From Olivia Rodrigo to Dua Lipa, Artists Swear They’re Still Rhyming. Here’s What We’re Finding.
Songs in recent years rely more on imperfect rhymes than ones that land right on the mark, as streaming and rap drive more creativity
By James R. Hagerty and Anne Steele, Feb. 18, 2022 10:12 am ET
In her recent hit song “Brutal,” the pop star Olivia Rodrigo confesses:
And I’m not cool and I’m not smart
And I can’t even parallel park
Wait. Does “smart” rhyme with “park?”
Not exactly, but both words contain an “ar” sound, creating an ear-pleasing echo. “I would give her great marks for that,” said Erin Chase, who teaches songwriting at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Songwriters are growing more inclined to take liberties with their rhymes, as artists find imperfect ones can sound better than those that land right on the mark. In the music business, rhymes are more of an art than a science. Approximate rhymes have been around forever but have grown more prevalent in recent years.
One reason for the decline of the moon-June school is that countless new songs join the pop songbook every year. Each day, more than 60,000 new tracks are uploaded to Spotify. This makes it harder to find a perfect rhyme that doesn’t sound like a cliché. And some musicians say the dominance of rap, a form that requires verbal virtuosity, has upped the ante on originality in rhyming.
“I really dislike perfect rhymes,” said Louis Bell, a Los Angeles-based songwriter and producer who has worked with pop stars such as Post Malone, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. “They’ve definitely all been used before and it makes it sound too much like you’re trying to write a song.” The idea, he says, is to channel authenticity.
It isn’t clear what Neil Diamond was channeling when he wrote his 1971 hit “I Am…I Said” and came up with this infamous rhyme:
“I am,” I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
A spokeswoman for Mr. Diamond said he responded: “If it works for the song/It do belong.”
In her song “Woman” released last year, the R&B artist Doja Cat sort of rhymes “reciprocate” with “taste” and “place.”
In “Off the Grid,” Kanye West, the artist who recently changed his legal name to Ye, more or less rhymes “fade away” with “Gatorade” and “selfishness” with “Selfridges,” the London department store.
In “Happier Than Ever,” alt-pop singer Billie Eilish rhymes “your Benz” with “influence.”
The Los Angeles band Haim, in “Man From the Magazine,” manages to rhyme one word with two.
What’s going on behind those dark glasses
Is this what you think making a pass is?
The rapper Aesop Rock pulled off a similar trick by rhyming “today’s soup eh” with “tarantula toupee.”
“Most of what I like to do is setting myself up to hit a rhyming punchline,” the rapper, whose legal name is Ian Matthias Bavitz, wrote in an email. “If I go cat/hat always, it’ll work, but we knew that. It can get predictable. The majority of what I do is try to find the right imperfect rhyme—the one that’s somehow more potent than the exact rhyme. The one with the best imperfection.”
Emily Warren, a songwriter who has worked with singer Dua Lipa and the production duo the Chainsmokers, says off-kilter rhymes have to walk a fine line. “We end up asking each other, ‘Is that weird weird or cool weird?’ ’’ Ms. Warren said.
Dua Lipa’s song “Don’t Start Now,” on which Ms. Warren was a co-writer, rhymes “full 180” with “crazy.”
Ms. Warren says story lines have finally become more important to songs than rhyme schemes, hence the stretches to suit the narrative. “Now when you hear a song that does rhyme perfectly, it’s so jarring. It’s like: ‘OK, you know how to rhyme. Very good.’ ”
Perfect rhymes aren’t dead. In “Brutal,” Ms. Rodrigo also rhymes “heart” and “start.” Ye’s “Off the Grid” rhymes “cheap coats” with “C notes.”
Stephen Sondheim, who died in November, was a perfectionist. He disdained what he called “near rhymes” and once likened them to “juggling clumsily.” The rhymes in his song “Send in the Clowns” are immaculate—pair/mid-air, doors/yours, fear/dear.
The songwriter Arthur Hamilton found clever consonance in the 1950s by rhyming “plebeian” and “with me and” in his classic “Cry Me a River.” Tom Waits, in “Swordfishtrombones,” paired “lovin’ her” with “Oklahoma governor.”
The composer and songwriter Cole Porter also was known for crafty wordplay—and largely stuck to perfect rhymes. In his classic “You’re the Top,” he rhymed “Mona Lisa” with “Tower of Pisa.”
The veteran singer-songwriter John Hiatt has rhymed “amoebas” with “Queen of Sheba” and “Vancouver, B.C.” with “cat pee.”
“My writing process is just based on rhythm. I almost never write the lyrics first,” he said. “It usually comes from a couple of chords, a riff, a tempo, a groove, and then I’ll start singing nonsense really. And then you might, if you’re lucky, get a rhyme out of that.”
In love songs, Mr. Hiatt says, wacky rhymes are a way to “save corny from itself.” Fans let him know they “appreciate my sort of general nuttiness,” he says.
Rhyming also can be a matter of pronunciation. Country and folk singers sometimes use their down-home accents to pronounce words that don’t rhyme as if they do. Buck Owens forced “him” and “them” to rhyme in “Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy.” (His “them” sounded a lot like “thim.”) Iris DeMent just about matched “Sophia Loren” with “wax museum” in her song “If That Ain’t Love.”
For any rhyme scheme, there is the risk of mockery. Brag Media, an Australian publisher, last year ranked the “20 worst rhymes in song lyrics.” The British singer Des’ree made the cut by rhyming “ghost” with “piece of toast’’ in her song “Life.”
Des’ree, in a direct message sent via Twitter, said the lyrics were an attempt at levity and humor. During concerts, she said, fans sang along with her: “They totally got it.”