The Anatomy of a 10
Guest Blog by Judge Richie Branson
Let me start by saying that some of my personal favorite songs throughout the competition are also songs that I did not give 10’s to. That’s the price that comes with being as objective as possible as a judge. Here’s how I score the songs I listen to:
Did your songwriting skills meet the basic challenge criteria? Is your flow tight? If you’re jumbling over syllables or falling out of the pocket rhythmically, you won’t get a 10. Pay attention to your doubles, if they’re not matching up with your main vocal, that’s going to cost you. What are you doing to spice up your vocals? Ad-libs help, but don’t use them as a crutch. If you’re going to rap fast, your words better be understandable and rhythmically on-point.
How’s your energy? Are you using your voice in a way that effectively communicates your mood? A monotone vocal performance won’t get a 10 unless you’re performing a song from the perspective of the guy in the clear eyes commercial.
Do you have a hook? If so, that shit better have me singing or rapping it in the shower. If you don’t have a hook, you damned sure better make sure your song has something vocally memorable.
How’s your song structure? One long verse can get boring after awhile. A basic, repetitive hook can grow stale. A 5 minute long song that doesn’t do enough to feel fresh all the way through? Nah. On the flip-side, don’t tease me with 1.5 minutes of greatness only to end the song in a way that feels rushed and sudden.
A your bars solid? Good… but more importantly, are you entertaining with your lyrics? Being a punchline factory alone isn’t going to get you a 10. Make me relate to whatever vision you’re trying to convey. If I end the song without feeling something more than just “that’s some dope raps”, you won’t get a 10. I don’t remember a single punchline from will smith’s “nightmare on my street” but I damn sure have a vivid picture of the story he was trying to tell. A good song will make your head nod, but a great song will make your brain leap.
Honestly, this is the area where I see most 10-worthy songs falter.
How is the beat? Don’t give me a 4-bar drum pattern that runs the entire length of the song with no variation and expect to get a 10. Same goes for the melodic elements. Is the melody dope? Give me Fills, risers, EQ filter changes, and other tricks to keep things interesting. If a song scores high with a musically boring beat, it’s because of an absolutely monster vocal performance. Don’t put that kind of pressure on your vocalist. Am I getting a sense of progress throughout the song? Adding instruments and sounds over the course of the song helps keep things from feeling stale. What are you using for a kick and a snare? A weak kick can totally deflate a banger of a beat.
HOW IS YOUR SONG MIXED? This is the reason why I say a lot of my favorite songs in the competition are songs that I didn’t give a 10 to. I don’t care if you coproduced your beat with DJ premiere and Hov ghostwrote your vocalists bars, if your vocals sound too muffled because there’s not enough high end in the EQ, you’re not getting a 10. Same goes for if you take too much low-end out of the vox, leaving them to them to sound like they were recorded on a walkie-talkie. Is your beat mixed well or are you leaving all of the instruments panned dead center with no EQ? Is that bassline sitting perfectly in the mix? Too loud of a low-end will muddy the song up. A bassline that’s too quiet can make a beat sound a bit too hollow. How’s the overall volume of the song? If I have to turn my speakers allllllll the way up to listen to your song, you need to revisit your mastering and volume maximization. Be careful about adding too many effects on the vocals. The more effects you add, the more effort you’ll need to put into mixing. If you’re not a pro, proceed with caution. Are you car-testing your songs? Here’s what I do: Find an industry caliber song that sounds closest to what you’re trying to achieve and play in your car or stereo or any audio equipment that isn’t your studio monitors. Immediately afterwards, play your shit. Listen to the differences in volume, EQ, etc. and go back to the lab and make adjustments. There’s a reason why this is the longest paragraph in this post. I absolutely can’t stress this enough: You can absolutely have the BEST song of the round and not win because of mixing issues.
This is the easiest part, honestly. Are you following the rules of the challenge or nah?
What are you doing to set yourself apart from the pack? If you really want to win this competition, you don’t just need to make a good song, you need to make a standout track. When I competed and won the VPC as a producer, it wasn’t just because I made good beats for an incredible vocalist and mixed the songs well. It was because we decided to super extra shit like compose a fugue in the 3rd round and rap about poop in a round about superstitions. In boxing, a knockout punch usually isn’t a fighter’s hardest punch, it’s simply the most unexpected. With that said, you should treat these challenges with a similar philosophy: What are you doing to throw a right hook when you know everyone else is throwing a jab?