Acquaintances need not apply.
There’s something to be said about an impeccable flow. The ability to navigate uncharted pockets and become one with an instrumental. For many of the most technically proficient rappers, flow serves as a defining characteristic. A means of establishing individuality, even if one rapper covers similar thematic territory as another. Though some recognizable flows have become commonplace, the true artisans have developed their own through years of experimentation. And yet, what about that old adage: is two really better than one?
There’s something special about a well-structured Back and Forth. Everyone has likely heard one song in which two artists share the load, trading bars as if driven by a singular mind. Think of all the timeless classics, from Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg's "Dre Day" to Big Pun and Fat Joe's "Twinz." Only the most well-established duos can pull it off; not unlike a barber offering a straight razor shave, trust must first be built. Of course, there are exceptions. We recently saw Anderson .Paak and YBN Cordae employ the practice with cavalier swagger on “RNP,” a lead single off Cordae’s 2019 debut The Lost Boy. Despite having never worked with one another prior, “RNP” was instantly fueled by a “big brother/little brother” vibe, its back-and-forth structure enhancing the song’s playful nature. For the most part, however, only the tried and true camarades opt to go back and forth. And while uninhibited technical prowess tends to take a backseat, the sheer spectacle of two artists trading bars ultimately makes up for it.
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For many, the benchmark back and forth duo has to be Jadakiss and Styles P. Their seminal work and magnum opus is the Alchemist-produced “We Gon Make It,” a classic single off 2001’s Kiss Tha Game Goodbye. It’s unclear how the pair pieced this one together, but it’s evident that the writing of these verses was highly collaborative. Lines flow into one another masterfully, each emcee’s personality shining through. "Real n*** say that they be wilding, we on the Cayman Islands on a yacht with our favorite albums,” raps Styles, setting up the scheme. “A bad ho and a plate of salmon, smoking and drinking, n*** is you thinking that our fate is violent?” tags in Jada, closing the rhyme out both internally and externally. The pair would soon make the back-and-forth a habit, setting the pace for Fabolous’ “Keepin It Gangsta Remix,” and carrying on the tradition with Kiss Of Death’s anthemic “Shoot Outs.”
In keeping with New York tradition, another legendary duo who engaged in the practice were none other than Ghostface Killah and Raekwon The Chef. Though the Wu-Tang lyricists had established themselves as kindred spirits and harmonious collaborators on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... & Ironman, they seldom arranged verses in such an intimate fashion. On Mobb Deep’s grimy classic The Infamous, Ghost and Rae shared a sixteen, delivering lines as a well-oiled machine. “You know what's out there, thousands of grams wrapped in Saran / sealed tight, keep the freshness,” sets up Rae, only to be concluded by Ghost’s “that’s how we expand.” The beauty of this hard, albeit brief verse, is that you know it was crafted in the studio; how they decided who spits which line remains a mystery, but there’s something refreshing about such a blue-collar creative process.
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Unlike the former two New York classics, The Firm’s “Phone Tap” employs back and forth bar trading to accomplish a different goal. Over brooding Dr. Dre production, Nas and AZ’s cult classic find them operating two distinct roles having a real-time discussion with one another. The simulation of a conversation makes a back and forth structure necessary, creating an immersive and cinematic experience befitting of the song’s criminology themes. They’re not merely adding emphasis to punchlines or segueing in new flow-schemes, but propelling a narrative forward complete with individual character arcs. For that reason, they’re allotted more space to move, spitting miniature verses and responding to one another with fleshed out answers. Though not quite as prolific as some hip-hop duos, Nas and AZ have amassed one hell of a joint catalog; perhaps that’s why “Phone Tap” stands as a crowning achievement in mafioso rap.
A back and forth can also be the perfect means of celebrating your favorite wingman. Look no further than Busta Rhymes and P. Diddy’s lavish and obnoxiously opulent “Pass The Courvoisier” series, a pair of Neptunes-produced bangers circa 2001. The first part was far more frantic, with Busta’s signature “dungeon dragon” energy juxtaposing nicely with Diddy’s dangerously cool swagger. In keeping with tradition, Busta and Diddy weave in and out as the scheme demands, particularly in the song’s second verse. “They call me Mr. Diddy, the boss, you know me, the only G to willy a Porsche,” boasts Diddy, as Busta closes out declaring “we get dough in all land the size of Philly, of course.” On their second go-around, Busta relaxes a bit to meet Puff’s energy, culminating in a sequel that’s at once seductive and classy, an arguable triumph over the first. Despite any potential differences in net worth or technical prowess, in the context of “Pass The Courvoisier Part 2,” Busta and Diddy stand on equal footing.
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In a modern-day setting, the TDE camp is no stranger to the back and forth. ScHoolboy Q and A$AP Rocky have traded lines on “Brand New Guy,” and the entirety of “Vice City” seems to be an exercise in collaborative penmanship. Reason even brought a bit of that sauce to the Dreamville camp with his triumphant turn on the darkly comedic Cozz duet “Lambo Truck.” Yet perhaps the hardest-hitting Top Dawg back and forth banger arrived on Jay Rock’s 90059 by way of “Easy Bake.” Given the superstar that Kendrick Lamar has become, it’s hard to imagine him as anything other than a larger than life leader. But once upon a time young Kenny occupied the position of Jay Rock’s symbolic little brother, a protege of sorts to the buzzing Watts rapper. It’s only made sense to honor the dynamic on “Easy Bake,” as Rock and Dot trade verses a la Jada and Styles, setting each other up with line after line; Rock busts them, Kenny punishes em'. The fact this two-headed verse feels like such a far cry from Kendrick’s solo material makes this one all the more special, a time-honored tradition stemming from a deep-rooted pre-fame dynamic.
It would be foolish to ignore the work of Royce Da 5’9” and Eminem, known collectively as Bad Meets Evil. No more is their madcap chemistry more evidence than on the outlandishly depraved lullaby “A Kiss” off 2011’s Bad Meets Evil: Hell The Sequel. Speaking with Royce, he explained how he and Em approach each song with a competitive spirit: “We challenge each other with the back and forth shit,” he told me. “He’ll go in, do a certain amount of bars, and stop. We try to finish connecting each other’s syllables to continue the scheme.” Deep though their catalog may be, “A Kiss” exemplifies that character on a variety of levels. Not only is it a constant spree of hilarious one-upmanship, but a testament to their similarly structured minds; well-matched in gallows humor and better matched in technical prowess. Their chemistry is best revealed on the song's latter half, with both parties effortlessly baton-passing over a Bangladesh banger. "What a demon, a behemoth evil just seems to be seething through him," spits Em, only for Royce to continue the scheme with "I like the little strip tease you doing."
To comb through all of hip-hop's classic back and forth bangers would be a Herculean, albeit highly enjoyable task. In essence, the art of bar-trading best serves as a validator of chemistry, a tangible expression of camaraderie on wax. It's no surprise that only trusted collaborators tend to attempt the practice, as the writing process likely requires the presence of both body and mind. In other words, what might be a highly introverted process becomes a collaborative one. And yet the results tend to speak for themselves, with back and forth verses proving to be crowd-pleasers damn near every time. Which one is your favorite?