Poetry News

Close-Reading the Lyrics of Kendrick Lamar & Bruno Mars

By Harriet Staff

Kendrick Lamar, Humble cover

In an op-ed at the LA Times, Adam Bradley sees pop music as the poetry of the day. Noting first that Bruno Mars’s “That’s What I Like” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” have been moving in and out of the No. 1 spot on the charts, Bradley then looks to find poetry in each hit: "On a first listen, 'That’s What I Like' may seem an unlikely place to look for poetry," he writes. "Listen more closely, and you will hear that Mars and his crew of composing partners — eight people get writing credits — are playing with language in weird and compelling ways." More:

Though “Humble” delivers the most familiar theme in rap history — why I’m dope and you’re not — Lamar’s variation avoids cliche. Rather than counting his “cheddar” (rap vernacular for money) in front of us, Lamar is “countin’ this Parmesan where my accountant lives,” underscoring Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that all language is “fossil poetry.” Figurative language abounds in “Humble.” In the second verse, Lamar invokes an unlikely series of metaphors to describe his song’s excellence: “This that Grey Poupon, that Evian, that TED Talk.”

Poetry is even more evident on Lamar’s “DNA” (No. 7 on the Billboard chart). He begins with a multisyllabic rhyme (“loyalty”/“royalty”) and follows with something called a mosaic rhyme, joining a single phrase (“win again”) with a single multisyllabic word (“Wimbledon”). In “Fear,” (No. 91) he structures four verses through intricate repetition, evoking near-biblical cadences with the use of anaphora (the repetition of words and phrases at the beginning of successive lines) and epistrophe (that same repetition at the end of successive lines).

The poet Adrian Matejka, author of the collection “Map to the Stars” and a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist, told me he thinks Lamar is reaching poetic maturity: “It’s like he’s been reading poetry and it’s opening up all kinds of lyric associations for him.”

Find the full piece at the LA Times.

Originally Published: May 9th, 2017