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Jay-Z, ‘Decoded,’ and why rap is not poetry

December 10, 2010

Now that the synthetic marketing fanfare that tainted the roll-out of Jay-Z’s first book, Decoded, has passed, the time has come to consider his contention that “hip-hop lyrics–not just my lyrics, but those of any great MC — are poetry if you look at them closely enough.”

As Kelefa Sanneh notes in an excellent New Yorker piece, this claim — rap is poetry — is not restricted to the hip hop side of the spectrum. Academics make it, too.

Take Adam Bradley, who earned a Ph.D. at Harvard and now toils as an associate professor of literature at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He’s the author of a “manifesto” called The Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. (He has a cool website, too.)

As Sanneh reports, Bradley is given to writing things like: “The best MCs — like Rakim, Jay-Z, Tupac, and many others — deserve consideration alongside the giants of American poetry. We ignore them at our own expense.”

Or: “Thanks to the engines of global commerce, rap is now the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world.”

And he believes, observes Sanneh, that “examining and dissecting lyrics is the only way to ‘give rap the respect it deserves as poetry.'”

So what’s so bad about saying hip hop is poetry?

Alas, pleas to add hip hop to the canonical level of poetry assume that rap is in inferior to poetry, which it is not. That’s like saying cats are better than dogs. Both are household pets, but they are not the same. Comparing them is specious.

The problem: Any attempt to equate hip hop with poetry ignores the defining characteristics of each genre. Both are musical, but the music of rap is external to the words. That means its wordsmiths have much more in common with songwriters than they do with poets.

Poetry, by contrast, must generate its music solely from poetics alone. No DJs. No beats. No samples.

Performance is an irreducible part of what makes hip hop work so splendidly. Poetry still functions on the page (often better than in recitation). But hip hop, like all music, comes to full flower only in performance. Consider this verse by Tupac Shakur:

Out on bail, fresh outta jail, California dreamin’
Soon as I stepped on the scene, I’m hearin’ hoochies screamin’
On the page this hardly even scans. It’s only when Shakur delivers the lyric in his smooth yet propulsive vocal style that the poetry in these lines comes alive.

Besides, why should hip hop have to snatch the label “poetry” in order to earn the respect that it deserves? I say, let hip hop be hip hop, and poetry poetry. What’s wrong with being an MC? I see no reason why it should be thought inferior to being a poet.

Consider the dynamic between poetry and traditional songwriting. Carl Sandburg, poet; Woody Guthrie, songwriter. Robert Frost, poet; Cole Porter songwriter; Allen Ginsberg, poet; Bob Dylan, songwriter. Significant artists, the lot of them. For my money, it adds no lustre to Guthrie, Porter or Dylan to argue they are poets, too.

And I don’t know about you, but I’d as soon be the guy who wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever” as the one who wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” And well all know what Faulkner said about mothers and Ode on a Grecian Urn.

Near the end of his essay, Kalefa Sanneh decodes this bogus striving for respect in a paragraph on “cachet,” and shrewdly segues into a brief consideration of Finishing the Hat, the new book by Broadway lyric genius Stephen Sondheim. As hip hop matures, it will achieve the explicit disdain for poetics exhibited by Sondheim, Sanneh thinks.

Admirable though Sanneh’s essay is, I find it curious he makes no mention of spoken word or peformance poetry, which is where hip hop, poetry, and the oral tradition come together in a vital subculture. Only a few hundred generations ago, all poetry was spoken word. Homer, after all, was blind, probably illiterate, and performed the Iliad from memory (all 15,000 lines).

One elite poetry venue that has long recognized and honored spoken word is the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, which is coming up January 7-22 in Delray Beach. You can not only see and hear poets the likes of Robert Pinksy, former U.S. poet laureate, but also past National Poetry Slam champions D. Blair and Taylor Mali.

I’ve heard both these guys at previous Palm Beach Poetry Festivals. It’s in the work of such artists that poetry and performance becomes intertwined. Some of their stage poems are the equal to anything you’ll find on the page.

Just saying.

For more info, see the poetry festival website.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2010 1:59 pm

    What about Cat /Dog. Could they be ?

  2. December 10, 2010 2:04 pm

    A clear and fair argument, although I would argue that the lyric poem and lyrics have more in common than not, and that fixed form poetry is derived primarily from its historical relationship with songs.

    As to hip-hop, consider the work of Mos Def – http://www.flakmag.com/music/lyricists/mosdef.html

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 10, 2010 2:11 pm

      We have to look, finally, at what things are now, not where they derived from. Humans and chimps share a common ancestor, but I can drive a car. I’m pretty sure Bonzo cannot. Besides, with respect, you are missing my point, which is that hip hop deserves to be respected and honored now, for what it clearly is. It doesn’t not have to be shoe-horned into an academic box first. I do say that all poetry (indeed, all literature) originated as spoken word. Genre classifications are useful, don’t you think?

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    December 10, 2010 2:17 pm

    Did I make any sense whatsoever in that last comment?

  4. Lynn Demarest permalink
    December 10, 2010 2:53 pm

    All songwriters may not be poets, but some tend to pay more attention to the lyric (and especially to the music of the lyric) than to the melody. Dylan and Leonard Cohen come to mind, and maybe even Lennon.

    Moreover, poetry read aloud, especially modern poetry, often has a tempo and an attitude that brings it close to rap (which for my money is music for musicians who can’t sing.)

    Rap is nothing new, of course. It dates back at least to Glenn Miller’s “Pennsylvania 65000” and tried again to surface again with Beat Poets of the sixties, and James Brown’s “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud!”

    Always on the lookout for the next new thing, The Clash saw Hip Hop’s rise in the late ’70s and paid it homage with the hypnotic “Magnificent Seven,” in which the rhythm of the lyric is more important than the melody, which is monotone in places and non-existent in others, as it gives way to the groove.


    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magnificent_Seven_%28song%29

    (Fucking long, isn’t it?)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 10, 2010 4:15 pm

      Well, the Clash are great, period, so no argument there. I’m pretty sure, though, that Glenn Miller didn’t have much influence on the rise and thrive of hip hop. More generally, they are, like hip hop, part of the spoken word tradition that goes back to cave man days (so is the country music “recitation,” or talking song). But rap and hip hop have distinct African origins, I believe a close inspection will reveal.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        December 10, 2010 4:25 pm

        PS. I don’t hear any rap whatsoever in Black and Proud. Seems like a standard r&b song, with singing, not rapping.

  5. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 14, 2010 10:59 am

    I believe its all about racisim. Fine with me if you want “lyrics” and “poetry” to be separate but equal (which didn’t work too well in the real world of humans scenario).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 14, 2010 5:11 pm

      That’s a completely false comparison. You might as well argue that movies must be called “novels,” otherwise they, too, are separate but equal. Things must be allowed the dignity of being what they are. Insisting that rap is poetry patronizes and downgrades it, rather than the opposite.

  6. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 15, 2010 9:27 am

    I totally disagree. The rappers call their medium poetry. So let it be. Hip hop music has never been given its due credit as an art because it has been seen through the racial cultural lense. Remember how “sampling” wasn’t real music? Though a lot of these artists have the last laugh–all the way to the bank.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 15, 2010 9:50 am

      Where have you been for the past 20 years? Hip-hop has long been the dominant force in popular music — world wide. In fact, it’s been so dominant for so long that it’s reached its degenerate stage, where rock music was around 1980. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of creative rap acts working today, or that the form might not be re-energized by unforeseen forces, the way rock was by the grunge revolution of the early ’90s. Furthermore, hip-hop has for many years now been given its due as an art form, with serious review consideration not only in music and entertainment magazines, but also in The New York Times, the New Yorker and other publications of high culture.

      Rappers can call their medium anything they want, it won’t alter the arguments in my blog (which, I note, you do not address). Bob Dylan and his partisans (some of which argue he should get a Nobel Prize in Literature — seriously!) can call him a poet till the cows come home: He’s still a songwriter. Rappers are songwriters, too.

      Remember, it’s “rap music.” The only way rap can be poetry is if words — like, say, “poetry,” have no meaning. And if that’s the case, then all is lost.

  7. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 15, 2010 10:12 am

    Then perhaps all is lost.

  8. January 15, 2011 3:59 pm

    Does your definition of poetry exclude Gil Scott-Heron?

    Rap at it’s best is poetry. There is a lot of bad rap out there, but there’s a lot of bad poetry out there too. I am a spoken word poet. I am a performer. My words don’t work as well on the page. You lose rhythm, you lose emphasis, you lose a lot. I think the way poetry is taught to children makes them fear the P-word (poetry). Poetry is taught like it is dead. It is taught more akin to history. I think almost all the poets I read in high school classes were dead. Very few teachers I had could bring poetry to life.
    Poetry is alive and living. It should be treated as such. I think that’s where rap gets it and is in arenas whereas a lot of poetry is in bookstores and cafe’s.
    That is why kids struggle to recite poems in class but can “spit” a Jay-Z verse in a heart beat.
    My success as a poet has been from bringing poetry to life, making it a living breathing thing.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 28, 2011 4:10 pm

      Gil Scott-Heron is a difficult case to categorize. He’s not exactly a singer, definitely not yet a rapper. He’s closest to being a spoken word artist, but then there’s all that music….I wouldn’t exactly label him a poet, but I would not object if someone else did. He’s great, whatever he is.

      You make good points about poetry in general, though I would assert that page poetry can be brought to life by a good performer. I definitely agree that spoken word artists can be poets, many of them as good as traditional poets. But I still say rap is something else again, and it’s no disparagement to say that rap is not poetry but instead is its own self.

  9. May 22, 2011 9:08 am

    i love any music of jay-z and beyonce i want to be friends of you people.

  10. Adam Clark permalink
    October 17, 2011 8:52 pm

    In your own little elitist idea of what poetry is, Rap is not poetry. But in reality all musical lyrics by definition are poetry. Some are terrible but they’re still poetry. Your child’s finger painting hanging on your fridge is art just as the Mona Lisa is. You act as if poetry demands to be mainly in the literary form yet some of the most cherished songs started as poems. Our national anthem for one. In reality poetry like art is nothing on it’s own. It must stand on some platform of expression such as literature, oration, or song. You are possibly confusing Rap with Hip Hop. You can have Hip Hop music without lyrics and thus without poetry but Rap has to have lyrics and those lyrics must be poetic. You aren’t going to hear a rapper reading the phone book to music. Poetry is not an actual genre of literature like a novel but a form of expression using words that crosses genres and formats. is there no poetry experienced while watching Hamlet on stage? Saying rappers aren’t poets is like saying sculptures aren’t artist or saying film makers aren’t artists. Poetry is dying as an affective artform in society because it’s champions have tried to discard it’s lifelong bond with music in order to win respect from the other literary communities. You take away the music and eventually poetry becomes unrecognisable to expressive prose. You see Elitist love to define things in a way that suits them best instead of how the rest of the world defines it. They do this because it makes them feel unique like they’re privileged to a special insight to the world us commoners are not. Tell you what, why don’t you put some of your poems up in these comments so we can decide if it’s really poetry or not.

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