Contemporary TRAP is an art form rooted in West African sonics: featuring complex rhythmic patterns made by drums: featuring repetition and variation of melodies using various instruments including the human voice. In the African tradition every member of the ensemble is expected to be able to express herself melodically with her voice, and in contemporary trap most artists not only rap, but also express themselves melodically. Melodic vocal delivery has become essential to trap.
West African musical performance is punctuated by repeated drum patterns throughout performance and so is contemporary trap music. With African music the drum patterns are made by percussionists. With trap they’re made by synthesized drumbeats: high hat cymbals, claps, snares, and bass. With both types of music the various drum patterns combine to form a complex rhythmic pattern that repeats itself (or loops) throughout the performance and drives the performance: there’s a riff or rhythmic melodic line repeated with variation throughout the performance, and the music feels circular, and this circularity is built off the constant repetition of a few rhythmic and melodic lines in time with the circling beat.
West African music and contemporary trap are also alike in that they’re characterized by cross rhythms during the performance. Cross rhythms are conflicting rhythms played against each other at the same time during the performance, creating tension and a feeling of rhythmic instability and rhythmic suspense, usually achieved by contradicting the regular pulse or beat that grounds the performance, by countering that beat with triplets (3 successive beats) that fit into the same space as one regular beat, or two regular beats. An odd rhythmic effect, which also brings a feeling of rhythmic instability, is created by the use of syncopation or unpredictable changes in cadence. At the beginning of the following performance you can hear the percussionist playing triplets (3 beats) against 2 regular beats (in the same time space as the 2) – and feel rhythmic conflict and tension throughout the performance.
Rapid triplets are rapid because you feel them contrasting with a slower beat in the same time space – the slower beat is the pulse. The contemporary trap format is heavily influenced by electronic dance music (dubstep): it slows down the heartbeat, the pulse, usually a heavy bass, bouncing, slowly, and the vocalist counters that beat with rapid vocal triplets (in the space of one heart beat): your heart feels like it’s moving very fast and very slow at the same time.
In contemporary trap and traditional West African music, melody, rather than harmony, is emphasized:
take a simple melodic line and repeat it with variation throughout the performance. the variation drives the performance despite the repetitiveness. Improvise vocally, through ad libs, shouting feeling, changes in inflection, whistles, slurs, moans, vocal distortions, and other vocal effects.
Bring unexpected changes in cadence, bring syncopation.
Blues music came from music created by Africans who were brought to the southern part of America. They came from places like Mali, Congo, Benin, Ghana: labouring in fields and plantations they had no drums, they had hand-clapping and vocal cries.
Contemporary trap music is a Southern-rooted art form based on polyrhythms, cross rhythms, and syncopation, and delivered vocally with a blues tonality.
The blues tonality is prevalent throughout trap music. The syncopation and the rhythms were passed down from Africans whose descendants brought the blues tone and the polyrhythms which are part of the southern sound that’s been translated into the type of trap music being performed today.
From a voice note I sent to a musician who lives in Southern Africa:
What I just sent you is like a precursor to trap but check out the polyrhythm in that rap video – and also percussion – there’s poetry and neither one actually has the… i’m trying to find the word: neither one is actually superior to the other: everything is equal but the final result is supposed to be performance – whereas maybe in a lot of Western music you’ll have the scale and you’ll have music but each part is separate and maybe there’s one part which is supposed to be dominant – but in trap music – with a lot of the formats – it’s the combined effect of everything and no element is actually, you know, the primary element: they all work together and the end result is a unified collective performance and dance.
Like the Blues which became the most important aspect of jazz, r&b, rock music – Trap (its rhythmic flow as well as its tone (a soulful West African sounding blues) is the most powerful influence in contemporary pop music and hip hop (see Future see Lil Uzi Vert see Young Thug see Kodak Black).
Trap is a subgenre of hip hop, but it is radically different from traditional hip hop. Traditional hip hop is highly literary, and emphasizes lyricism, word play, and poetic devices like metaphor, rhyming, and symbolism. These are incorporated into trap performances but are not emphasized, and play a secondary role to the performance – the type of performance that is essential to contemporary trap given what modern trap music is about:
melodic vocal improvisation: this always involves rapping and wordplay, but it also always involves melodic expression and the use of vocal effects like ad libs shouting feeling, mumbling, slurring words, changes in inflection, vocal distortion – and always bringing cadence, cross beats (triplets), and syncopation: they do it all right here.