Things Done Changed: Hip Hop and Literature

November 30, 2010 | 8 books mentioned 19 5 min read

coverWhen Jay-Z appeared at the New York Public Library on November 15, the host of the event, Paul Holdengräber, introduced the rapper with the kind of fawning adulation and respect that even a rock star intellectual like Christopher Hitchens would have a hard time generating. Jay-Z was there to promote his new book, Decoded, which is both a memoir and a commentary on some of his best known songs. Throughout his promotion schedule, he has said the book’s intent is to make a case for rap lyrics as poetry. Holdengräber, like a hype man at a rap concert, backed up this claim by saying that “Decoded is one of the most extraordinary books that I have read in the last decade. I have to tell you, this is a book of a great – major – poet.” At that moment, thousands of young adults who had spent their teenage years striving to learn the lyrics to the entire Reasonable Doubt LP, instead of writing essays or socializing, must have gone slack as the guilt dropped from their shoulders. So hip hop is okay now? So hip hop is poetry now?

coverDecoded isn’t alone either. To further ease the entry of rap into the literary sphere comes The Anthology of Rap, a mammoth compendium of lyrics, boldly similar to the poetry anthologies that we are used to, and edited by the scholars Andrew DuBois and Adam Bradley. It is an even more direct attempt to firmly establish rap lyrics as a poetic innovation, and the book is already having an impact among those less inclined towards the music, with Sam Anderson at New York Magazine announcing his semi-conversion to the cause. Rappers, he discovers, are just “enormous language dorks.”


So why does this all make me so uneasy? I love rap, and have loved it for a long time. Sure we have a messy relationship – ferocious arguments, walk outs – but there will always be Illmatic, Liquid Swords and Madvillainy to remind me why the music is so important. Yet the idea of hip hop melding with another of my loves – literature, specifically poetry – feels wrong on a number of levels. Not only wrong, but potentially damaging.

One of the problems inherent in the move to canonise rap lyrics is that it’s plain (to me at least) that rap lyrics just do not work on the page. If I come across a line that resonates on paper it is usually because I am remembering the intensity of the rapper’s delivery and not because the line has any inherent poetic weight. One of my favourite rhymes comes from Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones (Part II)”: “Your crew is featherweight / My gunshots’ll make you levitate.”  Written down like that it feels denuded and mildly ridiculous, although the rhyme clicks well enough; but when Prodigy raps the lines they hit me like fists. Another piece of lyrical brilliance comes from The Clipse: “Pyrex stirs turned into Cavalli furs / The full-length cat, when I wave the kitty purrs.” To me this is great, as good as rapping gets, but it’s never going to be on my mind in those more pensive moments. It’s as shallow as a paddling pool, in other words. And why wouldn’t it be? This is popular music, after all.

coverAdam Bradley’s previous book was Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, a study of rap lyrics and how the best rappers “deserve consideration among the giants of American poetry.” For the most part it is well argued and intelligent. But I can’t be the only one who smirks at phrases like: “Gerard Manley Hopkins has something to teach us about flow,” and “[Edgar Allen] Poe has to be both the rapper and his own beatbox all at once.”  I don’t include these examples simply be to be sarcastic, but because they raise an important point. The juxtaposition of traditional poetry and hip hop is spiky and uncomfortable, to say the least. But crucially, Bradley does not offer us any examples of songs that justify the comparison with Hopkins or Poe, or any other great poet. Armed with a pencil and some optimism, the best I things I could write in the margins of The Anthology of Rap would be words like “nice”, “witty”, “clever” or perhaps a strained “ah, good stuff.” As I’ve shown with the examples above, even at the top end of rap lyricism there is a limit to what you can actually say about it, outside of those marginal words and phrases. True profundity and thematic sophistication in hip hop are so rare as to be accidental.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the acceptance of rap lyrics as poetry is just how easy it has been for scholars to sneak this stuff in. At university I remember reading an essay about Ice Cube’s “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” in a critical theory anthology and I was still laughing a month later, not least because the author got the lyrics of the very first line wrong (did I say laughing? – I was crying.) Of course, being a such a hip hop purist, I discarded the rest of the essay based on that one transcription error, believing the author to be some kind of pseudo-scholar who hadn’t spent enough time with AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted.

Unfortunately it looks as if The Anthology of Rap has made the same kind of transcription error, not just once, but dozens of times. Paul Devlin at Slate has been following this odd phenomenon, showing us the proliferation of mistakes, questioning contributors and the editors about their methods. The replies from the publishers and the editors have been incredibly limp, and members of the book’s advisory board have expressed anger and bemusement at having not been allowed much input into the transcription process, which could have stopped many of the more obvious errors leaking through.

This is extraordinarily relevant to the question of whether rap lyrics are a literary form to be placed within the American poetic tradition. Of course there have been transcription errors throughout the history of written literature, but not on the scale of this new anthology, where the source material is within easy reach of anyone. The most important point, though, is that the errors are actually not much of a big deal, from a literary point of view. The mistakes in transcription rarely have an effect on the songs themselves, so imprecise are most of the lyrics. Scholars can dispute a single word in Hamlet for centuries, but it’s hard to care whether 50 Cent says “luger trey” or “trey-eight”, “bitch” or “snitch”.

But why should rappers even want their words to be part of the poetic tradition? By introducing the context of American poetry to rap lyrics, Bradley and et al distort our capacity for criticism and appreciation. Are we really going to compare a Lil Wayne song to an Emily Dickinson poem? For what possible benefit? Hip hop plays by its own rules, and has excluded itself from the literary conversation by taking its own form. It also excluded itself from the mainstream musical establishment in a truly subversive and creative way: by pillaging the music of others and being so intent on rhythm over melody. At its best it is an outlaw form there at the fringes of the establishment, where it has its own rules and standards and answers to nobody. As Bradley puts it in Book of Rhymes, “Rap’s most profound achievement is this: it has made something – and something beautiful – out of almost nothing at all.” If this is the case, then why relegate the music to playing catch-up with high poetic art? It can only be stifling to hip hop.

It feels reactionary to compartmentalize art forms, like I’m committing a great crime against post-modernism. I would not want to reduce hip hop or literature by emphasising their limits, but it seems to me that the beginning of creative freedom is recognizing the artistic discipline that one is actually practicing. This does not mean that rap cannot have rushes of poeticism, or that poetry can’t be influenced by the rhythms of rap, but the line between the two forms should not be crossed so readily by critics and commentators. Introducing rap lyrics as great poems may make students feel better about not reading Wallace Stevens, but by ignoring the distinctions between hip hop and literature we do damage to both.

is a freelance writer and book critic. He reviews books for The Spectator and has also written for the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and the Los Angeles Review of Books.


  1. Great, thoughtful post. Gotta say, it’s a nice break from all the self-important memoir-first-drafts that have been filling the site.

  2. I’ve been waiting to read an essay like this about the Anthol of Rap — something that gets beyond the citing of great lines or the wrangling over transcription (although both of those are obviously important too, & related). This is the Big Question, the debate that needs to happen.

    I don’t know the answer, but it’s fascinating to think through. I’m not sure I buy your key statement here, Ben: “true profundity and thematic sophistication in hip hop are so rare as to be accidental.” That seems a bit strong. But it’s true that (in general) rap tends to focus more on line-by-line, sound-by-sound *effects* than on building some kind of thematically coherent statement over an entire song. This is a defining feature of the form: it puts an incredible pressure on syllables. The canonical poets I thought of most as I read were the oddballs, the sound-stackers: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Byron of ‘Don Juan’, John Skelton. (Maybe it’s more accurate to compare rap to light verse?)

    A statement like this will grate on some people, but I thought of Keats several times when I was reading Jay-Z: the way he stitches together vowels & consonants, the relative subtlety of the echoes. I.e., you don’t see Jay-Z piling up compound rhymes at the ends of his lines, like Eminem (naughty rotten rhymer / Marty Schottenheimer), but you do see him put together lines like:

    “let the thing between my eyes analyze life’s ills”

    which is a little master class in z’s & l’s. Or:

    “Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?”

    which builds itself almost entirely out of different ‘oo’ and ‘i’ sounds.

    Obviously, “Dead Presidents” is not “Ode to a Nightingale.” Jay-Z isn’t working in anything like the tradition that Keats was working in. But I think it’s worth teasing out the pretty amazing density of soundplay and of tropes in rap — to think about what the tradition has gained by emphasizing those features, and what it’s lost.

  3. (As a footnote to that: one of my favorite lyricists from The Anthology of Rap, Chino XL, gave a bizarrely fascinating interview last year to the site All Hip Hop:

    He basically says that — all due respect — he’d destroy classic authors like Shakespeare or Twain, because his lyrics are more trope-dense. Which obviously totally misunderstands what Shakespeare & Twain were doing, but is an interesting window into the different values of rap and traditional literature.)

  4. Great article. I feel the same way when I see Dylan songs in poetry anthologies. Yes, some of his music is poetic, but he is by no means a poet. Without music to accompany his words, they seem like childish rhymes and sound very flat on the page.

    I also feel the same way about spoken word. It simply is not poetry. It has poetic elements, sure, but spoken word on the page reads terribly.

    A lot of people make the case that poetry needs rap and spoken word to energize it. I completely disagree. I do agree that contemporary poetry is in a sad state now, but the worst way to fix it is to start saying that things like rap and spoken word are poetry. Not buying it. Poetry will come around like it always does.

  5. Ben, that’s a great anecdote about the Ice Cube lyric.

    But I must disagree with you that the error’s are not important from a literary point of view. I think they are extremely important, especially when they change the meaning of a line to its opposite, or, as Adam Mansbach says in my third article on the topic for Slate, render an important song incomprehensible while claiming that the incomprehensible rendering is canonical.

    I’m also glad you brought up Wallace Stevens. Nobody should ever feel good about not reading him! I’ve taught Stevens in the same poetry course where I also taught Ghostface and U-God. We spent more time on Stevens, of course, but Ghost’s genius (or U-God’s) cannot be ignored because of his chosen medium. I’ve spent years studying Stevens – in awe of him – and reading criticism on Stevens to great profit (especially Harold Bloom’s incredible “Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate”), while writing a few things of my own on his work. He’s my favorite poet.

    While I’m not the world’s ultimate expert, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Ghostface is darn close (and therefore far superior to many traditional poets – I think I can say that without going out a limb). I’m not talking about Ghost’s “boo hoo, my girl left me” pop tunes that he’s presumably paid a lot of bills with, but his more serious, rich, and dense work. Like Stevens, Ghost seems to believe that poetry must resist the understanding almost succesfully. He’s also concerned with many of the same problems, in the abstract (supreme fictions, the major man, etc.).

    Let me pick one random example among thousands, this line from Ghost, from c. 2000:

    These are the bones
    Bones, from the grave of Houdini!

    That has puzzled me for years. So unexpected, so much interpretive potential (when considered with the rest of the verse). I believe that a full book of Ghost’s lyrics would send some shockwaves through the poetry establishment. (The selection of his lyrics in The Anthology is not reflective of his genius.)

    Anyway, I’m glad these discussions are being had.

    @ Sam – Cf. KRS-ONE in “Hip Hop vs. Rap” (1994): “if I was in front of Shakespeare I’d battle the punk and take his shit,” i.e., they’d put up money or other belongings and have a rap battle, and KRS says he’d win.

    KRS is a peerless battler, but I’m not sure he’d win against the quick-witted actor-bard! But of course, um, that’s not what Shakespeare was doing.

    (“Hip Hop vs. Rap” is amazing because the second half of the song is this pastiche of lyrics from classic hip hop and 80s dance music songs that KRS weaves together to almost make a sense-making new verse. There is a remix that changes the beat appropriately to match the beat of each song he quotes from, but I cannot find that version.)

    I like your Keats/Jay-Z comparison very much.

    Also, indeed, alot of rap is light verse. Light verse disappeared from newspapers and most magazines, so it only makes sense that it would reappear in some other form, since there appears to be a basic human demand for it.

  6. Paul Devlin — post something here that truly shows that Ghostface is comparable to Wallace Stevens or name one of Ghostface’s songs and I’ll go listen to it and see if stands up to Idea of Order at Key West.

    And do it without writing a ten page essay on why. Good art should be able to stand up on its own. I’ve listened to Wu Tang and Ghostface since I was a teenager and have read all of Stevens poetry a million times through. In my opinion you’re out of your mind comparing Ghostface to Stevens.

  7. @ YoJohnny. You mean you wouldn’t like to read a 10 page essay on why? Why not? haha. It’s not fair for me to just name Ghost tracks without explaining why, so that you can come back and say “no, I don’t think so, you’re out of your mind.” But whatever.

    I’ve also read Stevens a million times through. While Ghost is not his equal (nobody is), on occasions he comes darn close, esp. when you let the words of both men marinate in your mind for a long time. There is nothing wrong with comparing them. They have some of the same concerns and a similar knack for unexpected metaphors. I dare say they even have a similar sense of humor.

    I would check out “Nutmeg,” “One,” “Apollo Kids,” his verses on “4th Chamber,” “Investigative Reports,” “Hellz Wind Staff,” “Older Gods,” “Bells of War.” His verse from “Careful” is the one I cited above. I don’t have to defend his long and creative career. There is something there.

    As for U-God, his verse on “Black Jesus” is something else.

  8. Paul Devlin — Look, there are rap artists who I think are “genius”, but by that I mean they’re really damn good. They are lyrically innovative, fun to listen to and thought provoking. De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, Madvillain, for example, I think they are “genius”.

    However, when I say Stevens is a genius, I mean he’s a true genius in the traditional sense. That it’s hard for me to believe a human being wrote the lyrics he did, and not some deity. Given what you say above, I get the notion you feel the same way about Stevens. Do you seriously feel even remotely like that about Ghostface? Think of those Sunday afternoons when you read something like Rabbit as King of the Ghosts and you’re awe-struck and your jaw is practically gaping at the genius dripping off the page. I’ve never had that experience with any rap artist.

    That’s what I’m calling you out on. I think you’re fundamentally mixing “genius” with genius. Noone is saying Ghostface doesn’t have a long and creative career. And noone is saying it’s not okay to compare Ghostface and Stevens. What I’m saying, though, is that you’ve placed them in too close a proximity to one another. Stevens is high up on a pedestal in the clouds. Ghostface is maybe standing on a footstool somewhere nearby.

  9. @ YoJohnny. Thanks for clarifying. I’ve often thought the same thing about Stevens, almost down to your exact phrasing: “it’s hard for me to believe a human being wrote the lyrics he did, and not some deity.”

    But would you agree that Ghost and Stevens seem to think in similar ways? And that their poetic creations are somehow closer to each other than to many of their peers?

    That being said, maybe I did place them in too close proximity or did not express myself clearly enough. Oddly enough, you also approximated a metaphor I was going to use in my first comment. I was going to say that Stevens enthroned is atop a mountain, while Ghost is climbing the mountain.

    I’ve been similarly impressed with many verses from Ghost as I have been with many Stevens poems and I don’t find any MC to be doing quite the same thing in the same way. (I think when RZA called Ghost the greatest MC of all time some years ago, that’s what he was getting at.)

    That’s not to say many other MCs are not great and important. I think many are fine practiontioners of light verse while Ghost is a Romantic. The disctinction between light verse and Romantic verse is best expressed, in my opinion, in W.H. Auden’s introduction to the book of light verse he edited in the 1930s (reprinted by the NYRB Press in the last decade).

    [For those who may not know: the term light verse is not perjorative.]

    But, all things being equal, I find some of Ghost’s verses more demanding than some of the poems in “Harmonium” or even “Ideas of Order.” As Stevens got older and better, in “Parts of a World” and beyond, he pulls away from every poet I know about.

    Has Ghost ever written anything remotely on the order of “Esthetique du Mal” or “Owl’s Clover” or “Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas” (to say nothing of “Notes” or “Auroras of Autumn”)? Of course not – which is not to say he cannot some day.

    Also, “Harmonium” was published when Stevens was in his early 40s. “Supreme Clientele” came out when Ghost was 30, “Ironman” came out when he was 26.. Even to compare Ghost now at 40 with Stevens at 60 or 70 is not a fair comparison, so I probably should not have made it the way I did, but I think there is something there.

  10. Paul Devlin — You just referenced one of the greatest stanzas I’ve ever read in my life:

    A crinkled paper makes a brilliant sound.
    The wrinkled roses tinkle, the paper ones,
    And the ear is glass –Compare the silent rose of the sun
    And rain, the blood-rose living in its smell,
    With this paper, this dust. That states the point.

    Okay, well one thing I’ll take away from this exchange is exploring Ghostface and U-God a little more seriously. Because what I’ve always bought into when it comes to rap is that there is lyrical innovation. What I’ve not always bought into is that there are great ideas, that there are meaningful arcs to the songs i.e. the different lyrics work together coherently. I’ve often found that, yeah, you can pull out a couple lines like you did above (there are the bones/bones from the grave of Houdini) but that the next lines move onto something else and there’s no structural coherence, no great idea.

    Anyway, it’s always nice to meet a fellow Stevens fan in the strangest places!

  11. I find it hard to believe that anyone who has listened to hip-hop seriously for five years or more could fail to think of ONE line that they thought was poignantly written. Does this author intend to posit that there are no couplets written in 31 years of recorded rap music worthy of analysis? The Clipse example cited is laughable and hardly the best lyrical example in even their relatively limited discography (compare their three albums with the discography of someone like Q-Tip or KRS-ONE, for example). I hold a BA in English. There are rap songs like, say, “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night” that read as well on the page as any number of poems. I think the author sorely minimizes the best examples of lyrical prowess in hip-hop with this piece. The author is also assuming that all poetry is equal. Not every poet is Emily Dickinson and not every lyricist is at the level of Lil Wayne. Poetry is not defined by inclusion in the canon, it is defined by the series of poetic devices that distinguish poetry from other forms of writing. Form is what distinguishes a haiku from, say, the opening sentence in a newspaper article that happens to also have seventeen syllables. I think the author should consider revisiting this article and consider the counterargument to his/her points, by considering what examples of hip-hop lyricism exemplify the usage of key poetic devices.

  12. @ YoJohnny, indeed, great to meet a Stevens fan in the strangest places.

    To me, that verse from Ghost in “Careful” is coherent – as far as difficult poems go in general. For me that verse works, as does U-God’s stunning outing in “Black Jesus” or in some of the difficult songs on his first album, such as “Bizarre.”

    While we’re on this topic, what about “The the.” at the end of “Man on the Dump”? I’ve often thought that to be so strange, definetely not coherent in any traditional sense, but also wonderful and quintessentially Stevens. Coming from a great poet like say, Ogden Nash, it would look weird, just as Ghost’s verses might seem odd if said by an amazing light verse MC such as Greg Nice.

    On that note, let me just recommend letter #279 from the Letters of Wallace Stevens (to Mr. L.W. Payne, 3/31/1928). Stevens uncomfortably explicates some of his poems for Mr. Payne, at the end of the letter he writes, “It is shocking to have to say this sort of thing. Please destroy these notes.”

    That’s how I sort of feel about pushing the envelope on these comparisons. It’s all about a feeling that too much analysis may not benefit.

    Anyway, thanks for this exchange.

  13. I jumped in on this when I first read Sam’s piece a few weeks back. It was even quoted in NY Mag’s round-up of online reactions, to my slight embarrassment.

    There’s something that irks me about the ANTHOLOGY’s whole project, though the more critical work I read, the more unsure I am about how to phrase it. I suspect it’s as simple as the fact that I’m not a poetry guy—and that there seems to be an aesthetic bias, somehow, between converting rap lyrics into literature, and converting them into poetry.

    As you say, Ben, a key element of hip-hop is rhythm, and specifically how that interacts with the music. Transcribing those lyrics scours this more elemental meaning away, yet calling the transcription ‘poetry’ implies—to me, anyway—that this is the pure, distilled form. That the music is, in the end, not necessary. Is that just me? Either way, I don’t buy it.

    Every transcription I’ve read falls flat unless I imagine the rapper’s particular tics and cadences. Lots of Ghostface lyrics are absolute nonsense on the page; it’s all in how he stretches and elasticizes language in the delivery, and how he works off the music. By the same token, I’ve never liked “Howl” or ON THE ROAD—but I suspect I’d soften at least a little if I heard an audio recording of Kerouac and Ginsberg reading it out loud. It cuts both ways.

    I also wonder if hip-hop isn’t partly hampered by its reliance on punchlines. A structurally sleek Kanye couplet like “If you fall on the concrete, that’s yo’ ass fault / If you pass on a Kan beat, that’s yo’ last fault” makes me laugh out loud, still, 15 listens later.

    Or watch this battle, where the jokes pop like crazy:

    On paper, though, the comedy suffers.

  14. hip hop commentary, the art of one upping one another ad nauseum. anyway, if a rapper wants to define himself as a poet, why not? doesnt have to be the only definition but why all the hair pulling. 2pac has been defined as a poet since his death this ain’t nothing new. I have heard everyone from Nas , 2pac etc define themselves that way. but we all know rappers arent as smart as the rap commentators who are always up in arms about something.

    i am almost certain the author of this article is a middle class cat that can afford to be rebelious against the intellectual classes. and if rap isnt about the words just the music, then why all the handwringing within hip hop about lyrics and how they suck and are misogynistic etc, surely the words dont matter, just their sound and rhthmn.

  15. How can one claim mastery of the English language when the majority of their work is riddled with slang? To me, that alone shows it belongs in a different category.

  16. I agree and think that too many people and educators are really *reaching* to paint the gray area between hip-hop and poetry larger than it may actually be. I LOVE hip-hop and rap and having an English background in education I have seen firsthand how knowledge of both in education can truly be used to help the student. In fact, that’s what inspired me to write my YA novel “Got the Flow: The Hip-Hop Diary of a Young Rapper”. It’s about a teenager that wants to become a rapper to help his mom get out of the ghetto but wants to make her proud at the same time. I wrote it for all the disenfranchised students who struggle with blending their identity with hip-hop and that of education. Anyway, great thought-provoking article!

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