Jay-Z is Modernity’s William Shakespeare

by Jovani Hernandez

Poetry is a medium through which poets express various feelings and observations.  Similarly, rappers use rap as the framework to create their own narratives, which frequently express sentiments focused on urban America. While it is traditionally accepted that William Shakespeare reigns supreme over the world of literature, this once uncontested throne is now being challenged by rappers such as Big Daddy Kane, Tupac, and Nas.  In order to get their message across, rappers incorporate various techniques traditionally associated with poetry including: meter, rhyme, and simile. Despite these similarities the general consensus remains that rap is not a form of poetry.  Regardless of its penchant for violence, materialism, and misogyny, rap is a form of literary expression and should be recognized accordingly.

Artists such as Tupac Shakur and Common (born Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr.) have ventured into the world of poetry with songs such as “The Rose that Grew from Concrete” and “A Letter to the Law”, respectively, but have been unsuccessful in solidifying rap lyrics as falling under the umbrella of poetry.  However, in 2010 a significant shift occurred when an anthology backed by the Yale University Press, and written by Adam Bradley and Andrew Dubois, was published.  The Anthology of Rap is a collection of rap’s most poetic lyrics and celebrates the literary value of this oft-misunderstood genre.  As a central point to the anthology Bradley and Dubois argue that rap is saturated with poetic mechanisms.  To demonstrate this claim the editors needed to negotiate the rhetorical differences between oral and written texts.  The anthology, writes literary critic Sam Anderson in New York magazine, portrays rap in its purest form – “just the verbal magic, triple-distilled, free from the superfluity of hooks, beats, sales, bling, clothes, videos, hairstyles, and even the voices of the rappers themselves” (Straight out of Comp 101”).  This raw presentation of rap lyrics highlights the literary merit imbedded within so many songs that far too often are overlooked because of the more distracting elements noted by Anderson.

Finding the deeper meaning within rap music is integral to recognizing the literary merits of the genre.  As Tricia Rose writes in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, “Hip hop is a cultural form that attempts to negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutality, truncated opportunity, and oppression with the cultural imperatives of African American and Caribbean history, identity, and community” (21).  Tupac Shakur notes similar sentiments in a 1993 interview on The Arsenio Hall Show.  Shakur addresses the nature of his lyrics and subject of his music. Tupac said, “Everybody knows crime out there…[the] situation we in in the streets. All I’m doing is showing you and telling you [it]. Why get mad at the brother that brings you the news? Get mad at the person that’s making it happen, feel me?” (Poetic Justice Interview). The latter years of Tupac’s life were surrounded with controversy, however, his writing was informed and deliberate.  He used the narrative qualities of rap to highlight and expose the realities of the urban environment he considered home.

Authenticity of rap music is similar to the sincerity that makes poetry relatable to readers. The truthfulness that exists within poetry comforts the reader in knowing that he or she and the poet share an experience or feeling. Reassurance exists when one knows he or she is not alone. Similarly, rap thrives because it provides perspectives from within the inner city. A lot of rap lyrics recorded in the ‘90s painted a picture of the rapper’s neighborhood for listeners. Nasir Jones (stage name “Nas”) describes his adolescent years in the Queensbridge housing complex in Queens, New York through lines referencing the first time he had sexual intercourse, the time he lost his best friend, and other events that are shared across the human experience. As products of under-resourced communities many young people viewed rappers as a sign of hope because rap music told the story they were living everyday.  The fact that Jay-Z went from selling drugs to selling millions of records inspired many kids to recognize that there is promise in the world regardless of where you were raised.  For many people it felt nice to have your story out in the world where it would garner attention by many audiences. Despite the connectivity between rappers and various communities, the rap scene frequently suffers from issues of authenticity.   Authorship increasingly is becoming an issue of concern within the world of rap music. When one artist writes another artist’s lyrics, it is called “ghostwriting”. Rap depends significantly on the performance and delivery of the lyrics.  Rappers must present themselves in accordance to what they tell their listeners.  Unless proven otherwise, when a rapper like Ice T (birth name Tracy Marrow) rapped about killing cops it was assumed that he partook in such activities.  Distinguishing between writer and performer is something that most people do not instinctively do when engaging with rap or poetry.  Instead, words are regarded as reality especially if your stage persona matches what is being said.

Regardless of whether or not a rapper wrote his rhymes on a given track, rap is submerged within the fountain of poetic devices. Within poetry allusions are utilized in order to reveal the author’s proficiency in writing and comprehending literature.  Within rap artists do the same, but with the intention of enhancing their audience’s listening experience. For instance, Rapper Nas alludes to Aesop in Illmatic on the track “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” in order to explain that he is not telling fables; on the song “Devil in a New Dress,” Kanye West calls himself the “LeBron of rhyme,” boasting of his skill as a rapper; Lupe Fiasco references slavery on the track “Show Goes On”. Though allusion is heavily used in rap, as it is in poetry (i.e. T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland), the use of similar is even more prevalent.

Rap lyrics largely depend on the writer’s ability to draw comparisons between concepts and ideas mentioned within any given verse.  Similes further explain that which tends to come before the word “like” and makes ideas more complex. To demonstrate the use of simile in rap music it is useful to consider the following examples: Big L claims, “My jewels be rocky like Sylvester Stallone” on the track “The Triboro”; on the track “Clique,” Big Sean says “ My block behind me like I’m coming out the driveway”; according to Drake on the song “I Am Toronto,” he’s constantly “retiring [people] like the Michelin crew”.  When analyzed for attributes such as these there is no reason to not accept rap as a form of poetry.

Those who do not recognize rap as poetry tend to criticize the genre for its celebration of debauchery.  However, many critics tend to overlook the fact that some of the most praised pieces of poetry have to do with subject matters similar to those commonly criticized in rap. Homer’s epic poem the Iliad endorses, “physical courage…bragging…masculine self-pity, and …[dehumanization of] women”.  Adam Kirsch, in the article “How Ya Like Me Now”, notes a close connection to the aforementioned themes in Homer’s work and many of common topics covered in rap music.  Kirsch’s point is poignant in that the Iliad is a book heralded by most secondary schools, yet the thought of integrating rap lyrics into the curriculum, especially in urban areas, is primarily considered taboo.  Nevertheless, some educators have made efforts towards implementing material that is more understandable and relatable to their students.

In Richard LaGravenese’s depiction of the book Freedom Writers, Mrs. Gruwell, a remedial English teacher, finds it hard to make learning fun for her students. By analyzing the internal rhyme in a Tupac track, Mrs. Gruwell gets more participation from her students. Gradually her students grow passionate about various things through writing because they are allowed to write about anything that interests them. Mrs. Gruwell’s success does not come solely through teaching rap as poetry.  However, the premise remains that there is educational value outside of what’s already accepted (in the case of this essay poetry). Similar attempts (with similar success) are written about in Bronwen E. Low’s Slam Poet: Learning through Conflict in the Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Classroom. In the hope of making English more attractive to urban students, Low considers rap and spoken word to teach her students about “language use…[and]…linguistic analysis of vocabulary, syntax, cohesion, and structure” (Low xii). Both teachers come to find that their unconventional teaching styles expose their students to the same “strategies…fine-grained analysis of text…[and] …observations about vocabulary, punctuation, connotation, and denotation” among other lessons traditional to any secondary school education (Low xii). Whether it is rap or spoken word both share qualities with genres that are accepted to be taught at school, such as poetry, and teach the same lessons.  Thus demonstrating why educators should expand their understanding of rap to be included as a form of poetry.

In addition to the argument that rap is not poetry because of the themes it tends to address, it is also argued that rap is too reliant on performance whereas poetry is not.  Jerry Kramer, a 24-year-old freelance writer and owner of Rap Rebirth, dissects components of The Anthology of Rap in the article “Why We Shouldn’t Treat Rap as Poetry”.  Kramer comes to the conclusion that “[The Anthology of Rap’s] premise—that rap lyrics, separated from their performative context, can be read as literature or poetry, or both—is…very faulty” (Kramer) due to the individual natures that exist both within the actual performance of a song and the reading of lyrics. When removed from their instrumentals rap lyrics tend to lose the energy the artist intended.  Similarly, because rap music is heavily saturated with slang, slurs, and language conventional to the genre, its lyrics cannot be read in the same fashion that one reads poetry. Unlike rock and pop music, rap lyrics are seldom provided with the purchase of an album. Therefore, many of the rap lyrics found on the Internet and in the aforementioned anthology are pieced together by watching old performances. This is where Kramer’s main concern arises.

Accordingly, rappers present transcribers with a difficult task due to the fact that most written lyrics are discarded after being recorded. In the case of Jay-Z, who does not write his lyrics down, the only source that can be transcribed is the recorded track itself.  Due to the uniqueness of the recordings and performances many factors contribute to the challenges of accurately transcribing lyrics.  These factors include crowd noise, unorthodox reciting of the lyrics, among others that exist when performing live. Additionally, words are often misheard due to the heavy bass that the majority of rap tracks feature.  Though the performance aspect of rap is important it should not be a deciding factor in whether or not rap is accepted as poetry. The denial of rap as a form of poetry is the denial of a valuable literary craft.

Among rap’s literary qualities it is important to note that as a genre it can be separated from performance and be studied as a written artifact.  Sam Anderson, a literary critic for New York magazine, wrote the article “Straight Out of Comp 101” (which is a play on the NWA song “Straight Out of Compton”) to detail his exploration of rap as a form of poetry.  As a self-proclaimed neophyte, Anderson notes that prior to reading The Anthology of Rap he had only heard a handful of the three hundred or so tracks included in the anthology. One of the aspects Anderson spends most time discussing (and rightfully so) is the progression of rap’s rhymes. In its origin, rap music was composed of catchy phrases and sounds in hopes of getting people to dance. The Sugarhill Gang, which is most famous for putting out “Rapper’s Delight”, the track that is generally considered to have made rap popular in the United States, raps “Baby-bubba to the boogedy-bang-bang the boogie” in order to energize the crowd. As rap aged its rhymes matured synchronously. Upon stepping onto the rap scene, Rakim introduced internal rhyme into the world of rap, “The melody that I’m stylin, smooth as a violin / Rough enough to break New York from Long Island.” Rakim’s innovation and flow would earn him the nickname “God MC” a nod to his literary talents (Anderson).

Language is the connective tissue between rappers and poets. Anderson draws a beautiful parallel between both parties: “The toughest, coolest, most dangerous-seeming MCs are, at heart, basically just enormous language dorks. They love puns and rhymes and slang and extended metaphors” (Anderson). The best poets are those who provide readers with something more. Though it is impossible to predict the future, it is safe to assume that more educators and institutions will recognize the written lyrics of rap as a form of poetry and incorporate the genre into the curriculum. Rap is one of the most popular mediums through which language is molded and experimented, especially among the youth, which is why it is imperative to accept rap as poetry. Regardless of the outcome, the winner here is language, whether analyzed in a sonnet written by William Shakespeare or a rap written by Common.

Works Cited

“2pac Poetic Justice Interview.” YouTube. YouTube, 11 June 2009. Web. 12 Dec. 2012.

Anderson, Sam. “Straight Outta Comp 101.” New York Magazine. 31 Oct. 2010: Print.

Bradley, Adam, and Andrew DuBois, eds. The Anthology of Rap.  New Haven: Yale University

Press, 2010. Print.

Kirsch, Adam. “How Ya Like Me Now.” Poetryfoundation.org. Web. 12. Dec. 2012.

Low, Bronwen E. author. Slam School : Learning through Conflict in the Hip-Hop and Spoken     Word Classroom. Stanford, California: Stanford, California : Stanford University Press,        2011.   Print.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise : Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover,      NH: Hanover, NH : Wesleyan University Press : Published by University Press of New            England, 1994. Print.