Hits decoded: 3 techniques that show off 6LACK’s vocal performance on “Prblms”

Let’s just get it out of the way. In case for some reason you don’t already know, it’s just pronounced “Black.” If you keep saying “Six lack,” you’re going to sound like every clueless peanut gallery commenter who calls Joel Zimmerman “Dead mao five.” Just say Black. It’s not that hard.

Now that we’re on the same page, let’s talk about 6LACK’s biggest banger of the year, “Prblms.” The song is 6LACK’s most popular release to date, and has landed him a Grammy nomination for “Best Rap / Sung Performance.” In this entry of our Hits Decoded series, we identify 3 elements that make the track successful.

Vocals laden with hooks

“Prblms” is so catchy because it is designed for a specific purpose: to emphasize the vocal performance. Nearly every distinct element of the song is built around 6LACK’s saucy lead vocal to make it stand out. Let’s start by discussing one of its foundational characteristics: heavy use of repetitive motifs, both lyrical and melodic. Take the song’s very first phrases, for example:

“‘You a god-damn lie’

I ain’t mean to say that shit girl I was god-damn high

So we left the crib now we in the god-damn ride

She lookin’ god-damn fine”

Besides rhyming and repeating “god-damn” the last syllables of each line are perfect matches in rhythm and pitch. The melody is easy to remember and sing along to: it’s just three quarter note triplets on the same pitch. Even for someone with no vocal talent at all, this is pretty easy to mimic, and more importantly it’s easy to remember.

Pop songwriters have a saying – there should be a hook every six seconds. That means that almost every two bars, you’re going to hear something that you can remember, sing along to, or quote to your friends. This song is a great example of the this strategy’s power, so try it for yourself: if you scrub around randomly through “Prblms” and listen for six seconds, you’re almost always going to hear something that can stick in your head. It’s especially easy to catch onto lyrics that show up over and over again throughout the track, like the playful but incredulous admonishment “Why you do that?” or the stark major third to perfect fourth jump executed on “Plenty of queens in my home-town” in the chorus.

A cleverly implemented sample

Speaking of repetition, let’s talk about the second compositional element that makes “Prblms” such a banger. Did you notice that the flute sample (lifted from Forest Swords’ “Irby Tremor”) doesn’t change throughout the entire length of the track? How is it that such a repetitive lead could still be interesting, despite not exhibiting any variation for four minutes?

The answer might lie in the audio effects. The sample is absolutely dripping wet with reverb, which makes the sound seem as though it is constantly shifting position in the stereo field. Despite being the only melodic element living in the mid frequency range besides the voice, the sample really never catches the listener’s ear. Since it’s so wide, wet and expansive, it’s very difficult for the ear to localize and place, so it’s de-emphasized as a melodic focal point through the mix decisions.

Positioning the flute lower in the mix makes it easier to focus on the vocal, but that’s not the whole story here. Compositionally speaking, the flute sample uses upward, mostly stepwise motion to lead up to the third beat of each measure, where we hear either a nice big slappy snare or a particularly emphatic vocal (“God-damn lie,” “I ain’t worried about shit,” “I found me a new thing”). The sample leads up and down throughout the track, keeping the energy flowing on a phrase-by-phrase basis.

Drums that complement rather than distract

By now we’ve seen that the repetitive vocal patterns maintain the vibe throughout the length of the track, and the flute sample introduces movement on a phrase-by-phrase basis. The last element we have to consider is the beat. It would probably take about 10 seconds to program the drums for this track. We’ve got simple 8th note hats, snare on beat 3, and a pretty standard rap kick pattern. How does this bang so hard?

Aside from picking great-sounding drum samples, this is another example of programming the instrumentation to (say it with me!) complement the vocal performance. When there are important lines in the vocal, or hooks that draw your ears’ attention, the hats or the drums drop out completely. Again, the track is built to emphasize the most significant vocals hooks throughout the entire track to make it even more of an earworm. Listen to lines like “Remember that I tried to build ya,” or the “new thing” or “hometown” vocal lines in the chorus. You’ll notice that as the drums drop out the vocals really shine through.

You can try composing this way in your own productions, too. Try making a quick 4 bar loop, then drawing it out for an extended section of your track. Then, think about where the most important or interesting melodic bits of your track exist. Try visualizing your drums as a block of marble: there’s a great sculpture hiding somewhere in there, and your job is to reveal it. Chiseling the MIDI patterns away by deleting individual notes from the piano roll, or even automating the mute function on your full drum bus for a split second will set you on the path to creating a simple, yet interesting beat that complements the rest of your track.

In short, 6LACK’s “Prblms” works because he picked a strategy and executed it. “Prblms” shows that sticking to the basics by combining simple but effective production techniques with an outstanding vocal and catchy writing is a sure-fire way to score a major hit.

Want to learn what makes other Grammy-nominated tracks tick? Check out all of our Grammy Hits Decoded posts here.

January 24, 2018

Max Rewak Max Rewak is a record producer, audio engineer, and music writer, based in New York and currently working in Sounds content at Splice.