River Nelson’s tips on staying resilient as a lyricist
The New Yorker draws on three decades as a hip-hop artist to offer some invaluable advice to any would-be wordsmiths
Hip-hop artist River Nelson began his recording career back in the mid-90s when he was signed to Arista Records. The New Yorker also hooked up with the rappers the Boogiemonsters and was featured on the group’s classic debut Riders of The Storm: The Underwater Album. Fast forward to 2010, when River worked with legendary UK producer Lewis Parker to create the critically praised The Rise & Fall Of River Nelson, which was followed by two more LPs over the next six years.
As he prepares to release his fourth album Power, Resilience & Joy, we asked the veteran storyteller to share some advice for lyricists, rappers and wordsmiths to stay resilient throughout their career…
Always keep your creative antennas up
Sometimes we wait for inspiration to hit before we start writing. But a lot of times you have to seek out inspiration that comes from paying attention to your surroundings. Everything you see, hear, smell, feel is a potential song, so always be ready to receive something and translate it into lyrics. Your next great song could come from a conversation you overhear at the grocery store, for example. Or it could come from seeing a couple interact and be romantic with each other, or it could come from beautiful, natural scenery that you come across. It’s super important to always be in songwriting mode and jot down or record what you feel about something in the moment.
Be familiar with the trends in rap but know that you don’t always have to follow them
There was a time in rap music where lyricists were celebrated and those who came up with inventive, thought-provoking words had the most commercial success. Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, Nas and Eminem are just a few examples of those kinds of artists. These days, however, while lyricists like Kendrick Lamar are held in high honours, it seems the backing music and the feeling it produces gets more attention than the lyrics. Younger rap fans will often say they want music to ‘turn up to,’ meaning they want something that produces a lot of energy. But if you’re still interested in being lyrical, that doesn’t mean you have to follow that trend because it’s just that, a trend – something temporary. If you’ll notice, lyricists are placed in another category of appreciation and their songs have a timeless feel to them. That’s because thought-provoking words never truly go out of style. So no matter what’s going on in rap, if you’re a true lyricist, don’t suppress that.
Write something new every day
Half of writing is simply showing up to actually do it – meaning it’s ultra-important to get in the habit of carving out time for yourself to write every day, no matter if it’s something you’ll use or not. Since the brain is a muscle, you have to keep exercising it and writing every day will keep it in shape. Songwriting often has to do with being in a certain creative rhythm and if you do it every day, it’ll be much easier to come up with that masterpiece you’ve always wanted to write. Also, just like anything you’d like to accomplish, consistency is key and if you stop writing for several days, a week or longer, you’ll most likely have to start the process of getting into that rhythm all over again.
Reading, being aware and caring will pull you out of a creative slump
I would imagine it would be difficult for someone who’s indifferent about world events and the current news to write a song with substance. Not saying that all songs have to have substance, but if you prefer those cuts that say something profound, it’s very important to be in the know. You don’t have to be an expert on current events but it’s wise to get a basic understanding and determine how they make you feel. Also, get a sense of what others are feeling. Because that’ll help your songs be relevant, and you’ll have a better chance of writing something that’s relatable to the listener.
Listen to the great lyricists of all musical genres for inspiration
A lot of times, a certain word, verse or song from another artist will pull you out of your creative slump. If you’re a rapper, listen and learn from the legends of other genres besides hip-hop and use it for inspiration. Who knows, maybe a couple of words in a Stevie Wonder song will spark ideas? Possibly, a tune from Bob Dylan will help you finish a verse you’ve been working on. When you can, listen to how other people put words together and how they rhyme them. Plus, pay attention to how a particular song makes you feel and take that feeling into your own song. You can use that other person’s song as the standard of quality you’d like to reach.