Professor of African American and African Studies Alexs Pate compares the structure and flow of rap lyrics to that of poetry in In the Heart of the Beat: The Poetry of Rap. Pate makes a compelling case for why the former should carry just as much cultural currency as the latter, writes critic Kerri Shadid in the Seattle Pi:
He goes to great lengths to demonstrate how rap should be read and analyzed the same way we have traditionally approached great poetry. Pate examines each aspect of poetry/rap: namely, saturation, language, imagery, texture, meaning, structure/form/rhythm, and flow, and shows the reader how to assess rap lyrics by using each criterion. In this, Pate is innovative, and it is interesting to read how he would treat two rap songs in the same way a comparative literature professor might treat two world classics. In fact, despite its pop culture subject, this is very much an academic treatise. It is organized in a meticulous manner, and reads at times like a very hip Ph.D. dissertation.
Shadid takes issue with some aspects of the comparison, noting that in many instances "rap lacks the subtle, mysterious, contemplative quality that is the hallmark of so much great literature:"
I readily agree that there is a literary beauty in many of the lines quoted in this book. For example, these lines of the “poem” “For Women” by Talib Kweli do have a lyrical, and stirring, quality: “She swears the next baby she’ll have will breathe a free breath/and get milk from a free breast,/And love being alive,/otherwise they’ll have to give up being themselves to survive.” But most of Pate’s best examples come from a bygone era of 1990s rap, which was more socially conscious than the Top 40 hip hop of today. It seems to me hard to deny the artistry and creativity present in an early innovator of hip hop such as Kweli, but where is the poetry in lines such as “Watch me Crank Dat Soulja Boy/Then Super Man Dat Hoe?” To me, the failure to address the vapidness of modern hip hop/rap is a scholarly oversight, and the fact that it is impossible to analyze modern mainstream “artists” seems a failure of the hip hop genre.
Alizah Salario is a former Columbia University journalism fellow at the Poetry Foundation. Her writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Ms. Magazine, TimeOut Istanbul, Booklist, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.