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Things Done Changed: Hip Hop and Literature

When 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?

Decoded 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.

Adam 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.

Why We Wu

“Wu-Tang is here forever!  Mother-fuckers!”

-Old Dirty Bastard, “Triumph,” 1997

A few weeks ago, I visited friends in Brooklyn, getting a chance to do things that I rarely still do: stay up late, drink beer, act younger than I actually am.  Cloistered in a small, smoke-filled den, we spent hours on topics of interest: classic movies, comic books, that secretary from Mad Men.  We lamented the fall of Bogdanovich and the existence of Ke$ha.  Some time after midnight, conversation turned to the most salient subject of all.  We became impassioned and animated and a little bit unreasonable.  Recommendations were issued; objections made.  iPods were brandished, and the words “Camouflage chameleon, ninjas scaling your building/No time to grab the gun, they already got your wife and children” were heard and appreciated.

The subject, of course, was The Wu.

The Wu-Tang Clan debuted in 1993 with the abrasive, perfect Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and in the years since, the group has both faded and expanded.  Their moment has long since passed, yet to a fervent core of disciples—myself included—they remain the only game in town.  Or, at least, the only one worth parsing at 2:06 in the morning.  For inveterate Wu-Tang lovers—those who bought Digital Bullet and can recite “Delirium” from Coffee and Cigarettes—contemporary hip-hop exists somewhere overhead.  Occasionally, like skywriting, a diverting act appears: Hey, look, it’s Kanye West.  Ooh, wow, Eminem.  But inevitably, the novelty dissipates and our thoughts return to the ground.  There, Wu-Tang is waiting: patient, poised, and vulgar.

One reason they endure is a wealth of existing material: in addition to the five proper Wu-Tang records, each of the group’s ten members—yes, even U-God—has released multiple solo albums.  A few, such as Raekwon’s Only Built For Cuban Linx, GZA’s Liquid Swords, and Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele, are canonical.  Many more are simply great: RZA’s Bobby Digital, Method Man’s Tical, GZA’s Grandmasters.  But just as important is everything else: the sturdy, third-tier albums that push discussions deep into the night: “You know The Pillage?”  “Ever heard the first Inspectah Deck album?”  “No Said Date has some great fuckin’ songs.”  The Wu-Tang catalog’s depth and sprawl enables excited, cascading response.  One person brings up The W, and an hour later, someone else is defending the second Sunz of Man record.

Just as sprawling is the range of styles within the group itself.  More than any other modern act—with the exceptions, perhaps, of Miles Davis and B.B. King—the Clan has laid claim to nearly every corner of its genre.  RZA is its García Márquez, Raekwon its Richard Price, GZA its Bellow.  Method Man is a leering Jim Thompson, Ghostface Killah a slightly cracked Kerouac.  The late Ol’ Dirty Bastard remains unclassifiable, somewhere between William S. Burroughs and vintage Jack Kirby.  Together, they convey aggression, calm, dexterity, disarray.  They can be inscrutable or inane, incisive or broad.  There are rhymes about Heaven and rhymes about shit.  It’s all there.  If you want to listen to rock, your choices are endless.  When it comes to hip-hop, you can choose anything Wu-Tang and find yourself satisfied.

Then there is the music itself.  On his early productions, RZA created pressure through restraint; his was the sound of vision being reined in by technological limitation, made to twist outward.  The product was a dazing bent-metal feel, a methodical confusion behind the beats.  It’s an effect easily lost to rising budgets and digital dependence, and on duds like Tical O and Birth of a Prince, an airless clean took over.  Such pixelated ease, had it continued, could well have killed them off—it’s what nearly killed R.E.M., and has killed Terry Gilliam. 

But the late-period Fishscale and Cuban Linx II were signals of renewal, roaring and cutting and hungry.  The sound might not have been as dusty or as broken as it once had been, but the result was much the same: a tightness in the throat and a clenching of the teeth.

As mainstream rap flags, growing distended and ring-toned, the Wu-Tang’s worth becomes clear.  Yet they do not rest on legacy.  GZA is working on Liquid Swords II; Masta Killa’s Loyalty is Royalty is due later this year.  After a long run of letdowns, Method Man will soon offer Crystal Meth: “I just want my classic,” he recently told MTV News.  “People always say, ‘You already got a classic first LP,’ but not to me… it’s like when your child brings home an 80 on a test.  That’s a good grade, but you know they can do better.”  Who knows what sort of marks Crystal Meth will receive.  It might be the Clan’s next stone-cold A-plus; in all likelihood, it’ll be a solid 83.  Either way, it will add a bit more grist to those half-crazed late-night discussions.  And for fans of the Wu-Tang, the conversation is the thing.

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