“You’re just a joker, I really made the pencil disappear / I got that Edgar Allen Poe flow, bars like a bear trap / Shakespeare’s only rebuttal would be a head scratch / I haven’t been an amateur ever, never / iambic pentameter, clever, better”
Words from Carlos Coleman, a rapper known as ‘Los’ or ‘King Los’. In these lines taken from his Poundcake Freestyle (2014), he offers his answer to the dividing question: ‘is rap poetry?’ As he implores the literary devices of simile, rhyme, assonance and alliteration, makes an ingenious intertextual reference to ‘The Joker’ from ‘The Dark Knight’ and raps about iambic pentameter in iambic pentameter, all in a few lines, Los answers it better than I ever could – through pure and simple demonstration of poetic knowledge, creativity and skill. But is it poetry?
On a fundamental level, both rap and poetry are created with words and implement literary devices; the only real difference being that rap is musical-vocalism and poetry is musical-typography. Perhaps this distinguishing factor is what keeps hip-hop suppressed beneath a mass of upturned noses. It’s possible that rappers are not respected to the same degree as poets because our culture gives prestige to written language over the spoken word. Speech is, for whatever reason, considered an incompetent translation of written language, deeming it less worthy of exploration. This is where rap is disadvantaged. Seeing rap music only for what it does on the surface is like denying the existence of a tree’s far-stretching roots. Take this quotation from Andre 3000 on Rick Ross’ 2012 track, Sixteen:
“How’s he God if he lets Lucifer let loose on us? / That noose on us won’t loosen up, but loose enough to juice us up”
To a passive listener, this intricate construction will pass by without contemplation. However, Andre’s words operate on a pressing level, commenting on the oppression of black communities. He raises the juxtaposition of ‘God’ and ‘Lucifer’ to broach the religious, theological quandary known as the “problem of evil”, which questions whether the co-existence of evil and a deity is possible. Andre also implements a metaphor to describe racism as a prejudicial ‘noose’ that once hung around the necks of black people. He declares that the ‘noose’ has loosened just enough to give them a falsified feeling of freedom. Andre believes that this loosening allows minority groups to believe that they are succeeding, when in reality their achievements are still not truly valued by society. Whether written or delivered verbally, these lines portray evocative ideas and address very real political issues. This kind of sophisticated and self-aware writing is just one example of the lyrical prowess that is possessed by an abundance of hip-hop artists, and so often it goes unnoticed and uncredited.
Perhaps the frequent use of profanity and references to drug use are the reason for rap’s subordination. Yet, countless notorious poets are known to have taken drugs; Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Keats to name a few. And as for the use of expletives, consider this extract from Tony Harrison’s poem ‘V’ (1985):
“Aspirations, c*nt! Folk on t’f*cking dole / ‘ave got about as much scope to aspire / above the sh*t they’re dumped in, c*nt, as coal / aspires to be chucked on t’f*cking fire.”
The particularly offensive term used here, possibly considered the most deplorable of all blasphemies, is repeated seventeen times throughout Harrison’s poem – language greatly more explicit than that of your average rap song.
Of course, one factor that negatively polarizes rap from poetry is that it seems forever stuck in the tedious tropes of gangster rap, which undoubtedly hinders its acceptance. Commercial and superficial tracks such as Tiga’s recently released ‘Bugatti’ (2014), in which he chants, “Girl comes up to me and says ‘what you drivin’? / I said ‘Bugatti’”, are continually given airtime, tainting the genre’s reputation with excessive materialism and boastfulness, keeping people firmly in the belief that hip-hop is shallow, money-oriented egotism. When it comes to rap music, it is fair to say that like all the best things in life, you have to do a little digging to strike gold.
Nonetheless, with a selection of the most respected rappers of all time having started out as poets themselves, rap is unequivocally at least influenced by poetry. Before rising to fame, Tupac Shakur wrote the inspired poem ‘The Rose that Grew from Concrete’ (1999), which reads:
“Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack / in the concrete / Proving nature’s law is wrong it learned 2 walk / without having feet / Funny it seems, but by keeping its dreams, / it learned 2 breathe fresh air / Long live the rose that grew from concrete / when no one else even cared!”
He expresses that if you witnessed a rose grow from concrete, you would not criticize its flaws, but admire its ability to thrive in such hostile conditions. This extended metaphor represents him and others who were raised in ghettos, aspiring to realise their dreams in the face of adversity without guidance or support. Tupac’s capacity to exquisitely articulate emotion with language extends throughout his entire career. Just because he began recording his words over musical beats, does that mean he ceased to be a poet?
Ultimately, the examples explored here are mere drops in an ocean that swells with creative brilliance. The true depth of lyrical meaning in rap music is often overlooked as the words rush at pace past our ears. But does the fact that poetry sits statically on a page, allowing the reader time to contemplate its complexities, make it any more worthy of artistic recognition? Aren’t the scribbles and utterances of poetry and rap often born from equally rich and innovative minds? The idea of exactly what constitutes poetry is unstable and ever-changing, so what is to say that rap is not simply a modern branch of poetry, remaining widely misrepresented and underrated as an art form?