In a November 2002 episode of 60 Minutes II, journalist Bob Simon asked Jay Z to elaborate on the concept of flow. “People have told me that in the business, you’ve got the best flow. My problem is, I don’t know what that means,” the perplexed CBS correspondent said. Jay did his best to explain the intangible idea. He beatboxed a melody, then scatted the lyrical style he’d use to approach that music. “I’m in sync with the beat,” Jay offered.
Originality of flow—the way one’s words dance to the rhythm of a beat—is a key aspect of what distinguishes one rapper from the next. Pacing, the breakup of syllables, and cadence are all factors that provide rhyme patterns with their own flavor. Yet, like most facets of hip-hop, flows have become aspects of rappers’ arsenals that are borrowed and flipped infinite times over by others. This often blurs the boundary between paying homage and rap’s cardinal sin: straight-up biting.
Several artists have toed the line in the past year. Last summer, Bronx upstart A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie scored his first hit with the ironically titled “My Shit,” which conspicuously mimics Dej Loaf’s murderous whiner “Try Me” from two years prior. Young M.A.’s “Ooouuu” reigned last year by cloning the DNA of Bobby Shmurda’s 2014 song “Hot Nigga”—she’s insisted her fellow Brooklynite’s sole smash wasn’t an influence. Most recently, bubbling South Florida rapper XXXTentacion (and many of his fans) claimed Drizzy’s More Life cut “KMT” bites his own breakout track “Look At Me!” While Drake acknowledged the similarity between the two songs in a February interview with DJ Semtex, he suggested the matching staccato deliveries are merely coincidental (“I’m not like a shitty person like that,” he said), a stance that Migos’ Offset supports.
Artists conspicuously jacking each other’s flows isn’t a new topic—writer Al Shipley thoroughly covered the subject three years ago on this very website—yet the surrounding politics have become increasingly equivocal. Why does Drake get shit for (maybe) mimicking an XXXTentacion flow, while Desiigner’s “Panda” nabbed a No. 1 pop hit by sounding indistinguishable from a Future song? Can any of these artists truly claim ownership over their flows? Should they?
The first question is a matter of cachet. Drake is exponentially more popular than XXXTentacion, so the suggestion that he styled “KMT” after “Look At Me!” might understandably make fans feel duped, or skeptical of the Toronto artist’s creative capacity, which has infamously been questioned in the past. It’s the fear of a big bad pop star preying on a Soundcloud sensation still on the rise—one that recalls Drake’s borrowing of then-aspiring MC Big Sean’s “Supa Dupa” flow in 2009 (for the record, the scheme, also known as the “hashtag flow,” has roots long before Sean Don... more on that later). Conversely, 2016 rookie-of-the-year Desiigner swerved into Future’s lane with little resistance on his breakout hit “Panda.” Many fans wanted to see the underdog come out on top, nevermind if the G.O.O.D. Music recruit has an inflection and energy that’s so similar to Future’s that some Complex employees couldn’t even tell the two artists apart in a aural quiz. It’s indisputable that Desiigner’s flow is derivative of Future’s, so it's easier to imagine “Panda” as more of a homage than fraudulence, regardless of whether that’s the case (or if he even used Future as an inspiration).
Both of these examples defy the dated idea of regional rap—sounds and rap styles that are generally confined to a geographical area. Before hip-hop waded waist deep in the internet age, it’d be unfathomable for a Brooklyn dude like Desiigner to so obviously be influenced by an ATLien like Future, and even more unlikely that he’d find success that way. Back then you were more likely to see Midwesterners like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Twista sharing a rapid-paced delivery or New York MCs tripping over their own internal rhyme schemes. The internet’s ever-reaching access has not only allowed entry for all, but it’s also destigmatized the idea of borrowing flows. Hip-hop has become a buffet line from which rappers can pick and choose influences, for better or worse.
If Future, XXXTentacion, or the countless rappers who’ve watched their flows be recycled, reduced, and reused by their peers really wanted to get retribution for perceived biting of their flows, they could consider protecting their rhyme schemes via trademark law. Marvin Gaye’s family was famously awarded $5.3 million after a jury decided that Robin Thicke’s 2013 song “Blurred Lines” infringed on the copyright for Gaye's 1977 hit “Got To Give It Up” by rehashing the “feel” of its predecessor. It would be tricky to litigate in many cases, though—flows are by nature difficult to define. While that case focused on production, one could use the same reasoning to determine that Young M.A.’s flow on “Ooouuu” recreates the “feel” of Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga.” Word to Headphanie.
Can any of these artists truly claim ownership over their flows? Should they?
Of course, it’d be incredibly stifling to the artform if everyone started copping these types of civil cases—especially when many artists don’t realize the flows they feel are original have been pioneered much earlier. Many have noted that artists like Three 6 Mafia and Public Enemy employed the so-called Migos flow decades before Quavo or Drake (or virtually every prominent rapper) took claim. And on Ludacris’ 1.21 Gigawatts: Back To The First Time mixtape, Luda compiled a lineage of Big Sean’s aforementioned “Supa Dupa” flow that traces back to A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 classic “Buggin’ Out.” Whose flow is it anyway?
Hip-hop will continue being a big game of Rapper See, Rapper Do. But a little acknowledgement could go a long way. XXXTentacion has been slamming Drake every chance he gets, but the rapper who was recently facing life in prison says he just wanted a nod from Drizzy. “If Drake would’ve came to my bond hearing, that would’ve made my fucking day,” he said to 103.5 The Beat’s K. Foxx last month. “If he woulda showed that he’s a hospitable person and that he’s really in this shit for the culture, rather than being a fuck nigga taking my shit, running off with it and then putting it on his album, then he would’ve got my kudos.”
As for Bobby Shmurda, he told Complex that he’s got nothing but love for Young M.A.’s “Ooouuu,” regardless of whether it bites his own flow. “It sounds like Brooklyn. It sounds like it’s supposed to sound like,” he said last year. “She’s doing what she has to do. Just show love.”