Space Is A Freestyle

NEOWISE comet from the International Space Station

Swirling gas, hurling fast/
The mudball goes past, we just hope it lasts/
Once in a life time and, out of the blue/
The WISE ONE from an era that nohow can be new–ooh!/
The beauty in the midst of the madness/
While truly in the grip of this sadness 2020 would have us in/
One could laugh realizing the happening–/
Is not in our control or any measure of plans of men/
If that ain’t a sign, then think about the cypher/
The planetary gathering with comets getting hyper/
Yeah…telling tails that extend long as quarantine/
Kicking up dust, sicker than sipping chloroquine/
The more it seems like everything is an enormous being–/
The Blackest Matter out in space is Live-r than a Soros team/

We have received a message from the universe. Everything’s a message, right? Our brains would say so. Information. What information comes from a comet? Infrared data from the NEOWISE space telescope suggests this comet that’s lighting up the Northwestern evening sky is as old as the solar system in which we live. It’s probably safe to say that most comets in our system are that old, but still…even in seeing the tail light up for us, we’re seeing the history and heritage of that chunk of gunk burn off forever. It’s being disrobed by the sun the entire while that we’re able to observe it. We are witnessing space freestyle. Who knows if a big rock within the coma breaks off and gives us a jet of gas that makes it even brighter?

Space is full of amazing things like this, the large majority we’ll never witness. In the same way, if there are people or other observers outside of this planet, they don’t get the show we get right now. We are fortunate to get it so perfectly placed (at least in the Northern hemisphere) that it can be viewed during dusk/dawn.

If there’s one element of Freestyle that makes it intriguing above all else, it’s the unexpected nature of it. And there are few ways that space can give us an unexpected show of freestyle (that doesn’t kill us), so the height of 2020 is the perfect time for us to be reminded of the great unknown out there. We have been concerned with the opposite of ‘outside’ with all of these dangerous elements outside trying to kill us; it’s honestly refreshing (life-giving, even) to have a light show of sorts to take our minds off of the circular debates and played-out speeches from out-of-touch leadership across the board.

In ancient times around the world, comets were signs from the heavens that something great–or terrifying–is coming. I’d like to imagine, for this one, that it’s great. Unfortunately, we don’t have many astronomical masters in high positions of leadership, so this may not go down in history the way a pharaoh or emperor or sage would mark it down. But luckily, we have each other. Let’s please, PLEASE use this celestial event as reason enough to see a brighter future for us all.

And yes…to wrap it all together…I’d argue that SPACE IS LIFE. Hence, SPACE IS A FREESTYLE works for us.

Better Living through Freestyle

Okay, I’ve gotta pick it up from my last post myself: Understanding that LIFE IS A FREESTYLE is based on Cycle, rather than Path, means that this metaphor isn’t going to help you get from point A to point B.

The view of life here is that of recurrences: natural cycles like days and years; the cycle of the week with work days and a weekend; cycles within a day such as preparing a meal, eating it, and cleaning up or taking your dog for a walk. Part of the insight here comes from the first comment dropped on our blog, comparing rap freestyling to improvisational cooking. Like many cycles (such as that of day and night), cooking has its build-up and release, getting the ingredients together, heating the oven or skillet, applying that heat to transform the food from its raw state, and putting it on a plate. But it isn’t like a grand journey, where you complete it and you’re done. You need to eat again—the cycle continues.

The FREESTYLE that I’ll talk about here draws on both common understandings of freestyle in rap: The idea that it’s a rapper’s own, unconstrained style, and the idea that it’s spontaneous or off the top. The LIFE that I’ll discuss is a human lifetime that has cycles of recurrence within it.

Here are my mappings:

The freestyler is a person living their life.

The context of freestyling (for instance a cypher) corresponds to the context of life. An entailment of this is that because freestyling is social, relying on listening to others as well as putting out words, life is this way, too.

The indefinite length of a freestyle maps to the indefinite length of a life.

The freestyler’s ability to deviate in beautiful ways from form, tradition, and expectation maps to a person’s ability to do the same as they live their lives.

The beat to which a freestyler raps maps to the progress of time during our lives, which like the beat is external to us and not directly under our control.

A beat provided by a beatboxer* or by a DJ* who extends a breakbeat indefinitely maps to some unit of time we can control with the help of others: The duration of a project we and others decide to work on, for instance.

A beat provided by a track or playlist, or by a DJ who is antagonistically changing up the beat, maps to some unit of time we cannot directly control, such as a week or a schedule imposed on us.

A verse (or one single run of bars) maps to a higher-level cycle of accomplishment, with build-up and release, within life. For instance, a whole project or a year with plans and resolutions.

A bar (or a pair of rhyming bars) maps to a lower-level cycle of accomplishment, with build-up and release, within one of life’s higher-level cycles. For instance, a day if the larger framework is a monthlong project, or a month if the larger framework is a year.

Dropping a gem* maps to a particularly successful lower-level cycle. If this recurring part of your life is cooking a meal, you cooked a really awesome meal this time!

Reading the room* and figuring out what types of topic matter, tone, flow, and rhymes will be best appreciated by the people around you maps to our contextual and situational awareness in life.

Keeping the dice rolling,* even if some rhymes are better and some worse, maps to persisting through life’s cycles and routines, even though each day (for instance) may not be equally good.

Blacking out* maps to having a powerful intuition about how to live your life, moment to moment, that allows you to take ethical and effective actions without thinking about it.

* These of course are all their own metaphors! Actually if you go deep enough, even “verse” and “bar” probably have a metaphorical basis. More on all of that later…

Finally, handing the mic (almost never literally!) and letting someone else freestyle—but also asking someone else to freestyle—maps to generously listening to others in life, but also to asking someone else to help out during the next low-level cycle, to participate in that social process of life. I told you what I think, what do you think? I cooked us dinner last night; will you do it tonight? I wrote a blog post today—will you write one tomorrow?

[Cycles in the night sky photo by Patrick McManaman on Unsplash, thank you!]

Cycles within Cycles

Underlying the very common metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY is one particular image schema, that of the Path. Life has an initial state, a desired final state, and consists of a sequence of action in which the person progresses from the former to the latter. This schema is described in detail by Mark Johnson in his 1987 book The Body in the Mind, who writes that it “is (a) pervasive in experience, (b) well-understood because it is pervasive, (c) well-structured, (d) simply structured.” We have all had direct experience of Path, even when we were babies crawling toward something that caught our eyes. This allows us to develop a conceptual metaphor that is built on this image schema: LIFE IS A JOURNEY, which you can see broken down for you on the MetaNet Metaphor Wiki. This representation doesn’t emphasize how essential the Path image schema is, but everything there on that page is consistent with that. In this formulation of the metaphor, your main life goal is the overall destination of the journey. Your short-term goals are stops along the way. Life companions are companions on the journey, and so on.

The MetaNet Metaphor Wiki doesn’t yet have an entry for LIFE IS A FREESTYLE, the metaphor we are developing here. Before we get to filling in each of the specific mappings, we should ask what image schema is the basis for LIFE IS A FREESTYLE. Let me throw this out there: Perhaps it’s not Path, but another very pervasive image schema that Johnson discusses, Cycle. He writes, “a cycle is a temporal circle. The cycle begins with some initial state, proceeds through a sequence of connected events, and ends where it began, to start anew the recurring cyclic pattern.” The seasons, the week, and the day are examples of course, but also: “We come into existence as the culmination of a reproductive cycle … We experience our world and everything in it as embedded within cyclical processes.” Johnson also notes that cycles are not simple circles, but have patterns of “build-up and release.”

It’s no accident that freestyling often occurs in a spatial circle, a cypher, which supports temporal cycles within temporal cycles, some overlapping. A rapper jumps in to begin an improvisational process, not heading toward a grand goal but repeating the fine-grained cycles of bars and rhymes and reveling in them for a while. Then a higher-level cycle is complete as she passes the popcorn to someone else who is ready to spit. Some beats are being produced, sometimes by beat boxers whose rhythmic cycles are the same as the rappers, sometimes by a playlist that proceeds on its own way. The point is not to have a far-off destination, but to get in sync with others in the circle and better appreciate the many cycles of life — I think! You tell me. Here’s the mic.

They’re All Perfect…

Most expert freestylers will agree that their expert status came through learning. They weren’t born with the ability to drop bars on the fly — they developed the craft over time through practice and study. If life is a freestyle, then certainly learning must play a crucial role in freestyle, because learning is crucial to life. This begs the question what changes take place in us as we develop freestyle skills? A recent study published in Neuropsychologia begins to answer that question.

Dr. Keith Cross, a professor of Multilingual and Multicultural Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, also known as Doctabarz, recently published a paper on the aesthetic judgement and neurophysiological processing of rhymes in expert freestyle lyricists. When compared to non-lyricists, he found that although both groups performed identically in their ability to judge whether rhymes were perfect (i.e. sleet vs. sheet) or non-perfect (i.e. sleet vs. sleek), expert lyricists were twice as likely to “like” non-perfect rhymes. He also found that using an electrophysiological measure called “contingent negative variation” (or CNV for short), freestyle lyricists use similar neurophysiological processes when determining their phonological and aesthetic properties. Non-lyricists, on the other hand, processed these tasks quite differently. 

Taken together these findings are interesting because it suggests that expert freestylers use similar cognitive processes when judging technical perfection and artistic validity. While behaviorally their ability to judge the technical perfection of a rhyme is no different from non-lyricists, perfection and validity are less distinct in their brains. Non-lyricists, however, have two distinct processes when making these judgments. 

To put it more practically, I think it’s evidence that through honing the freestyle craft, one learns to find the beauty in the non-perfect. And this makes sense — non-perfect rhymes are prevalent in freestyle, and the trained ear appreciates them no less. Just as in life when things are seemingly not perfect, sometimes it takes some learning to recognize the worth of what is there.

You can find Doctabarz’ music and freestyle journal on Instagram @doctabarz.

[The “Tank Brain” photo is by n0cturbulous and licensed under CC BY-NC 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!]