatever the thinking was, it’s a fantastic idea.
Chance goes on in the D section to quote from “This Little Light of Mine,” which doubles as an intertextual Kanye reference–Ye himself quotes it in “Hey Mama.” (Earlier, Chance references another Kanye song, paralleling the rhythm and rhyme scheme of a couple of lines from “Otis.”) Beginning with the line, “I’m-a make sure that they go where they can’t go,” Chance resumes his rapid-fire stream of sixteenth notes. As the intensity builds over the next few lines, Chance’s singing pushes more into speaking as his pitch goes further and further sharp from the melody notes. The energy climaxes right at the beginning of the E section, where he yells “Unh!” like James Brown. It’s both a comment on the joy of his own performance and the listener’s joy at experiencing it.
Chance closes out his verse by singing the whole E section in 12/8, ending with a melismatic run down the C minor pentatonic scale on the word “nine.” He sounds gleefully exhausted, as well he should; it’s exactly how I feel every time I listen.