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In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, the author Oscar Wilde defended his and all literary works by stating that "there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." Condemned for his writings' homoerotic overtones, Wilde was publicly vilified and even imprisoned for his sexual orientation. Outspoken individuals like Allen Ginsberg and George Carlin famously received similar albeit less severe treatment for their expletive antics. A century after Wilde, rap music faces comparably harsh criticism for its explicit, aggressive, violent, misogynistic and, ironically to this analogy (both to Wilde and Ginsberg), homophobic rhymes. But like the diamond in the rough, below the surface of many of these lyrics lies profundity and value. After all, the culture that points the finger at rap is the very culture through which rap emerges - to describe, confront and reshape how we think, feel and live in this world.
In 2004, comedian Chris Rock performed an HBO special called Never Scared which was subsequently released on DVD and as a Grammy-winning CD. One of the highlights of this standup set was a segment called "Rap Stand Up", in which Rock professed his love for hip hop. Rock went on to lament the fact that while old school artists like Grandmaster Flash, Run-D.M.C. and Whodini could be "broken down intellectually", it was becoming increasingly difficult to "defend" new school emcees; he went on to mock rhymes like "I got hoes in different area codes" and "move, bitch, get out the way" by Ludacris. The questions then arise: What exactly constitutes the intellectuality that Rock was referring to? Can hip hop be valued as poetry and not just "beats and rhymes"?
This debate has been going on since hip hop first emerged in the mainstream consciousness. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop by Adam Bradley offers a unique academic perspective to this conversation. Bradley's knowledge on classical literature and hip hop go hand in hand as he interweaves the two in an instructive manner that's both entertaining and enlightening. Typically, in the rare case that hip hop is incorporated into studies in literature, it's tacked onto the discussion with little seriousness given to its substance. Emphasis is placed less on truly looking at hip hop as poetry, instead placed on the perceived open-mindedness of the writer for including rap lyrics to begin with. That's not the way to honestly size up hip hop as a form of poetry and art. Bradley's approach is refreshing for its brutal honesty, most importantly because he's an open and unapologetic hip hop head.
Book of Rhymes begins, much like any introductory course, with an historical look at the topic: Bradley digs deep into the rhyme books of emcees and poets alike, discussing hip hop history and the emergence of the emcee apart from the deejay. Concluding his preface, Bradley poignantly writes:
Walt Whitman once proclaimed that "great poets need great audiences." ... It is our turn to become a great audience, repaying their efforts with the kind of close attention to language that rap's poetry deserves.
The first time I heard the aforementioned Chris Rock bit, my knee-jerk reaction was one of total agreement. He's right, I thought, in the sense that these lyrics seem to lack the poetic integrity of, say, a Rakim or a Nas. But how or where does the old school/new school argument step in? Is it because new school raps are more explicit? It certainly can't be the simplicity of the rhymes. After all, hip hop's first hit, Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" - Bradley references this particular track in depth throughout the book - was as simplistic as can be: "See I'm Wonder Mike and I'd like to say hello/ To the black, to the white, the red, and the brown, the purple and yellow/."
Bradley's open-ended reach of hip hop lyrics disrupts Chris Rock's black and white analogy. When we think about hip hop and its place alongside "respectable" literature, conscious lyricists like Lupe Fiasco and Talib Kweli often come to mind. But as Bradley points out, even artists like 50 Cent and Juelz Santana follow a tradition of classical poetry and metered verse. Providing both hip hop quotables and poetry terminology, Bradley pulls from all angles as he identifies repititio in Juelz Santana's raps, homophones in Chuck D and Jay-Z's lyrics, and kenning in Biggie and Jean Grae's rhymes, just to name a few.
On the flipside, Bradley identifies specific classical writers and their writing habits as precursors to rap lyricists. Using Edgar Allen Poe as a case in point, Bradley pulls from Annabel Lee to spot the easily-recognizable rhythm in the writing. Poe clearly had some sort of beat in mind as he was writing, but it wasn't the same kind of beat that an emcee/poet like Nas takes into account as he pens his raps. Poe wrote to the beat of the meter, whereas Nas writes to the beat of the instrumental he'll rap over. The nuance of these two "beats" is important in understanding literary verse and its relation to music and performance. Alternately, Bradley demonstrates that there's not that much separating hip hop lyricists and their process from acclaimed poets of other genres, such as Bob Dylan or Arlo Guthrie.
One particular highlight of the book, a concrete example of Bradley's expertise on hip hop and poetry, is a comparison between the lyrics of Langston Hughes and Ice-T. As he pairs up portions of their rhymes, you'll be amazed by the stark similarities which seem to pop right out of the pages as you read along. Though at times Bradley's extensiveness may seem over-analytical or over-generous, it'll really make you think twice about your conceptions of "poetry". And in the end, that's what The Poetics of Hip Hop is all about: He concludes the book by offering his own Ten Rap Commandments of Poetry to lay the groundwork for earnest discussions and debate about hip hop lyrics. "As active listeners," Bradley states, "we can affect rap's values by what we choose to hear."
The most serious look at hip hop as an art form that I've read, Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop will prompt you to pay closer attention to rap lyrics in print form. As Bradley writes, "Reading rap as poetry heightens both enjoyment and understanding. Looking at rhymes on the page slows things down, allowing listeners - now readers - to discover familiar rhymes as if for the first time." In the end, hip hop heads will earn an added sense of esteem in their music of choice, while the uninitiated (and critics of rap) will see a side of hip hop that is rarely, if ever, presented or discussed.
- Originally posted on my blog, Hip Hop Is Read (Dec. 9th, 2009)