Last year, one of my blog posts for the Long River Review claimed that hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar is America’s leading public intellectual. In sports journalism terms, that would be called an “electric” or “hot” take. Continuing in that direction this year, I’d like to posit a deeply held conviction of mine: rappers are some of the best writers in American society.
This shouldn’t surprise. Rhymesayers like Jay-Z have thousands of pages of words to their names (although, legend has it, Hov himself never wrote a single syllable, not because he has a ghostwriter, but because he freestyles). I think the only reason people will find this opinion shocking is because they’ve never considered it themselves. Instead, we think of the poets we know, the novelists, the journalists and so on. With Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s becoming less difficult to envision musicians as members of the literati. I’ve come into contact with people who don’t believe rappers are musicians, but that’s a polemic for another day. As for right now, I’m telling you to listen. I know rap is recorded rather than written on the page, but that doesn’t take away from its literary value.
Why, then, have people, aside from hip-hop heads, not thought of rappers as writers? My favorite theory is that White America has bestowed an image of ignorance and violence on the rap game, although I would argue that the truly ill informed are the ones who buy into this narrative. Hip-hop was stereotyped early, and the false image surrounding it has spread to the annals of literature and the halls of English departments. Now, I want to help break down those walls. A good hip-hop song is able to combine stylized elements of both poetry and prose. In no particular order: here are ten masterful excerpts from some of America’s most talented, prolific writers to serve as proof of the literary value of rap lyrics.
“Now I’m guessin’ that the jokes on me cause I’m the only one threatened / The wretched by the window sketchin’ / Pencil mural of the method / Don’t sweat it / Techniques turnin’, burnin’ incense / Listening to Billy burn my intent / Definitive days that turn my nights to fiction / Friction-less, just a pen tryna pimp this stress / Cause I couldn’t keep a lid on my life / Naïve as the dry leaves on the ground /lookin’ past the tree to the blue sky askin’ ‘Why me?’”
Blu is an underground rapper from California and a dynamic writer when he is focusing on one of his projects. To prove the value of his lyricism, I once recited this entire song for a class in place of a poem that is an established part of the Canon. I would be lying if I didn’t say that this choice was partly to piss off my instructor, who was staunchly against the idea that lyrics are akin to poetry.
“So through the Grim Reaper sickle sharpening / Macintosh marketing / Oil field auguring / Brazilian adolescent disarmament / Israeli occupation, Islamic martyrdom, precise / Yeah, laser guided targeting / Oil for food, water, and terrorist organization harboring / Sand camouflage army men / CCF sponsoring, world conquering, telephone monitoring / Louis Vuitton modeling, pornographic actress honoring / String theory pondering, bulimic vomiting / Catholic priest fondling, pre-emptive bombing and Osama and Obama them / They breaking in my car again, deforestation and overlogging and Hennessy and Hypnotic swallowing / hydroponic coughing and /All the world’s ills, sittin on chrome 24-inch wheels, like that”
And just like that, Lupe, the mercurial, outspoken Chicago native, his writing rich in description, possessing both metaphors and the ability to analyze the human condition, is able to write a verse with abstract nods to “all the world’s ills” while maintaining a complex rhyme scheme. Obviously, I had to quote the whole verse for the writing to be fully appreciated.
“Maybe it’s hatred I spew / Maybe it’s food for the spirit /Maybe it’s beautiful music I made for you to just cherish / But I’m debated disputed hated and viewed in America / As a mother***in’ drug addict, like you didn’t experiment? / Now now, that’s when you start to stare at who’s in the mirror / And see yourself as a kid again, and you get embarrassed / And I got nothin’ to do but make you look stupid as parents / You f***in’ do-gooders / Too bad you couldn’t do good at marriage”
This is Eminem’s incisive take on the suburban patriarchs and matriarchs who argue that he is a negative influence on their children. As I listen to this song, I believe that it is valid to think of Em as an author of epic diatribes. He won’t be attacked without attacking back.
“This shit make a n***a just wanna write / Reminisce when I had the morning appetite / Apple Jacks and after that I hit the TV Guide / Animaniac the only thing that gave me peace of mind / I’m a maniac when aiming at the enemy that lied / Tell a story that I’ll never grow to 25 / Not to worry, every warrior will come and see euphoria / And that’s a covenant I put on every tribe”
In this song, Kendrick touches upon his brief period of innocence as a child before being exposed to the cruel living conditions within Compton, California. The first line, where he says that the beat makes him want to “write” could also mean it makes him want to “ride,” embodying the struggle between becoming an artist or acquiescing to the gangbanger lifestyle that Lamar often speaks to. K. Dot is at his most compelling when he is delving into the duality of his environment and position.
“So he wrote every quote spoken / And left every breath kept / Sketched in the next step of concrete / Then Death crept and lead him to his bed / As the sun began to rise / He titled his surprise / ‘The Story of the Man that Died’ / Then his wife and the townsfolk awoke and were shocked / First by his passing, but then by what he wrote with his chalk / They got the roads blocked by a flock of postmen and cops / He wrote from his lot to the edge of town close to the docks / Where he used to watch the boats and often joked with his pops / His folks had not long ago passed and now both with him walk / People came from everywhere / They read the story through for days / It wasn’t nothing new or strange / Still they were moved and amazed / It wasn’t the places he’d been or the people he’d met / It was the spaces between and the secrets he’d kept / They wept joyfully, for the greatest story no one told / Was just the story of an ordinary man growing old”
Shad, a Canadian rapper, is known for his profundity. This saga of a song blends realism and romanticism into a narrative that memorializes the existence of the normal and everyday. Within Shad’s understanding of the universe, the typical can become fantastical.
“The problem with sex is self-respect, calibration / The orgasm services your validation / And the problem with love, is that it lives in a book now / The problem with drugs is that they’re too f***ing good now / The problem with logic is there’s too many loopholes / And the problem with truth is that it’s usually brutal / The problem is I can’t trust most of what I see / So f**k it all the problems of life must be me”
Felt is a collaboration between two well-respected underground rappers: Slug from Atmosphere and Murs. This part of the song is delivered by Slug. I think that artists like Slug validate my understand of rap as literature. He is a man consumed by drugs, depression, and is full of questions about the nature of the world that he inhabits. Sometimes this perspective can wear thin, but in this verse, it’s at its sharpest.
“I blessed myself inside your arms one day / Swear to God there I was when the dress /And the silver buttons fade away / Miss Mary Mattress, geriatrics / F**k me into open caskets, I wanna die with this / I wanna stop seeing my psychiatrist / She said ‘pill pop, baby girl cause I promise you, you tweaked / The empty bottled loneliness, this happiness you seek’ / The masochism that you preach / Practice back flips, tragic actress / On a movie with no screen / When the only time he loves me is naked in my dreams”
This is Noname Gypsy’s standout verse on Chance’s mixtape. The imagery that she shares in these lyrics demonstrate the female perspective in an industry that is predominantly male. Gypsy is part of a young, budding group of female rappers known for lyricism and self-reflection, in the tradition of Lauryn Hill.
“The city is a synonym of pressure, it’s blocking my breath / every office is occupied, no oxygen left / Every odd second’s a rush, we won’t stop before death / Better never trust a soul, and keep watching your steps / You a robot, a fool, and they mold ya since school / You gotta grow up, be useful, gotta know what to do / gotta show off be cool, gotta go off, be cruel / Gotta resemble the right clone, if it takes throwing up food”
Chill Bump is a visionary French producer/rapper duo with a more political bend than most rappers, or writers for that matter. Their analysis of established systems demonstrates the power of rap to be an effective vehicle for discussion and criticism.
“Okay, the streets aren’t paved with gold / At least they paved though / Weaker than the Euro, stronger than the Peso / But you get what you pay for, so be grateful / Think you the only file in the caseload? / This is a crazed, unsafe globe, case closed / Complaining oh so much / Where else do people even think they’re owed so much? / We are the 99 percent locally / We are the 1 percent globally / Take a trip where women fertilize their ovaries and diagnosis is ‘hopefully’ / It’s sobering / Cut the ‘woe is me’ / It’s a work in progress and it may always be / But even overseas opportunity is known to be in [America]”
This is a genius song by Homeboy Sandman, a New York native, that describes how fortunate Americans are and how much they take for granted… albeit in a tongue and cheek manner.
“The new moon rode high in the crown of the metropolis / Shining, like, ‘Who on top of this?’ / People was tusslin’, arguing and bustlin’ / Gangstas of Gotham hardcore hustlin’ / I’m wrestling with words and ideas / My ears is pricked, seeking what will transmit / The scribes can apply to transcript / Yo, this ain’t no time where the usual is suitable / Tonight alive, let’s describe the inscrutable”
Mos Def goes on to describe the inscrutable, that being New York, with lines like: “The shiny Apple is bruised but sweet / And if you choose to eat, you could lose your teeth / Many crews retreat, nightly news repeat / Who got shot down and locked down / Spotlight to savages, NASDAQ averages / My narrative rose to explain this existence / Amidst the harbor lights which remain in the distance.” In theses lyrics, Mos is well aware of his role as a storyteller. Through rap, Mos is interpreting Brooklyn’s culture. Using New York as a microcosm for the contemporary human experience, this landscape is brought into sharp focus through Mos Def’s cutting analysis.
In this article, I will admit that I have neglected to mention thousands of iconic verses that would further validate my understanding of rap as literary. However, my point stands: rappers are writers. We in the academic or literary spheres can no longer afford to treat hip-hop as “other.” Rather, writers should be looking to these artists for inspiration. Contemporary Hip-hop is more radical, biting and high stakes than writing a short story from the comfort of your home. The urgency of these MCs to hold up a mirror to American society is a motivator that authors would do well to appreciate. With that lesson learned, perhaps a newfound respect, and connection, will arise.