Prose from Poetry Magazine

How Ya Like Me Now

Does rap’s suspended adolescence keep it from serious consideration?

The Anthology of Rap, ed. by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois.
Yale University Press. $35.00.

One of the best comic subplots in Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty concerns the wary alliance of Carl, a brilliant but unschooled rapper, and Claire Malcolm, the well-meaning poet who enrolls him in her college writing workshop. Claire first hears Carl perform when she takes her class to a spoken word night at a local cafe: the purpose of the trip, Smith writes, is “to show her new students that poetry was a broad church, one that she was not afraid to explore.” But even Claire is surprised when Carl takes the microphone and throws out “complicated multisyllabic lines with apparent ease,” telling “a witty, articulate tale about the various obstacles in the spiritual and material progress of a young black man.” Impressed by his gift, the poet immediately takes it upon herself to educate the rapper, Henry Higgins-style: “Are you interested in refining what you have?” she asks Carl. “We’d like to talk to you. We have an idea for you.”

The idea, Claire reveals, is that Carl is a John Clare for the twenty-first century—a proletarian genius who only needs to be taught iambic pentameter in order to write great poetry. (“You’re almost thinking in sonnets already,” she reassures him.) Smith shows that Carl is both attracted by this kind of attention from the literary-educational establishment and rightfully suspicious of it. He tells the workshop that his writing is “not even a poem. . .It’s rap…. They two different things. . .two different art forms. Except rap ain’t no art form. It’s just rap.” Smith captures the comedy of cross purposes: to the poet, turning a rapper into a poet is a cultural promotion; to the rapper, it looks more like a forfeiture of authenticity. And it is hard to imagine why any rapper would want to make such an exchange. If Carl hits it big as an mc, he can look forward to becoming rich and famous, with an audience of millions of passionate fans. If he succeeds as a poet, he can look forward to—tenure.

No wonder that, in the real world, poets have been more interested in what they can learn from rap than vice versa. Ironically, poets who are considered aesthetic conservatives have been most enthusiastic about hip-hop. The premise of “new formalism,” to use a term almost as old as the Sugarhill Gang, is that rhyme, meter, and narrative are the defining elements of poetry, and that their absence from most contemporary poetry explains the genre’s unpopularity and cultural irrelevance. The huge popularity of rap, which is committed to all those traditional techniques, seems to clinch the case. Dana Gioia, in his 2003 essay “Disappearing Ink,” called rap “the new oral poetry,” and hoped that it could spark a “renovation from the margins” of literary poetry. “While the revival of form and narrative among young literary poets could be dismissed by critical tastemakers as benighted antiquarianism and intellectual pretension,” Gioia writes, “its universal adoption as the prosody-of-choice by disenfranchised urban blacks. . .is] impossible to dismiss in such simplistic ideological terms.”

The appearance of the massive new Anthology of Rap marks a new phase in this rapprochement. At first glance, the anthology, published by Yale University Press and edited by two English professors, Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, might look like a Claire Malcolm-like act of cultural patronage, assimilating rap to the critical and scholarly ideals of literary poetry. As the editors’ introduction declares, “it tells the story of rap as lyric poetry,” and is meant to illuminate “its fundamental literary and artistic nature.” Bradley is the author of Book of Rhymes: the Poetics of Hip Hop, an intelligent book about the forms and techniques of rap, in which he writes that he and DuBois “both had the privilege of studying poetry with Helen Vendler, a magnificent teacher”; and the notes to the Anthology suggest a Vendler-like interest in genre. Thus Ice-T’s “6 ’N the Mornin’” is described as not just “a gangsta rap classic” but also “an aubade, as it begins at the crack of dawn, and partakes of the picaresque as it moves through its series of episodes.”

This is not really accurate—an aubade is a poem about lovers parting at dawn, whereas “6 ’N the Mornin’” begins this way:

6 ’n the mornin, police at my door
Fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor
Out my back window I make my escape
Didn’t even get a chance to grab my old school tape

But it’s clear that the editors’ intention is honorific. The poetic terminology, like the whole presentation of the anthology, is meant to encourage skeptical readers to give rap the kind of attention they are used to giving poetry. Bradley and DuBois are well aware that this means doing a kind of violence to rap, by severing lyrics from performance, the mc from the dj. Ordinarily, you don’t read Ice-T, you listen to him, and his voice and affect, as well as the producer’s contribution of hooks and beats, are crucial to the overall effect. In fact, the editors write, most of the lyrics they include in the anthology had never been written down. They had to be transcribed, entailing a whole series of choices about lineation, punctuation, and orthography.

Yet while the editors acknowledge that “reading rap will never be the same as listening to it,” The Anthology of Rap is meant to be more than a collection of song lyrics. As scholars of poetry, they naturally believe that reading is a more dignified form of apprehension than listening—DuBois is the editor of a book called Close Reading: The Reader—and the premise of this anthology is that mcs are essentially writers: “This is not, after all, a collection of lyrics from rap’s greatest hits, but rather a collection of rap’s best poetry.”

Which brings us back to Carl’s question. There’s no denying that rap is an art form, but Smith was onto something important when she made her rapper character resist identifying it as poetry. The reservation does not come from any doubt about the skill of the writing; when it comes to verse technique, rap is considerably more artful than most American poetry written in the same period covered by the anthology, 1978–2010. Technique has declined in importance in poetry over these years, while a premium has been placed on conceptual innovation—on the idea behind a work rather than its execution. Whether it is a result or a cause of this focus, or both, people who become poets today are less interested in verse, and less naturally gifted at it, than poets in previous eras.

In rap, on the other hand, verse technique—rhyme, rhythm, assonance, and witty simile, all of which constitute a rapper’s “flow”—is valued above everything. The result is that people who are poetically gifted are drawn to the form, and their competitive efforts raise its level of sophistication higher and higher. The earliest pieces in the Anthology, dating to the origins of hip-hop in the South Bronx, have a halting rhythm, use emphatic end rhymes, and often resort to stock phrases (resembling in these respects the first attempts at iambic pentameter in sixteenth-century English poetry):

We’re the Furious Five plus Grandmaster Flash
Giving you a blast and sho’ nuf’ class
So to prove to you all we’re second to none
We’re gonna make five mcs sound like one
You gotta dip-dip-dive, so-so-socialize
clean out your ears and then open your eyes
And then pay at the door as a donation
To hear the best sounds in creation.

These lines from “Superrappin’,” released in 1979, also show the influence of the group’s origins in live performance at parties and concerts: the goal was to get the crowd moving, not to tell a story or impress with verbal pyrotechnics. The history of rap over the next few years is a classic example of how in an art’s “golden age”—the anthology defines rap’s as 1985–1992, but the same principle holds in Elizabethan drama or Renaissance painting—progress can be incredibly rapid, as practitioners compete with each other to refine their skills, and audiences come to appreciate and reward virtuosity. Rapper Masta Ace, quoted in Bradley and DuBois’s notes, explains this dynamic: “Up until [Rakim], everybody you heard rhyme, the last word in the sentence was the rhyming [word], the connection word. Then Rakim showed us that you could put rhymes within a rhyme. . . . Now here comes Big Daddy Kane—instead of going three words, he’s going multiple, seven and eight words in a sentence.” You can see what he means in Kane’s “Ain’t No Half Steppin’”:

It’s quite confusing for you to remember the
Originator and boy, do I hate a
Perpetrator, but I’m much greater
The best, oh yes, I guess suggest the rest should fess
Don’t mess or test your highness
Unless you just address with best finesse
And bless the paragraphs I manifest.

Bradley and DuBois pay special attention to mcs like Kane—the kind of writer Ezra Pound called “the inventors, discoverers of a particular process.” Inevitably, when rap is defined as a form of written poetry, virtuosic rhyming becomes more important than other qualities—vocal timbre, dramatic performance, emotional intensity—which translate less well to the page. Nor does mere popularity earn a rapper a place in the book—if anything the opposite, as the rather sniffy notes about Run-DMC show (“not the most lyrically accomplished group in rap history”). Lupe Fiasco, who Bradley praises in Book of Rhymes, is represented in the Anthology by “Dumb It Down,” in which his bravura performance—

I’m earless
and I’m peer-less, that means I’m eyeless
Which means I’m tearless, which means my iris
Resides where my ears is

—is met with a derisive chorus:

You goin over niggas’ heads, Lu (Dumb it down)
They tellin me that they don’t feel you (Dumb it down)
We ain’t graduate from school, nigga (Dumb it down)
Them big words ain’t cool, nigga (Dumb it down)

Bradley and DuBois are on Lupe’s side. Like highbrows of all genres, they mock the best seller (Vanilla Ice comes in for a sharp word) and praise the obscure. They complain that, in the last few years, “it has become increasingly difficult for anything related to hip-hop to be considered avant-garde,” and they make room for an eight-page lyric by Canibus, “Poet Laureate Infinity 3,” which sounds a lot like an avant-garde poem:

The Polar Manitoba’s melted by lava
A team of er doctors climbed aboard the chopper
My skull is a submarine hull, I emptied the ballast tanks
I could smell the shit from the seagulls
My mind dives deep between yours, Poseidon Trident
Seahorse bubbles form, I scream with extreme force
Mariana’s Trench detour to Ultima Thule
Let me explain what my sonar saw.

But this piece is one of the least faithful to the conventions of rap, as they come across in the Anthology. In fact, if you had to formulate the essential difference between rap and poetry, it would have to do with their attitudes towards convention. For a century, the biggest imperative in poetry has been to break conventions, and every poet can quote Pound’s “Make It New.” Bradley and DuBois quote it, too, in their introduction to the anthology’s last section, “New Millennium Rap”: “In the words of André 3000, [rap] ‘makes new shit.’ This crass and creative injunction, echoing the modernist motto of Ezra Pound from nearly a century ago to ‘make it new,’ is an artistic call to action.”

But, in fact, the kind of novelty rap rewards, on the evidence presented here, is the kind that modifies a convention or wittily plays with it, not the kind that assaults it head-on. The book’s afterword, by Chuck D of Public Enemy, makes the point clearly: “A rapper’s style is not to itself. It comes from somewhere. All of these lyrics evolve as the griot-like timeline with the words finally manifesting themselves into a solid testament of the craft.” And to master a craft takes study:

Something should separate a professional rapper from a sixth grader. Lyricism does that. . . . Even when a term or a line is mastered, the challenge should be on how many more peaks a rapper can scale to become a good lyricist.

In this sense, rap, whose subject matter is so often the breakdown of urban society, is an excellent example of a stable literary culture. Over the decades, mcs seem to agree on what rap should be and do, what qualities deserve to be rewarded, what subjects can be addressed. And because of this consensus on the rules of the game, rappers can compete directly with one another in a way that poets today virtually never do. In fact, from the beginning of the Anthology to the end, it is hard to find a rapper who does not make elaborately rhetorical boasts about his own skill at rapping. Often enough this is the entire subject of a rap, as in Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke”:

I got a question, as serious as cancer:
Who can keep the average dancer
Hyper as a heart attack, nobody’s smiling
‘Cause you’re expressin the rhyme that I’m styling
This is what we all sit down to write
You can’t make it so you take it home, break it and bite.

“Biting,” stealing another rapper’s style, is part of the technical vocabulary evolved for boasting, along with “sucker mcs” and “wack flow.” Poets, too, used to vaunt—think of Shakespeare’s “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” But for Shakespeare, as for Horace long before, the rival was not so much other poets as death itself, and the prize was not personal supremacy but literary immortality. There are hints of this kind of ambition in the Anthology: in Canibus again (“Always remember: I’ll be gone forever / I made these bars so you all could remember”), and Kool Moe Dee (“I don’t write, I build a rhyme”—echoing Milton’s “build the lofty rhyme”).

Most of the time, however, the stakes are more immediate and personal. Verbal performance is often figured as combat with other rappers, a surrogate for or even a form of physical violence:

Accused of assault, a first-degree crime
’Cause I beat competitors with my rhymes
Tongue-whipped, pushed, shoved, and tripped
Choked from the hold of my kung-fu grip
And if you want my title, it would be suicidal
From my end, it would be homicidal.

That is Public Enemy (“I’m a Public Enemy but I don’t rob banks / . . . / My style is supreme, number one is my rank”), demonstrating how the braggadocio of early rap turns into the more concrete menace of gangsta rap. From the beginning, one of the central issues in rap is authenticity, which relates directly to authorship: to what extent is the character who speaks in the verse identical with the person who wrote it? The Anthology of Rap shows how the premium on authenticity forces rappers into a strange double bind. On the one hand, hardly a single mc in the book goes by his or her real name: the florid, often cartoonish pseudonyms mark the difference between the writer and his larger-than-life persona. Yet neither can the rapper afford to put too much daylight between himself and his persona. As Bradley and DuBois note, and Chuck D confirms, there is a strong taboo in rap against performing someone else’s lyrics. Raps are structurally almost as predictable as Tin Pan Alley songs, but they can’t become “standards.”

This insistence on authenticity brings rap closer to lyric poetry than to popular music. In modern poetry, too, there is an expectation of sincerity and autobiographical truthfulness. And it is this sincerity that, paradoxically, allows the poem to be taken over by the reader, as the expression of a feeling or experience she too has known—“what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed,” as Pope put it.

But if this is true of rap, as well—if rap’s power comes from its expression of feelings listeners share and want to hear formally expressed—then the problem of subject matter becomes acute, because many of the pieces in the Anthology are obscenely, violently misogynistic. There is a certain comedy in seeing the editors try to deal with this notorious fact. Bradley and DuBois write:

Rap lyrics contain violence, misogyny, sexism, and homophobia.One must come to terms with these qualities when studying the formal elements of rap’s poetry. . . . By including lyrics with such content, we present occasions to challenge pernicious influences by confronting them directly rather than simply pretending they aren’t there.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in his foreword, takes a similar tack: “Misogyny and homophobia, which we must critique, often mar the effectiveness of the music.”

The appeal of this approach is clear: it allows the editors, and the reader, to think of rap’s subject matter as somehow separate from its formal or musical “effectiveness,” or at worst a byproduct of its commendable iconoclasm. “Rap draws strength by shattering taboos,” Gates writes. But some taboos are worth keeping unshattered, as further quotation from Ice-T’s “aubade” shows:

Posse to the corner where the fly girls chill
Threw action at some freaks ’til one bitch got ill
She started acting silly, simply would not quit
Called us all punk pussies, said we all weren’t shit
As walked over to her, ho continued to speak
So we beat the bitch down in the goddamn street.

Or these lines from nwa’s “Straight Outta Compton,” which Bradley and DuBois describe as “provocative and wildly playable”:

Shoot a motherfucker in a minute
I find a good piece of pussy and go up in it
So if you’re at a show in the front row
I’ma call you a bitch or dirty-ass ho
You’ll probably get mad like a bitch is supposed to.

There are various demurrals to be made: that this is gangsta rap, the most hardcore subgenre, and not representative of all rap; that such misogyny is compensatory playacting, meant to appeal to adolescent boys who are rebelling against their mothers and afraid of women’s sexuality (as Queen Latifah points out: “a minute ago you was a nerd and nobody ever heard of ya/Now you a wannabe”); that Ice-T is playing a role, like a villain in a movie, with a fictional character’s license to be wild and extreme. (These days, he can now be seen as a detective on Law and Order: svu, solving sex crimes and defending women and children—the role changes, the performer stays the same.)

Yet it remains true that the misogyny, ranging from objectification to outright hatred, in The Anthology of Rap is not incidental. It is pervasive, and perhaps constitutive; and despite what Gates hopes, it is probably a factor in rap’s appeal, not an obstacle to it. This raises all kinds of social and political questions, but it also raises literary ones, which can be formulated, once again, as questions of authorship. A poet, by writing under his own name, signals that he is writing with and about his whole self. When he writes about his evil inclinations, then, it is with as much self-awareness as he can muster, taking account both of the desire to do wrong and the consciousness that it is wrong. This dialectic is what makes the poems of John Berryman and Frederick Seidel so moving and finally so ethical, despite the sexual hostility that they express, reprove, and atone for.

In rap, on the evidence of the Anthology, this kind of literary (not social or political) responsibility is hard to achieve, and for the very same reason that rap is so linguistically vital: its rigid conventionality. The convention that a rapper is a larger-than-life figure, closer to a movie star or a comic book hero than a “man speaking to men,” urges the writer to ever more hyperbolic forms of self-assertion. And because the writer is identified so closely with his character, it is difficult to cultivate any irony about that self-assertion. One exception comes in “La Di Da Di” by Slick Rick, whom the editors call “the hip-hop Aesop”:

Went to the bathroom to wash up, had some
Soap on my face and my hand upon the cup—I said, um
“Mirror, mirror, on the wall
Who is the top choice of them all?”
There was a rumble dumble
Five minutes it lasted, the mirror said
“You are, you conceited bastard!”

It’s no coincidence that the narrative form, the fairy-tale parody, allows Slick Rick to mock rap’s conventional boastfulness. When mcs turn to narrative, as Tupac does in “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” or dramatic monologue, as Eminem does in “Stan,” they can put rap’s relentless self-assertion on pause. Once they return to the first person, the self-assertion returns too, as in Tupac’s “All Eyez on Me”:

I got a caravan of niggas every time we ride
Hittin motherfuckers up when we pass by
Until I die, live the life of a boss playa
’Cause even when I’m high, fuck with me and get crossed later.

The gangsta culture in rap bears some similarities to the warrior culture we can see in the Iliad: both value physical courage, encourage bragging, indulge masculine self-pity, and make it easy to dehumanize women. But because the Iliad is a narrative, it can both glorify a figure like Achilles and criticize him, by placing him in contrast with other kinds of masculine virtue and authority. Reading The Anthology of Rap, however, is like hearing Achilles rant and brag nonstop:

I rub your face in the earth and curse your family children
Like Amityville drill the nerves in your cavity filling
Insanity’s building a pavilion in my civilian
The cannon be the anarchy that humanity’s dealing
A villain without remorse, who’s willing to out your boss.
From “Twinz”

This is the voice of Big Pun, one of the most dexterous rappers in the book. But he doesn’t escape the thematic monotony enforced by always having to engage in the same kind of battles, verbal or figurative. Reading rap as poetry, the way the Anthology invites us to do, makes this monotony especially stark, since reading is a more critical mode of engagement than listening. If rap is mainly a genre for and by adolescents, it is largely because its notion of artistic self-assertion is an adolescent one—a fight for status in a closed hierarchy. A little of this kind of spiritedness may be healthy for art—contemporary poetry could use a dose of it—but the Anthology of Rap demonstrates that it’s not until this striving is sublimated and turned inward, becoming a struggle for truth and beauty, that an art grows up.

Originally Published: February 1st, 2011

Poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch was born in Los Angeles and earned his BA from Harvard. He is the author of three collections of poetry: The Thousand Wells (2002), selected for the New Criterion Poetry Prize; Invasions (2008); and Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August...

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  1. February 2, 2011
     James L.

    Great piece!

    You should also check out that book that Anthology of Rap got most of its rapper quotes from - "How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC"...

    They interviewed most of the rappers from the Anthology in there and asked about all their techniques and how flow works, etc. - great read.

    The Masta Ace quote you mentioned about Rakim and Kane, that's originally from How to Rap.

  2. February 3, 2011
     Baltimore Poet

    Cool piece and I enjoyed reading the quotes. It seems the anthology could have been more selective, focusing on narrative work like Slick Rick's. Say what you want about Gangster Rap, the earlier stuff, but as the quotes above show, it has energy and a tone of authenticy. I hope they included work from Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and not just what was quoted above. Plus Black Star's Thief in the Night. There is an amazing L.A. rapper called Acealone (spelling may be off) and an album The Book of Human Language.

  3. February 3, 2011
     manoel o. audaz

    o lord zadie smith's book is a rip-off of a Fresh Prince of Bel Air episode. in said episode their is the longhair professor too, saying "i'm hip" to the "urban street poetry" yadda yadda. but personally i don't consider formalism, new or otherwise, as poetry either (if done only for the sake of politicizing form or for form's own sake). it is the same way in which the 19th century with fellas like arnold and the romantics didn't consider the augustans as writing poetry but just prose in verse. that being said ice-cube isnt "authentic." Eminem would be an example of a perverse confessionalism.

  4. February 7, 2011

    Interesting to read this perspective on
    rapping. The book, as quoted, does
    seem to miss a lot of very inventive and
    questioning rappers, Saul Williams and
    Kool Keith to name two that have taken
    the braggadocio of rap (which has
    always reminded me of the braggadocio
    of the blues through to funk that
    informed it musically) and used its force
    to stretch reality; to explore spirituality
    and surreality respectively. The trouble
    is, I think, that if rappers start to get
    poetical in a traditional manner, they
    seem to work with jazz musicians, which
    is most often a different scene, and so
    they disappear off the rap radar. Also,
    raps rise to multi-national selling status
    has led to a rigidity in what's perceived
    as rap, when the form has actually
    'grown up' and tackles all aspects of life.
    The braggadocio remains at its heart
    though; it's the expression of the spirit
    that affirms existence in a universe that
    doesn't care, usually from direct
    experience. Where it strikes out to, is
    the art and the story; while the terrible
    misogyny etc needs to be talked about,
    its abiding presence can be half-viewed
    in the news, where oppression and
    exploitation for profit is the modus
    vivendi of our society, the other half
    being the cultural history that has
    passed down this way of surviving. I
    hope the authors have put in plenty of
    examples of the people who have
    subverted and shown escapes from this
    modus vivendi, as well as those who
    exalt it most entertainingly; that's where
    the poetry is, for me, and there are
    some great storytellers.

    Oh, and thanks for the book tip James,
    I've sent off for it, looks great.

  5. February 7, 2011

    The answer to the essay's question is 'yes' because the people who listen to and buy the most popular, widely disseminated, radio-played rap are adolescents. (I live with two such listeners and constantly have to point out the misogyny, homophobia and generally puerile content of the songs: 'fly like a G6' and 'I want to be a billionaire', etc) Most of the rappers are themselves barely out of adolescence and write about women, money and Cristal because that's what their brains and wallets are focussed on. Some of the most intelligent and thought- provoking/avant-garde rap never makes it into the top40. If rappers wanted tenure instead of money they'd be poets. (As was pointed out earlier)

  6. February 7, 2011

    Yes, rap is poetry in its rawest form perhaps due
    to the necessity for spoken word. With the
    'gangsta' rap put aside, when the rappers mature
    as is case of Tupac Shakur subject matter draws
    away from the homophobic, womenhating lyrics.
    Rose that grew from Concrete or Do For Love are
    examples of relating emotional, visual and sensory
    experience via language and vocabulary which is
    in essence innate of true poetry, to find a shared
    humanity through linguistics.

  7. February 8, 2011
     Byrd McDaniel

    This article provides a very intriguing survey of rap's tropes and preoccupations. I am grateful to Kirsch for instigating such an intriguing discussion. The Anthology seems very fascinating, and I look forward to reading it. However, I find one objection to the above article regarding self- assertion: "A little of this kind of spiritedness may be healthy for art— contemporary poetry could use a dose of [self-assertion]— but the Anthology of Rap demonstrates that it’s not until this striving is sublimated and turned inward, becoming a struggle for truth and beauty, that an art grows up." Perhaps the undeniable boasts and self-assertive rants indicate a sophomoric predisposition to assert one's own prowess and potency as an artist--an adolescent concern for unrecognized artists. However, perhaps the self-assertion can be regarded as the artist's own portrait of himself. Self- assertion, I would argue, seems to be a theme of both adolescent and mature art. The assertion may become less pronounced or less obvious in more mature works, but it is there. For example, Joyce' Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man finds a parallel in numerous rap methodologies. Joyce, in this introspective portrait of the maturing and self- actualizing artist, often expresses wonder at his own growing abilities and utilizes much self-promoting language that draws attention to his own development. How is this different than the rap artist who exclaims, "I am the shit"? The degree to which the claim--that of self-asserted greatness--is articulated perhaps depends upon the vein of music within which the claim arises. To some degree, both Lil Wayne's "I'm Me" and Whitman's "Song of Myself" express a similar sentiment--the assertion that the artist lies exposed and avails him/herself to public scrutiny through the artistic form. In the words of Bob Dylan, "A poem is a naked person." So, perhaps the self-assertion that remains rooted in numerous rap classics expresses not a new adolescent form of "truth and beauty" that has yet to "grow up." Perhaps such spontaneous flow of outpouring emotion reflects a everlasting question that transcends maturity: How do I exist in the world in which I find myself? The response, from both old and wise poets and youthful rappers alike, seems to be: I am confident in who I am and how I contribute to the world. "I am the shit," in other words.

  8. February 8, 2011
     Byrd McDaniel

    Please excuse me for posting two consecutive comments, but I wanted to briefly respond to JLG's comments as well. I agree with the fact that mainstream rap's moral consciousness seems to be in conflict with the pervading morals of non- materialism and gender equality. However, one ought not dismiss music as non-art simply because he/she doesn't agree with the moral implications of the art's message. Perhaps the misogyny of the pre-Raphaelite poetry (done under the guise of uplifting women as powerful (yet objectified) figures of beauty) makes the message of the poetry of Rosetti or Swinburne unagreeable, but it does not make it non-poetry. Perhaps rap is irresponsible poetry; perhaps it is unhindered poetry that responds from a morally nebulous reservoir of public consciousness.

  9. February 9, 2011
     Robin Kemp

    James L., I second _How to Rap_: it's a primo craft theory book and I recommend it to my workshop students. The rappers in my workshop say they're here to work on their flow. A workshop that offers basic attention to formal poetics can do that. More tools in the toolbox never made anyone a worse poet. Flow and content are two different things, as the contributors repeatedly point out. If some folks are discomforted by the misogynistic and homophobic content of much gangsta rap, then they should turn their attention to the historical and social conditions which encourage young people living on the margins to develop such attitudes. (They also might consider the vaunted authorial fallacy.) Peek inside at amazon: Adam- Bradley/dp/0300141904/ref=sr_1_1? s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1297198573&sr= 1-1

  10. February 9, 2011
     manoel o. audaz

    anyone notice criticism of this book where the lyrics were lifted from internet archival sources?

    apparently many errors abound in this volume... well, according to

    sure rap is poetry and all that. doesn't make it very good. there is too much artlessness in it. doesn't mean it ain't "art" just means it is a little bit brutalist. even the smarty-arty geek raps of talib kweli and q-tip is very very lame poetry when compared to baraka for instance.

    saul williams is too verbose and overwrought. there is no criticism in rap is why it is kept adolescent. nobody actually steps up and critiques it so fellas just think they can make rhymes about anything... and it gets outta hand.

  11. February 9, 2011
     Theron Kennedy

    I want tenure and literary immortality.

  12. February 11, 2011
     Byrd McDaniel

    Manoel, I think that a rap anthology of lyrics provides a better opportunity for criticism. Also, "getting out of hand" is what poetry used to be about. Expanding minds, exploring ideas, pushing boundaries, elevating consciousness, raising awareness, imbracing imperfection, revealing Zeitgeists, uncovering psychologies, daring people into a mode of thinking that uproots tradition and evolves the comfortable assumptions of the day. Critique and intellectual regard in academic circles is a byproduct, a result, of such a feat. Poetry is not poetry because it is critiqued. Poetry is critiqued because it is poetry.

  13. February 11, 2011

    rappers are hardly the only artists who can be accused of appealing mostly to adolescents. kirsch, for the purpose of his review, is choosing to ignore a great deal of literary history in his review.

  14. February 12, 2011
     manoel o. audaz

    byrd, "what poetry used to be about?" ummm, when? that doesn't sound like a very specific concept. my point is that rap is bad poetry. none of it is good poetry. i have listened to all of it. i would assume more than most of the people who have commented here. i was raised on it. it was all around me my whole life since i was able to speak and understand words. i'm tired of it. all this PC junk about elevating it to a yale anthology is a ploy. i gurantee i know more about rap than kirsch and probably even adam bradley. i have friends who were rappers, semi-professionally, but nevermade it. eveyrone i knew listened to it. i'm tired of it, it is dead and so is hip-hop. sure there are lauryn hill and blackthought types with positive messages yaddayaddaya.... but not really. it is about violence and ignorance... in the final analysis. not just adolescence. none of it impresses me on the level of, say, a nathaniel mackey or a baraka... as i said before. i was trying to be nice and avoid these oprah-esque platitudes about how poetry "is meant to," in the manner of an inspirational poster's cliche, "uplift" or "Expand".... "poetry is critiqued because it is poetry" says nothing but tautology. poetry is critiqued because it necessarily includes something in or with it that is not poetry. it is just more trivialization of the academy and of "poetry." and bradley's scholarship in this book is, so far as most of his peers have surmised, a bit shoddy. -man(n)y

  15. February 14, 2011
     Byrd McDaniel

    Perhaps "what poetry used to be about" was a loosely worded and colloquial phrase simply intended to mean: the traditional or widely-accepted aims of poetry (granted this is also vague and debatable). Such a crass dismissal of rap and your pronouncements--"i have listened to all of it" and "it is dead"--seem to be a hasty judgment. There's no way that you could have listened to all of hip hop. I would define hip hop as not simply a genre of music on the radio or found in the CD store, but it is a movement that emphasizes vocalizations over rhythmic backdrops. When Lil Wayne performs, he is performing hip hop. When my coworker attempts homemade hip hop in his basement, this is also hip hop (and I doubt you've heard this). Hip hop has redirected the mainstream preoccupations of music toward a lyric-centric and rhythmically-nuanced direction. When I write, "poetry is not poetry because it is critiqued; poetry is critiqued because it is poetry," here's what I mean: Poetry, the academically accepted form of literature that receives the majority of attention in English departments across the country, is not considered to have literary value because critics give it attention and withdraw themes and meanings from it. Instead, poetry has an intrinsic value/meaning/theme/aesthetic, and people recognize this and attempt to critique it as a result. My overarching point is that something doesn't need critical and academic attention to be literary (in response to your claim that "there is no criticism in rap is why it is kept adolescent"). For me, studying rap is not "trivialization of the academy." The difference between contemporary rap and contemporary poetry seems to be this: Contemporary rap is the most popular genre (in terms of record sales and radio play) in the country. Contemporary poetry (unfortunately) is consumed primarily by poets and by an extremely small percentage of individuals (who are mostly academic and middle or upper class I would imagine). I don't mean that one is better than another, but I do think that the fact that rap is digested by such a vast fan base speaks to the degree of its impact on society. I would hope that academic circles would be concerned with the overarching and popular forms of literature that are so impacting, instead of simply refusing these forms of expression the academic privilege of discourse and analysis. If literary circles solely concern themselves with the highbrow literature of the literary elite, then they remain in their ivory towers and manicured bowers--refusing to acknowledge art that arises from the lower and marginalized proletariats. I don't think that rap needs academia. I think that academia needs rap.

  16. February 15, 2011
     Byrd McDaniel

    In addition, some of these concerns are
    broached in this article:

  17. February 15, 2011
     manoel o. audaz

    oh brother, here we have more cries about "ivory towers" and all that... as if so-called "high" culture wasn't bashed enough. um, the "high" is in the minority in the academy. english departments more often study nancy drew and feminism (a predictable recipe for obvious theses) and new historicist concerns. as if you can learn more about music by avoiding bach or beethoven and focusing instead on the two chords used in a ke$ha song. and ke$ha, by the way, can be studied at syracuse... very interesting. *sigh ok, if you want to pay thousands of dollars on a class about lil kim and nicki minaj then that is your money and time... not mine. mcdonalds is also more popular... should culinary academies focus on how to microwave burgers in walmart? ok, maybe they should. my point is that it is too easy to analyze easy work and not worthy of serious consideration. you act as if this populism isn't the majority in english departments across the country... ummm, well last time i checked it is... cult studies dominates and what you call "high" literature is the minority... you are just kicking it when it is down. new brutalism: populism is what rules in america... it isn't subversive or revolutionary here... it is complacent here... bush was very populist too. "ivory towers?" hmm... i'd rather have the ivory tower house a professor who studied dante and milton instead of 2pac and biggie... because it'd still be an "ivory tower" anyway. When you say "Hip hop has redirected the mainstream preoccupations of music toward a lyric-centric and rhythmically-nuanced direction." are you thining "rap" is more rythmically complex thant the cuban and brazilian jazz movements of the 50's and 60's? are you saying it is lyrically more profound than the folk singers of the 60's and even 70's? back in the times of mancini or ellington i think the "rhythmic" aspects were, hehe, just a tad more complex than the 4/4 that all hip hop is. this argument is pointless because you are imuting claims i never made. i never said rap isn't "literary." i said it is poetry and literature... just not good, in any example i am aware of and i claimed that i am aware of all of "mainstream" rap to be sure. -manny

  18. February 20, 2011

    Rap is a compromised art-form. Whatever "Artistic Merit" it may or may not have is overriden by its unreflective avowals of materialism, commercialism, sexism, racism, criminality, willful ignorance, etc. Such wholesale write-offs of rap are possible inasmuch as mainstream rap unabashedly holds these up as virtues. Moreover, it is an outgrowth of a cultural phenomenon, a symptom of an ill that worries me more than whether or not rap is poetry. Neither is this an opposition between "high-" and "low- brow" or even the "White Man" asserting himself over the "Black Man" - all these claims serve to do is derail one's concentration from arriving at the true problems presented by the considering of rap as an artform. If anything, it is a ghostly remainder of the "will-to-poetry" in the popular consciousness, wholly perverted and demented by a gross need for self- aggrandizing where (for the black community) there was only disenfranchisement. If anything, rap as poetry is the vilest degeneration in the "lyricization of poetry" (that is, all forms and modalities degrading into the free- verse [post-]lyric where the I professes itself) - a poetry stripped of all genuine intro introspection and intimation, any devotion and self-denial, leaving only the I to pruriently aggrandize itself for the sake of the moment. So, needless to say, it is not a question of "segregating" rap from poetry but trying to see beyond the empty binaries (like as somewhat stupidly and oversimplifyingly put forward by Smith's novel) of racial[ized] categories and really be honest with ourselves. This really quite contrived attempt to situate rap within the traditions of verse is just another tantrum caused by academy's and poetry establishment's (one and the same) collective anxiety about the horrifying irrelevance of poetry. The reason why poetry is irrelevant is because the people are no longer interested in its message, or that of any art-form, frankly. Rap's success as a popular artform is that it at every point undercuts and degrades its potential artfulness, and whosoever means to attempt a marriage of poetry and rap, or to simply study rap as if it were a "legitimate" art-form in the way that, say, the dramatic monologue is - well, they can no longer see beyond the boundaries of wishful thinking.

  19. February 21, 2011

    It may not be up to the criterion of goodness you impose on it, manny, but contemporary mainstream rap is an expansive phenomenon on a world- historical level. If there is 'good' rap, would that be a matter of your taste, or because it results in a restructuring of a world of idiotic populism? Some of its tactics might not be subversive on face, but the strategies of this massive movement in music and culture might actually play out differently than you predict. Any analysis of the way that a person like lil wayne can exist for us requires that we grapple with the beast of global visibility for the individual, only manufactured in this industry, in this time (previously it was a facet of national identities). Because it is unsophisticated in portions does not modify the ubiquity of its representation, and so it probably merits some level of serious analysis, literary or otherwise.

  20. February 24, 2011

    If you want to assert that rap can't be self-referentially ironic you really have to make the point in the face of lyrics like Redman's and Eminem's. I tell lies under oath if it please the court Supreme force, in the swamps with the green moss Bug repellant suit, bustin machines off I'm deadly roamin with the forty-four blazin in No negotiator, yo not even Chris Sabien can save your life -- Doc'll creep in the house Yo cut the phones, put a sock in your mouth Let da monkey out -Redman He doesn't atone for anything, but he does acknowledge that the behavior of his lyrical persona is beyond the pale, and that he's behaving like a monkey. He even plays with bigoted stereotypes by aping them. This song is from '98, the end of the golden age. Still in '98: Admit it, fuck it, while we coming out in the open I'm doing acid, crack, smack, coke and smocking dope then My name is Marshall Mathers, I'm an alcoholic (Hi Marshall) I have a disease and they don't know what to call it -Eminem There you have your poet confessing and analyzing his flaws. Nowadays the irony is getting richer: That’s amazing, that’s racist, that’s fake shit, that’s space shit, that’s vacant, that’s complacent, that’s plague shit, that’s offensive, that’s Tet Offensive, that’s defenseless, that’s holiday, Doc Holiday, keep the doc away, sitting by the dock of the bay on yay, Kanye imma letchu finish, Helsinki, blinky blink, stinky stink, stanky stank, Frank-n-Dank, feelin hot yo, watchin Rosanna Scotto, Liz Cho, shotty by the rim, I Sue Simmons, Mr. G, Mr. Me, Mr. Me Too, who care who Muslim who Hebrew, he cool, he wack, back street, street back, alley cat, rally that, Taliban, alley man, minivan, van, hans, hands, hold hands across America -Das Racist That's not the only recent verse to make fun of how easy it is to rhyme for rhyme's sake because rhyme pays. I find it hard to agree with any statement about what rap can't or won't do as a poetical form, when it's basically salvaged poetry from a dustbin of contemporary irrelevance, particularly among the less affluent. I read somewhere that Pablo Neruda's proudest moment as a poet was when a dirty, poor, Chilean miner declaimed some of Neruda's illest rhymes on meeting the poet. Rappers are having similar experiences all the time. Seidel not so much.

  21. February 25, 2011

    Doesn't the idea that rap is listening to Achilles talk about how great he is for nine months miss the idea of dis raps? I think "Who Shot Ya" and "Hit 'Em Up," just as one example, kill the idea that rap is a wholly one-sided narrative. And that isn't dead. In "Past my Shades" (B.O.B. ft. Lupe Fiasco), Lupe takes I think three different shots at Rick Ross. He has also said on multiple occasions that Lil Wayne is entirely without content. And that's just internal to the rap community. The popularity of some major rappers has made them fodder for SNL and other forums, which is apparently important enough for Kanye to write "F*** SNL and its whole cast" into "Power" on MBDTF. Rap may not be replete with internal satire and criticism, but enough of that comes from other sources that the integrity of the dialogue isn't compromised. How much attention is paid to Young Money rappers in this book?

  22. March 9, 2011
     Manny Cartola

    Well I'm convinced. I'm working on a PhD Thesis on rapper "B-Pump" now...

    I have to admit that this is an intriguing piece. Kinda old news though. I mean why not tap Harvard for a Heavy Metal Lyrics of the 80's anthology? I see a nice leather great-books-ish edition already.


  23. March 24, 2011
     Byrd McDaniel

    What does it even mean to be "without
    content"? Do you mean his content is
    similar thematically in all of Lil Wayne's
    songs? Does "without content" mean that
    his songs don't have direct social and
    political claims? I could hardly imagine a
    rapper/artist creating something "without
    content". This would seem to be a feat in

  24. April 7, 2011
     Harambee Grey-Sun

    I am in agreement with much of what Byrd McDaniel says. My response to Adam Kirsch's article can be found on my blog:

  25. April 22, 2011
     Jason Carlos Cardona

    Interesting article. I thought Kirsch made some good points, though I'm not sure I agree with his final conclusion. You can read my thoughts at my blog:


  26. June 14, 2011

    "my point is that rap is bad poetry. none of it is good poetry. i have listened to all of it."

    That's an absurd statement.

    …Powdered Water Part Too by Eyedea
    Think, models, think, metaphor
    I am plagued by a yet to be defined mind disorder
    Symptoms include illusion to losing (delusion) the tissue and fluid that borders a bruise contoured to lose core of my aura among other things that clutter dreams and suddenly pull my swollen puppet strings.
    Hold and clutch my utterly insecure back-peddling
    Please pour the powdered water from the kettle
    And load my cup full of adrenaline
    Now I can settle in tucked tight between sheet rock and crushed ice
    She knocked but I never let her in despite the fact she looked nice in black
    Said I’m in my head isn’t twisted upright, it leans lopsided but eerie enough I still treasure it dearly.
    Born in a vocal booth, I hope to own the moon with no excuse
    Soon to be the groom to a tune close to you
    Sail the true stale ocean blue and ate lunch
    But corrosion grew for eight months and the Trojan threw a fake punch
    And a crow to fool em.
    I have sold my sanctuary, thank you very much
    Buried all I’d carried for a vocabulary brush
    And I don’t wanna be around when the cherry busts
    Cuz when it does/dust settles the flood all of America
    It might have been all over if you were to barely thrust
    But you got greedy punctured too deep and now she’s scared of trust
    But who can you trust anyway, every opinion is dated (jaded) by an experience, making any thought a response to a memory.
    I am my enemy, can’t think my way out of this penitentiary
    Embrace the condition humanity’s mechanically accepted for centuries
    It’s the water, is it real?
    How does it make you feel
    being endlessly dependent on external crutches and shields?
    Sleep-walking through the dust covered fields
    Haunted by the taunted souls of those who kept the seals closed
    I’ve stretched the distance, and pushed the envelope
    This song’s become an endless note
    For all women and men with hope
    Open your eyes, you no longer can float.
    You’re sinking and drinking the powdered water.
    Going to make you choke!