Getting into Character: The Power of Vocal Variety
In a previous post, we've discussed the benefits of designing an EP or project with a cohesive story that has a consistent theme both sonically and lyrically. We focused mostly on production and the composition of the beats as a way to really capture the feeling and emotions of the project's story, almost in a way that creates a visualized scene.
But what about the artists, singing in the middle of all of this beautiful production? Should they just rap or sing or even just talk as if performing spoken word?
As I thought about this, I realized how truly valuable the use of voice is to an overall vision for a project. It permeates everywhere for two key reasons:
1) Vocals really capture the emotion and highlight the meaning of lyrics. It's a performance.
2) If a story is being told, the artist needs to play a character.
As an entertainer, you're creating an experience, much like a theatrical play or film, but solely with sound. So you need to figure out a way to act out the emotions of a track and stimulate the listener’s imagination, similar to an actor or actress. As the vocalist, think of yourself as an embodiment of the main character or characters that you play, whether they are fictional or not.
As the beat sets the scene, your lyrics bring the characters to life, and your voice should blend with the sonic atmosphere, meshing well with the beat and story and changing at natural points of emphasis. Obviously this is more natural if the story is about your actual life and you're the main character. Even in that situation, you’re still performing, guiding people through your life, so they can visualize what you experienced first hand.
With that said, please don't overlook the value of vocal variety. This goes past just lyrics, but into the tonal variation, points of inflection, pauses, changes of pace, and changes in volume. Your vocals and the way you project your voice or say or slur certain words is valuable. It's a craft that you need to work on and it can be overlooked or underutilized by most artists.
In 2017, many artist on the rise are utilizing this skill to break through. They have been able to add another element of entertainment to their music with this essential skill, further drawing fans in and differentiating themselves from the pack.
Let's look at some classic examples.
Let’s start with Slick Rick. Slick Rick understood the importance of vocal variety as a sonic detail in a song. Looking at probably his biggest hit, Children’s Story, he plays multiple characters throughout the song, changing his voice and using his normal voice for the part of the narrator. The song actually opens up with him imitating the voice of a female child and that of another child in the background asking their uncle to read them a bedtime story, effectively setting the scene. Each character as he progresses through the story gets their own voice, just as a parent would do as they read a story to their kids to help keep them more entertained.
Children’s Story would not be the same, nor would the concept be effective without the changes in voice throughout. This technique helps the listener vividly imagine what’s taking place throughout the narrative. This isn’t an isolated technique either. Looking at Slick Rick’s other biggest hit, Ladi Dadi, he uses the technique there as well. Whether it’s extending syllables, changing pronunciations, or just constantly switching vocal tones to have lines land or add an extra element of entertainment. Kool Moe Dee, even credited this as an element that helped Rick stand out when lots of flows were similar at the time.
Looking at a more modern example, Kendrick Lamar frequently uses this technique.
As a baseline, Kendrick already has a unique voice, but he has no problem playing with vocal tones either. In the song Sing About Me;Dying of Thirst, this is done during the chorus as the chorus is sung by a character rather than himself.
At the end of the second verse, the vocals actually fade out, bringing forward the content of the lyrics as the female character is exclaiming how she’ll never fade away as she literally fades away on the track. It also contrasts, the abrupt end of the first verse, where a character is shot and dies quickly. In this verse, the fading out shows the girl in the 2nd verse dying slowly over time.
Without the vocal and sonic manipulation, there wouldn’t be a clear way to get this point across. A listener is more likely to be engaged and pay attention to the lyrics because the performance of the song directs their attention to what’s happening in the story.
Outside of Hip-hop, The Weeknd has been known to manipulate his voice on songs. For instance on the song, The Initiation, he manipulates his voice throughout the song using the changes to show the progression of the high he is talking about in the song. The listener can auditorily feel the roller coaster experience that the characters in the song are going through, often oscillating the pitch of his voice between highs and lows, and occasionally holding a pitch or adding distortion as well. All these factors combine to create a greater listening experience and add layers to the story that build on the beat and the lyrics for a more memorable performance.
You’re voice is an instrument to be utilized, whether you’re a singer or not.
It can be a dynamic tool to enhance your performance and improve the story in your music. Those who are able to really refine their craft can stand out from other artist by showing strong skill and stylistic uniqueness. It can add sonic elements to strengthen the cohesiveness of a concept album by blending with the sonic atmosphere of the beat and making lyrics stand out. It can help you paint a picture for your story. Most importantly, it can help capture and communicate emotions that resonate with your fans.
Who are some artists that use vocal variety and manipulation well to enhance their performances and what are your favorite examples?