April 2020


The art of freestyle comes in many forms, some being more free form than others. A common misconception of the average rap listener is what they define “freestyle” to be, some assume that it can only be “off the top” meaning the rapper is coming up with words, subject matter, flows and delivery on the spot with no prior structure to the piece. This leads the listeners to skew the scale in terms of what they consider to be a good freestyle, often mistaking written verses as off the top. Although freestyling off the top is considered to be the highest form of freestyle, kicking a written verse still comes with its challenges and shouldn’t be discredited for what it is.

In a controlled situation for example, a radio show freestyle, the rapper is usually aware that they will be asked to perform the feat, they might even be aware of the exact beat or instrumental that they’ll be rapping on. This allows the rapper to prepare beforehand for the variables he or she has control over. However, this in itself comes with its own set of obstacles, the rapper has to adjust his performance based on the microphone and space being performed in, there also may be added pressure if the show is live on the air. Rather than being comfortable at home or in the studio with numerous takes the rapper is now facing a constraint that is more so make it or break it. In the classic situation of a “cypher” which is where a group of rappers freestyle, the pressure is usually exerted by the other rappers, whether or not it’s considered to be for fun, the competitive nature of rap and freestyle pushes the rappers to do their best to outwit and outdo the rest of the competition. This adds the variable for sudden change in the mix, for instance, the rapper could have a number of verses floating around in the back of their head, and based on the prior verses rapped, the rapper can adjust and choose to rap a different verse than he had already planned for.

Freestyling is the art of adaptation and in every instance of freestyle, the ability to adjust to circumstances and variables in the moment is a fundamental necessity that every person must deem crucial to the success of their performance.

[Photo of the man with the mic by Harry Swales on Unsplash, thank you!]

Off the Top

Over the years, the definition of freestyle has varied in the Hip Hop community. Originally, freestyles were written rhymes meant to showcase skill, but they lacked any real thesis; they don’t need a particular subject matter. This view is closest to its denotative meaning. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “a competition in which the contestant is given more latitude than in related events.” This definition is often used in sporting events which have a variety of categories, such as BMX, swimming, or dancing. If we look at rap as a competitive sport, let’s say swimming, a love song could be a breaststroke and a song of triumph could be a butterfly-stroke. Freestyling would be the only competition that gives to you the freedom to utilize both styles or something else entirely.

Today’s definition of freestyle has a new connotation. It represents the idea of spontaneity and inventiveness. Some say that it’s only a “true” freestyle if it’s improvised on the spot, much like Jazz. In this way, freestyle is often prevalent in our everyday lives. Walking the unbeaten path, answering interview questions, “going with the flow”, an “off the top” rhyme, and last minute decisions are just a few ways to freestyle. A series of random reactions can be deemed a freestyle, but it is also something that can be developed into a skill, with practice. Everyday we face a mixture of both calculated and random events, how we weave through these situations can define us. You can flow with it or against it. Either way, life is a freestyle.

[Photo of “Cypher from Scratch” in Antwerp, Belgium by ChaseMusicBE, licensed under CC BY 2.0, thank you!]

Life is a Freestyle, and not…

We have a metaphor for you: LIFE IS A FREESTYLE.

This is a conceptual metaphor of the sort discussed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, and by Lakoff and Mark Turner in More than Cool Reason, which deals with poetic metaphor.

LIFE IS A FREESTYLE is just the name for it. There’s much more to how specifically this lets us understand the target domain, LIFE, in terms of the source domain, FREESTYLE rapping — which is actually more than one practice.

Imagining that LIFE IS A FREESTYLE can help us deal with difficult experiences, times when we don’t have a script, circumstances when the best response isn’t closely adhering to a theme or trying to devise a single coherent story.

Before we get on to saying some about what LIFE IS A FREESTYLE means, here, on behalf of Full Circle, are a few things that is isn’t:

LIFE IS A JOURNEY is a famous metaphor discussed in both Metaphors We Live By and More than Cool Reason — and in other writings by scholars of metaphor. Part of the idea is that you start your journey at a SOURCE, follow a PATH, and end up at a GOAL. You cover ground. You may or may not have traveling companions; they’re optional. This metaphor may not be inconsistent with LIFE IS A FREESTYLE, but we’ll go on to explain how it isn’t exactly the same, and how we believe our metaphor has some different, positive perspectives to offer.

Our metaphor isn’t LIFE IS A WRITTEN, which would means things are predestined, either by you or your ghostwriter. Similarly, it isn’t LIFE IS AN ALBUM.

It doesn’t see life as constraint, or hold with LIFE IS A BOX or LIFE IS A CHOKEHOLD.

The metaphor doesn’t come down from above like LIFE IS A COMMANDMENT or LIFE IS FATE.


It isn’t compatible with life being perfect, programmed, completely prepared, or even always practical. And even one of my favorite metaphors, LIFE IS AN UNWRITTEN BOOK, is not the same as LIFE IS A FREESTYLE, because a freestyle doesn’t have to be book-length or written.

[Mic photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash, thank you!]