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What is a freestyle?

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In swimming, “freestyle” means the swimmer can choose their own stroke; in biking or skating, “freestyle” is a kind of informal series of stunts on varied terrain. In rap, to freestyle at its limit means to improvise lyrics off the top of one’s head. But very few lyrical freestyles are actually done completely off the top; the more salient criteria seem to be that the lyrics are memorized, they’re not from a record, they don’t conform to a verse-chorus structure (or sometimes even a verse structure), and they’re meant to showcase an MC’s lyrical gifts. A little more like an orchestral jazz solo than something completely unstructured and improvisational.

The Roots’ Black Thought, who performed a highly acclaimed freestyle in this mode on Hot 97 earlier this month, explains the difference to Rolling Stone:

When I was coming up, a freestyle wasn’t a freestyle unless everything was completely improvised, in-the-moment and right there, and you had to incorporate various elements of what was going on in the room on the day. That’s still a part of it. But I feel like it’s evolved into something more, where you have to have the improv element, but you also have to have a certain script. As an actor, the theatrical side of me identifies with the concept of having a script, and memorizing the lines, and then being able to be “off book,” so to speak. If you know your lines and everybody else’s lines, and you have those beats in your muscle memory, then you can improvise and go off-script. And if you reach a point during the improvisation where you feel like you’re about to stutter or second-guess yourself, then you can immediately fall back on the part that you already know. So that’s what [freestyle] has evolved into. It’s like the new definition of freestyle. I mean, it still has to be witty, and you have to have punchlines. But in order to make it super dense, and incorporate all those layers of meaning and depth to the listener, it has to be both improv and muscle memory….

There has to be a research element involved. No public speaker or stand-up comedian, I mean, there’s no one who’s going to give a speech completely off the top without having worked on the beats, and how you’re going to say what it is that you’re saying, or worked on the tone.

This last bit about public speaking and performance reminds me of this anecdote J. Period’s told a few times about Tariq Trotter’s time at Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts:

Hip-hop vlogger Justin Hunte includes this anecdote as part of his case for Black Thought being considered one of the greatest MCs (if not the greatest) of all time.