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

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 café: 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 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 am 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, narrative are the defining elements of poetry, and that their absence from most contemporary poetry explains the genre’s unpolularity 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 anti-quarianism 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. 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 Henlen Vendler, a magnificent teacher”; and the notes to the Anthology suggest a Vendler-like interest in genre. Thus Ice-T’s or “6 ‘N the Mornin’” is described as not just “a gansta rap classic” but also “an Aubade, as it begins at the crack of dawn, and partakes of the picaresque as it moves through 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 morning, 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. Originally, 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 collective 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 MC’s 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 when she made her rapper 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 past 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, nd 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 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 MC’s 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 “Superrapin’,” 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, oy 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 MC’s 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
ad 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 derisive chorus:

You goin over niggas’ heads, Lu (Dumb it down)
They telling me that they don’t feel you (Dumb it down)
W 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 wit 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 convention 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 selection, “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 assults it head-on. The book’s afterword, by Chuck D of Public Enemy, makes the point clearly” “A rapper’s style is not itself. It comes from somewhere. All of these lyrics evolve as the griot-like timeline with the words finally manifesting themselves into a solid statement 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, MC s 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 elaborate rhetorical boasts about his own skill 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 MC S” 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 assult, 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 his real name: the florid, often cartoonish pseudonyms mark the difference between the writer and his larger-than-life persona. As Bradley nd 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 theu can’t become “standards.”

This insistence on authenticity brings rap closer to lyric poetry than to most 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 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 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 gansta culture in rap bears some similarities to the warrior culture we can see in the Illiad: both value physical courage, encourage bragging, indulge masculine self-pity, and make it easy to dehumanize women. But because the Illiad 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.

— © Poetry Magazine, February 1st, 2011, by Adam Kirsch