RAP: Rhythm Assisted Poetry.
Rap and Poetry. People often have very opposing views as to what each of these artforms entail.
Often poetry is thought to be more intellectual, thought-provoking and emotionial than rap, and enjoyed by the upper classes. However, the most famous poet, Shakespeare, had a mostly illiterate audience, and it was most definitely not enjoyed by only the elite. Rap has its’ foundations based in black US ancestry, rooted in the gang culture that many of the originators grew up in. Because of this, often rap has a negative connotation associated with it, and its artistic merits are ignored. However when broken down, I think that rap and poetry can be very similar in their subject and use of language to portray them.
Everyone has different opinions about what makes rap songs great. Some want a song which they can dance to in a club, others want conscious rap. I fall into both categories and can enjoy both as their own separate entities. As I said about ghostwriting, my expectations are generally cemented by the artist. I don’t expect Young Thug to bring out an ultra-political thought-provoking album; I don’t expect Kendrick to drop an album full of club bangers with little to no social commentary. A lot of the general public’s opinion of rap is based on what they hear in clubs or on the radio. And maybe that’s where the problem lies in terms of understanding the poetic aspect of the genre as I would argue the more intellectual rap gets ignored on these platforms.
Take Akala for instance. Arguably one of the most intelligent and well-versed rappers that the UK has to offer, he is the self-proclaimed re-incarnation of Shakespeare and the founder of the Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company. During his TED Talk, Akala draws comparisons between the world of hip-hop and poetry. The use of rhythm is very obviously present in both.
I’d strongly recommend watching this whole video. It’s a great eye-opener into rap as an artform and the creativity behind it. Check out his Fire In The Booths as they are some of the most intellectual and refreshing raps to come out of the UK.
With poetry, it is easy to classify these rhythms, Iambic Pentameter being probably the most used meter. However with rap it is harder to classify. The “flow” can vary from rapper to rapper, and from song to song. But as Akala goes to show, both have an intrinsic rhythm, which can cross over into the other artform.
Another major key to poetry is the use of rhyme to create a structure to the verses. Poems can fit many rhyme structures, AABB, ABAB, ABBA. Rap songs often follow similar structures, with often the additional use of internal rhyme or half-rhymes to provide stress to certain syllables. I’ll use Biggie’s “Juicy” as an example.
I made the change from a common thief,
To up close and personal with Robin Leach
And I’m far from cheap, I smoke skunk with my peeps all day
Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way
The Moet and Alizé keep me pissy, girls used to diss me
Now they write letters cause they miss me
I never thought it could happen, this rappin’ stuff
I was too used to packing gats and stuff
Now honeys play me close like butter play toast
From the Mississippi down to the East Coast
Condos in Queens, indo for weeks
Sold out seats to hear Biggie Smalls speak
Living life without fear
Putting 5 carats in my baby girl’s ear
Lunches, brunches, interviews by the pool
Considered a fool cause I dropped out of high school
Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood
And it’s still all good
Uh, and if you don’t know, now you know, nigga
As you can see, the use of rhyme is very prevalent within the song both at the end of the lines and internally within the same line. What’s even more impressive is that the rhyming words are not just random and plucked out of thin air; They fit within the story that Biggie is telling. And that’s the other aspect that I want to talk about; The content and subject discussed in both rap and poetry.
Now I’m not talking about the general “radio/club” rap/ I mean the kind of rap that tells stories, that talk about real life issues and problems facing the world. The rap where the lyrics and meaning matter more than the sales of a song. Common’s “The Corner” is a song about the street corners that many of the MC’s grew up with. Even if you take away the instrumental of the track, it can be read as a poem and still paints the same picture.
Black church services, murderers, Arabs serving burgers
As cats with gold permanents, move they bags as herbalists
The dirt isn’t just fertile, it’s people working and earning this
The curb getters go where the cash flow and the current is
It’s so hot that niggas burn to live
The furnace is, where the money moving, the determined live
We talk shit, play lotto, and buy German beers
It’s so black packed with action that’s affirmative
Def Poetry Jam was a programme which showcased the talent pool in both urban music and poetry. Hosted by rapper Mos Def, rappers such as Kanye West, Common, KRS-One, Talib Kweli and Mos Def himself have all performed spoken word poems during the 7 seasons of the show. Some of these poems wen’t on to make the basis for the artists most popular songs, Kanye’s “Goldigger” and “All Falls Down” were performed on Def Poetry Jam under the titles “18 Years” and “Self Conscious”.
I feel like both of these transition well between both spoken word pieces and rap songs and, although not the most socially conscious songs, do touch on important and real life issues in a “tongue in cheek” kind of way. And a lot of the other pieces of Def Jam Poetry talk about racism, religion and political issues which are often subject matters for great poems.
The use of wordplay, metaphors and similes is also very present in both rap and poetry, Rap Genius started as a company based on deciphering the double meanings behind many rap lyrics. Pusha T has described his previous drug dealing days with numerous similes and metaphors over the span of his career.
Technically, poetry doesn’t really have limits. Poems don’t have to rhyme; They don’t have to have a specific rhythm. The subject does not have to have an emotional attachment to it. They can be very light-hearted. But i find that the poems that I keep coming back to fit all the above criteria. And the same goes for rap songs; They don’t have to have any social message behind them, or be particularly clever in their use of wordplay. But those songs will be the ones that I skip when the come on shuffle in a few years.
So before you decide that rap has no artistic merit, take a step away from the songs you hear on the radio and in the clubs; Maybe take a look at Rap Genius and have a look at some of the true meanings behind some of the great songs that artists are releasing. Examine the combination of brushstrokes in easch verse that work together to paint a picture.
Yes, I just used a metaphor to draw similarities between rap and paintings…
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Originally published at Manga’s Musings.