… or Vanilla Ice Vs. Rakim, CLASH OF TITANS.

Orig released in ’89, a gigantic smash in 1990, “Ice Ice Baby” is frequently called one of the worst songs of all time by places that have nothing better to do than make such lists. BlenderRolling Stone (he didn’t credit Queen, “he lied to reporters” — ouch!, and “he just really came off like a tool”), um… something on Squidoo… looking all these up is deadening my soul, and that’s not why you came.

For all that it’s loathed, “Ice Ice Baby” is loved in equal measure. It’s easy to memorize — Ice raps in a stream of easy-to-register quarter notes punctuated by hooks, which he generally achieves by deviating from those rolling quarter notes. Those hooks are scattered pretty evenly throughout the song, and they’re often highlighted by a gang chorus of big burly men shouting along. Here’s a selection of Ice’s earworms, big burly men in bold:

“Listen” “-vention” “Will it ever stop?” “Daaaaance…” “To the extreme I rock a mic” “Allright stop” “Deadly” “Love it or leave it” “Way” “Play” “Jumpin’” “Pumpin’” “Fakin’” “Bacon” “Rollin’” “Did you stop?” “Beach Front Avenue” “Jealous” “Ready” “Eight-balls” “Fallin’” “Police are on the scene” “Poet” “Know It” “Spiiiill” “Feeeel” “Damn”

If you compare “Ice Ice Baby” to “Follow the Leader,” your preference might depend on a number of factors — which one you grew up with, whether you prefer stunning virtuosity or blunter energy, song-specific ephemera and annoyances (at Popular, Tom Ewing criticizes Ice’s metaphor choices, among other things) — but you’ll probably agree that Rakim raps in a more complicated way. You can get that simply by trying to imitate them: “Ice” rolls off the tongue easily, while “Follow,” with all its twists and turns and quick, varied rhythms, takes a while to learn.

So what’s the difference? What makes “Follow” more complex than “Ice”? The most obvious feature is “Ice”‘s underlying string of quarter notes. Remember, the hypothetical core cadence in “Follow” pits syncopated phrases against one another:

–_–_–.–_ / *_–.*.*. /

… whereas Ice’s core cadence, the thing all lines take as their starting point and then deviate from, may be an unbroken string of quarter notes:

–.–.–.–. / –.–.–.–.

This isn’t to say Ice never syncopates; only that he does so to punctuate his basic lack of syncopation, whereas Rakim’s syncopation is “built in” to his song.

One (possibly misguided) way to measure and compare the two is to measure how many bars articulate three or four onbeats (or quarter notes) in a row — the idea being that such strings of articulation will create the sense that this quarter note rhythm is the mama’s heartbeat to which we’ll eventually return. (In the bars containing eight syllables, displays of technical virtuosity, the rappers have no choice but to articulate every onbeat. I’m torn as to whether we should include these.)

“Ice Ice Baby”: OVERALL bars with 3+ onbeats in a row: 82/128 = 0.641 (minus 2 8-syllable bars = 80/128 = 0.625)

“Follow the Leader”: OVERALL bars with 3+ onbeats in a row: 107/200 = 0.535 (minus 11 8-syllable bars = 96/200 = 0.48) (e.g. PICtureLIKEaPHOto*.)

Rakim articulates mama’s heartbeat about half the time — a little less if you take away the obviously virtuosic eight-syllable bars — whereas Ice is closer to two-thirds of the time. This seems like a significant difference, but at this point I don’t have a significant body of data to know for sure.

Worth noting: Ice and Rakim’s respective core cadences — basically unsyncopated vs. basically syncopated — fit their DJs’ basslines, Shay’s unsyncopated (and egregiously uncredited) Queen rip vs. Eric B.’s jazzy syncopation:

“Follow” bassline: –_–_–.*_ / *_*_–.*. /

The two songs have other similarities, some unexpected:

1. Rhymed couplets. (This’ll be the rule for a couple years yet. In fact, it probably still is the rule, only people like Nas and Ghostface break it more often.)

2. Similar tempos (even though “Follow” seems quicker) and beat divisions — i.e. we expect they’ll divide the beat into 8th notes.

3. They vary their cadence to suit certain lines — e.g. “style’s like a chemical spiiiiill.” (Which is sort of like text-painting.) (As Tom Ewing points out, it’s unclear why that should be a good thing, but it’s still cool and a good hook, imo.)

4. They syncopate.

5. Lyrical ideas in common: stop, daaaance, shoutouts to their DJs, their DJs’ cuts actually physically cut.

6. Cadence use rate is about the same — i.e., they vary their beat patterns about the same amount. (More on this below.)

Did Ice hear “Follow the Leader” before he wrote “Ice Ice Baby”? I can find no evidence of this, but those “Daaaaaance”s are remarkably similar.

Of course, they’re dissimilar in a number of ways, too — some of these are totally subjective:

1. Ice is more aggressive in words and rhythmic delivery — i.e. the way syllables line up with beats.

2. Ice lays on the consecutive beats more, which relates to the previous item.

3. Ice uses fewer syllables.

4. Ice syncopates less, both because he’s fitting his beat and because it’s more aggressive.

5. Rakim can get a little boring, a little exhausting. This doesn’t happen every time I listen to “Follow”, but Ice is never boring.

6. Ice is shorter by about a minute, 128 bars to Rakim’s 200.

7. Rakim’s goal is to overwhelm and impress, Ice’s is to hook. (I guess both want to intimidate — another similarity!)

Now, about that Cadence Use Rate. As I said above, they’re about the same — Rakim uses each bar-length beat pattern an average of 2.38 times, Ice an average of 2.42 times, and the difference is insignificant — but the songs feel totally different. This may just mean that Cadence Use Rate is a meaningless statistic; we’ll need more examples to know for sure. But it does tell us something useful: that Vanilla Ice was certainly capable of changing up his rhythm for effect and to accomodate his words. He didn’t just repeat the exact same cadence over and over again, so if you accuse him of being overly simple, you’re going after a strawman.

As I see it, here’s the salient feature that separates Rakim from Ice and his cadential predecessors, like Run-D.M.C.: Rakim’s syllable placement sounds rhythmically necessary, whereas Ice and Run-D.M.C.’s cadences could be altered. Their cadences aren’t arbitrary — they serve obvious stylistic purposes — but it’s conceivable to rap “Ice” in the more heavily syncopated Run-D.M.C. style (“SOME_THING_GRABS_Ahold / –ofME.TIGHT_LY_ /), or to rap “Sucker MCs” in a straighter style based on a foundation of quarter notes. Whereas Rakim’s words seem ideally chosen for their placement, like sound sculptures (and they’re interesting on their own, apart from the rhythm — Rakim was at the top of his game), Ice focuses on story, and he accentuates that story by placing his words in certain places relative to the beat.

So both “Ice Ice Baby” and “Follow the Leader” are good, in other words. They work on your brain in opposite ways — Ice’s vocal hooks propel you forward, while Rakim’s give you a place to rest and process everything he’s throwing at you.


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