"In fact, call it a lecture, a visual picture. / Sort of a poetic and rhythm-like mixture" - Boogie Down Productions, Poetry (1987)
"Cursed be the verse, how well so e'er it flow, / That tends to make one worthy man my foe" - Alexander Pope, Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot (1734)
The old-school rap lyric above may be pulled from a song called Poetry, but unlike the rhyming couplet below it, it's not generally considered to be actual poetry - despite reading rather like an 18th-century battle rap.
Over its three-decade lifespan, rap music has been dubbed "the black CNN" for giving African-Americans a voice - and been decried for the violence and vulgarity of that voice. But despite its devotion to language that is tied to poetic tradition, rap has largely been left out of literary conversations.
"People just aren't really aware of how technically sophisticated hip-hop lyrics are," says Canadian rapper Shad, whose album TSOL was recently nominated for the Polaris Music Prize. "People are like, 'Oh Eminem, he's vulgar.' But they have no idea that what he's doing is so advanced poetically. He's deliberate in his approach and really technically sound.
"I remember when we were reading John Donne in high school," Shad adds, "and I was like, this is nursery school compared to the Common that I was listening to."
That's where Yale University Press's new 800-page book, The Anthology of Rap, comes in. Assembled by a pair of English professors, it aims to place rap within the poetic canon. The landmark text collects 300 seminal songs, from rap's old-school and golden age though to the modern era, and strips away MCs' flows, inflections and timbre.
What remains, argues co-editor and University of Toronto professor Andrew DuBois, "are words arranged in a rhythmic pattern that use time-honoured rhetorical devices and strategies of figurative language that poets have used for the last half-millennium. It's poetry. That's all you can say about it."
Of course, that's not what rap's many critics, from Bill O'Reilly to Bill Cosby, have said over the years. The Fox News pundit has sounded off against most major rappers. In his 2007 book, Come On, People, the sitcom legend bemoaned "young black males spewing angry, profane and woman-hating rap music that plays on the worst stereotypes of black people."
By contrast, in The Anthology of Rap's afterword, rapper Common praises the book for "exploding the myth that MCs rhyme only about money, cars and women … You'll find lyrics about love and comic books and bicycles, about God and nature and fatherhood. You'll find rhymes, in other words, about life and the art of living."
It's a point echoed by Jay-Z, who recently told MTV that his memoir, Decoded, due out Nov. 15, is intended to show "that rap is really poetry; it's not just a bunch of guys putting rhyming words together. There's thought behind it and there's cleverness and there's inspiration."
Clearly the coarse vernacular of rap, which has inspired more than its share of censorship and congressional hearings, has done much to prevent its lyrics from being taken seriously as poetry. But DuBois is quick to note that even today's highest culture was risqué in its day. "There's a book on my shelf right now called Shakespeare's Bawdy, by the great scholar Eric Partridge, which is a dictionary of all the filthy, dirty terms used by Shakespeare - and it's 200 pages long! Wanna know what 'withered pear' means?"
What immediately sets rap apart from conventional poetry is its emergence out of African oral tradition rather than the written tradition of Western literature. The outmatched "trickster" figure who survives on quick wits and verbal verve traces its origins to plantation-era African-American folklore (see Br'er Rabbit); and even further, to African mythology. "Ol' Dirty Bastard might not have put it into [academic]terms," says DuBois, of the late Wu-Tang Clan rapper, "but I do think he might have conceived of himself as a trickster.
"I suspect that consciously or subconsciously, lots of listeners, maybe even some fans, have underestimated the poetic sophistication and aesthetic craft that the best raps reveal," he adds. "It would be hard to prove, but also naive to imagine, that this has nothing to do with race. On the other hand, the longer rap is around, the more this seems to be changing."
One thing that stands out in the Yale anthology is how rapidly rap became a sophisticated poetic medium. Initially, rap lyrics were intended to hype up a party and, especially on the printed page, could seem almost embarrassingly simplistic in their rhyming schemes. "The people making early rap were very young; they were high-school kids or in their early 20s," DuBois notes. "Once the people making it got a little more tread on their tires, the evolution started to move pretty fast, especially around the time of Rakim and Big Daddy Kane" in the late eighties.
DuBois, 36, was in elementary school when Eric B. and Rakim emerged; perhaps it's taken so long for rap music to be taken seriously because the original hip-hop generation had to grow old enough to become professors. "Somebody hears a Neil Young song and they feel it and want to find a way to articulate why it made them feel something; it makes them want to go investigate," Shad says. "Maybe now is the first time there have been academics who have that genuine love for hip hop."
Shad also notes that, unlike poetry, rap is "a performance art. I don't know how much you want to be thinking about how your lyrics look on paper. Just like Shakespeare wasn't meant to be sat and read, rap was meant to be performed."
DuBois doesn't dispute that distinction, though he notes that poetry was originally performed to the accompaniment of a lyre. "There's always been this connection between written poetry and music," he says. "When I'm listening to a song I really like, I'm probably not in quite the same meditative state as I am when I read Keats's To Autumn. By the same token, when I read To Autumn I'm not having the same type of empathetic adrenalin rush I get when I listen to Gangsta, Gangsta" by NWA.
Reading The Anthology of Rap, which covers everything from Afrika Bambaataa to Young Jeezy, it's hard not to appreciate rap's astounding love of words, of the way they fit together and play off each other, and of how meaning can be layered upon meaning to get at a deeper truth. Which sounds an awful lot like poetry.
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