Hi people, I’ve come to understand that there are four major elements that make up a good song. They are: good vocals/voice, inspiring delivery, exceptional instrumentation/beat, and outstanding lyrics. One or a combination of these four can make you a hit song. In this article I am going to give you a few pointers from research and personal experience on how to become a first class lyricist. I hope you enjoy it.
This is the spirit of all creation. It is the bright light in your head that gets you writing lyrics. It is the fuel that runs your creative engine. It is what keeps you excited about writing. It could also be the driving force to achieve a personal goal. As a matter of fact, I had always wanted to write this article but I didn’t have the inspiration until now.
Inspiration comes from different sources like praying, drinking, dreams, music, silence, drugs, reading, smoking, desires, places, and so on. It is advisable to seek the healthier sources, and note that inspired works flow more easily, and are almost always better than works that are done out of knowledge and experience.
2. Read Wide
Reading improves vocabulary. It would give you a wider range of topics to write on. You would learn how to manipulate words to suite the information you want to get across. This reminds me of the bible passage that says, “what a joy it is to find the right word for the right occasion” (Proverbs 15: 23). The more you know the more you can write, so endeavour to read lyric books, novels, literary works of art, the Bible, Quran, Dictionary, newspapers, magazines, cartoons, anything that passed through an editor.
In the movie “Finding Forrester” (year 2000) played by Sean Connery (007) and Rob Brown, Sean Connery’s character, William Forrester (who was a very famous author) said, “the first key to writing is to write”. In essence what he was trying to say is that you should put your pen to paper and write; don’t think too much, don’t be lazy, just write. Even if the lyrics you wrote don’t look so good keep writing until the inspiration starts flowing; that is how you improve. I once read an article that said a rapper should write about 200 bars (a bar is a unit of time in music) everyday. I also read another article that said that, before you can write a good song you need to have written about a hundred songs.
Writing is good mental exercise. Steven Covey describes it as one of the last noble arts because you don’t only have to gather and crystallize your thoughts and ideas to put on paper for your consumption, but for other people’s understanding as well.
These days people mostly make dance songs because they feel that other genres wont sell. I am of the opinion that the reason is that they can’t write good songs like ballads (Listen to Adele or Dido’s work).
When listening to songs, try to take time to digest and analyze the lyrics. This might not be as easy as you think, because the mind tends to wonder from place to place so we hardly ever concentrate fully on what we are listening to. A down side to this is that you might now realize that a song you liked is not really as good as you thought. But it is good exercise. Listen to a variety of quality songs. Find out how their lyrics were composed, what the singer was trying to say, how they were able to convey their message. you would now discover why artistes like Tupac, Notorious B.I.G, U2, Lauryn Hill, The Beatles, etc were world renowned artistes.
5. Have a Theme or Topic
Do not write haphazardly, even if the inspiration came that way. You should have an underlying theme. You do not want to confuse the listener. Write about things you know; things you have seen. You should aim to paint a vivid picture with words (listen to Stan by Eminem or Trapped in a Closet by R. Kelly). There are about eight major subject matter for songs. These are: Love, Pain, Death, Friendship, Work, Special/Unusual people, Music, and Money. All other subject matter are derived from these eight. Note that lyricism is an art, which means you must not be confined to rules. These are just guidelines.
6. Enrich your Lyrics
One of the ways you can do this is by writing in rhyme. This technique is employed in poems to keep them memorable and interesting. Two words are said to rhyme when they sound alike (for example: boy and toy). The rhyming words are used at the end of each bar, at the end of each bar couplet, or in any other combination that generally sounds good. In my opinion, the more rhymes you use without reducing the beauty, flow and message, the better.
I’m a man on a mission, to liberate the masses,
to educate the classes, to impregnate the lassies,
(lad means boy while lass means girl)
You should also enrich your lyrics with metaphors, word play, double entendres, and other figures of speech you learnt in your elementary English. Use them where necessary, not forcibly; and where you can, each song/verse should have an introduction, body, and conclusion.
Keep your lyrics as simple and plain as you can, especially the chorus. This is not a hard and fast rule but note that simple lyrics are easier to grasp and remember. Use complex lyrics and big words only when they add to the meaning and beauty of your lines, not because you are trying to flaunt the verbosity of your grammatical arsenal (….hope you catch my drift). When I say simplify, I don’t mean you should be lazy or write weak lyrics. As a matter of fact, the best and most difficult lyrics are those that are simple and yet are laden with beauty, message and depth. You can listen to country music (Rascal Flatts, Garth Brooks, Shania Twain) to better understand what I am talking about.
Write in languages you speak well. In these languages you would be able to express yourself fully and beautifully; using the right words that aptly expresses your thoughts and feelings. Note that communication is not only about speaking but about people understanding you as well. If you must write in a language you don’t speak so well, ensure you get someone who speaks the language very well to listen, proofread, or even write the lyrics for you.
This is where skill, experience and even luck comes in. You might be a very skilled writer, but a question you should constantly ask yourself is this, “are these lyrics interesting?”. Very few people write lyrics for their personal use; they also write for some form of reward or recognition from others, hence, people need to like your lyrics; they need to be interested; your lyrics should entertain them. Keep this point in mind and you are well on your way to becoming a great lyricist. Always be on the look out for buzz words/topics you can use in your lyrics, and where you can, add some humour.
When you are done, go through your lyrics again. Correct all mistakes, ensure the words flow, ensure there is cohesion, check if the message is being passed in the best possible way without undue repetition and using too many unnecessary words. Almost always you would see something that needs change or improvement. There’s a thin line between a good lyricist and a great lyricist; it’s in the details.
The truth is, not everybody listens to lyrics. Some people prefer to just hear a nice tune they can vibe to, with nice vocals. But for people who are insightful, people who crave inspiration, people who love rhetoric and for the music connoisseurs, you have to add good lyrics to the equation. There isn’t enough space to elaborate on all these tips but if you work with what you have above, you are sure to see massive improvement in your lyric writing; I know I have.
A few artistes whose body of work have very good lyrics: Foreign – Drake, Eminem, Beyonce, Nas, Bruno Mars, Damien Marley, and Jill Scott. Local – Asa, M.I., Modenine, Sound Sultan, Banky W, Wande Coal, 9ice.
ILLWILL is a hiphop artiste, he studied mechanical engineering at the University of Lagos. He currently works as a producer and mastering engineer for Hybreed Studios in Gbagada Lagos Nigeria. Follow ILLWILL on twitter >> @illwillbeats