Hip-Hop's Laboratory of Language

by Quentin B. Huff

17 November 2010

Artist unknown 

Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, editors of The Anthology of Rap supply a much needed injection of energy and enthusiasm into our analysis of hip-hop’s lyricism. Longtime rap fans are no doubt acquainted with the debate regarding the very term “rap music”. There’s been some question as to whether this thing we call “rap” can readily be termed “music” at all, let alone taken seriously as an art form.

Having moved, if only a little, away from such condescension, the discussion about rap (the art form) and hip-hop (the culture) narrows on issues like the generational divide among fans and critics, the dearth of mainstream female artists, promotional strategies in the increasingly post-album Internet market, and the troubling subject matter of bling, violence, and homophobia. All of this fuels questions of rap’s continued vitality and relevance. On this last point, Nas’s 2006 release Hip Hop Is Dead pushed the commentary on rap’s demise to the fore, perhaps unwittingly hailing a shift from rap’s dominance as a commercial force to its waning retail power.

Where editors Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois may be deepening the discussion rests with rap’s power as a lyrical vehicle. The Anthology of Rap presents, for the first time, a hardcover 920-page historical chronology of selected lyrics from rap songs, with the mission of telling “the story of rap as lyric poetry.” 

cover art

The Anthology of Rap

(Yale University Press)
US: Nov 2010

That’s right, y’all.  Poetry

The volume’s most obvious benefit is as a supplement to the scholarship taking place in academia. Certainly, there are high school and college classes that study poetry through rap, perhaps to dress conventional poetry analysis in contemporary designs. Similarly, some universities are including rap in literature, music, and ethnic studies courses. Even if hip-hop could be considered dead (it’s not), hip-hop scholarship has been alive and robust, as illustrated by books such as Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, Tricia Oaks’s The Hip-Hop Wars, and Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation.

The Anthology of Rap, like many literature anthologies, sensibly divides its material into eras. Beginning with the “Old School” years of 1978-1984 (covering Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, among others), the selections travel through the “Golden Age” of 1985-1992 (with special attention to Eric B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, and NWA). From there, it explores rap’s rise to mainstream prominence between 1993-1999 (thanks, in part, to The Fugees, Jay-Z, Tupac, The Notorious BIG, Nas, and The Wu-Tang Clan), as well as “New Millennium Rap” (featuring, like a posse track, Eminem, T.I., Mos Def, Kanye West, Jean Grae, and Lil Wayne). A chronological and thematic hodgepodge comprises the final section of “Lyrics for Further Study”.  Despite a geographic focus on rap in the United States, the anthology provides a level playing field for each of rap’s regional centers.  A hint of rap’s international flavor comes from Somali-born, Canada-based K’Naan, Kardinal Offishall (another Canadian), and the London-born, Sri Lankan M.I.A.  Sorry, there are no lyrics by British rapper Dizzee Rascal. In the future, a volume highlighting rap at the international level would certainly be welcome. 

Aside from the efficient exposition concerning the eras and the included artists, The Anthology of Rap focuses on the words of hip-hop’s wordsmiths. The selections are bookended by a Foreword from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an Afterword by Chuck D of Public Enemy, and another one by Common.  In his Foreword, Gates traces rap’s linguistic conventions to the cultural traditions of oral poetry and signifying, or “playing the dozens”. This cultural context sets the tone for the Introduction, which identifies the anthology’s threefold path of, first, contextualizing rap and its poetry within “African-American oral culture and the Western poetic heritage”; (2) framing rap’s cultural history in terms of its value as literature and art; and (3) giving readers the “tools with which to read rap lyrics with close attention.”

The anthology doesn’t reach these goals as a complete, self-sustained work, though. Fulfilling even one of these goals could occupy several volumes, and some of the rap lyrics themselves might have to be jettisoned in the interest of detail and thorough discussion. Instead, the anthology seems better suited to reaching these goals as a supplement, which is not an indication of its failure. What The Anthology of Rap lacks as a comprehensive treatise, assuming such a project could exist, it compensates for as a research tool. 

The rap lyrics contained in this volume can be compared to, and contrasted with, what we’d call traditional poetry. Rap lyrics can also be compared and contrasted with each other, the synergy and friction of which illuminates the genre in ways that even the best music journalism is often ill-equipped to do. Here, the reader must interact with the material instead of looking at it from a distance, operating within what the text describes as a “laboratory of language for those interested in the principles of poetics.” A working knowledge of rhetorical devices can successfully be applied to rap lyrics, where similes and metaphors stay gainfully employed, but you’ll also find such techniques as alliteration, onomatopoeia, personification, paradox, understatement, hyperbole, and irony. Connections can be made, like when you hear KRS-One’s “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” and you realize he’s opening the song with his own take on Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”. 

Sometimes, reading a rhyme, instead of listening to it, spotlights exactly how good it is. Readers will enjoy reading many of the rhymes in the anthology, but Mos Def’s “Hip Hop” and Pharoahe Monch’s “Desire” stood out to me.  In “Desire”, Pharoahe’s clever line that “Monch is a monarch only minus the A&R” is better displayed on the page. Taking the “A” and the “R” out of “monarch” literally leaves “Monch”, which is why he also claims he can “still get it poppin’ without artist and repertoire”. On a fundamental level, there is intrinsic value in collecting rap lyrics, and illuminating the history of a movement in a single book. This undertaking matches the attention and intensity of any poetry anthology out there.

While the anthology explicitly resists the illusion that it identifies a canon, it is difficult to avoid this assumption when we are approaching rap via the lofty implications of poetry. The illusion, of course, is that the collection houses the best of the batch, a definitive body of standard bearing lyricism and a veritable treasure trove of rap at its finest. In some respects, that’s exactly what the anthology represents. No serious collection purporting to chronicle rap’s history could omit a song like Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message”. At the same time, the Introduction steadfastly advises against wholesale canonization, characterizing the anthology as a “starting point” for illuminating rap’s “lyrical history”, displaying “lyrical excellence” in written form, and accentuating the poetic growth of the individual artists.

Though naysayers might balk at the idea of rap claiming legitimacy as poetry—“doggerel”, I think they call it—rappers themselves are quick to dote on their microphone skills, touting their abilities with words as the reason why they set trends, attract lovers, and defeat competitors.  Rappers compare these skills to those of boxers (Ghostface Killah’s “The Champ”), architects (Kool Moe Dee’s “I Got To Work”), scientists (Gang Starr’s “Check the Technique”), martial artists (pick from a discography of songs by the Wu-Tang Clan and its affiliates), and superheroes (K-Solo’s “Letterman”, Redman’s “Soopaman Luva” series), among other professions. 

More to the point, the practice of equating rap to writing is a recurring theme. Special Ed, in “Think About It”, says, “I talk sense condensed into the form of a poem”.  Not only did Nas reference his own writing bona fides in his raps (“My poetry’s deep, I never fail”), he has also alluded to his notebook and his “book of rhymes”.  At other times, he demonstrates his writing prowess instead of just talking about it, as in “Rewind” when he rhymes an entire story backwards, from the end back to the beginning, as naturally as one would tell a story to a friend. Black Thought, in The Roots’s “The Next Movement” takes a similar stance, “Listen close to my poetry, I examine this / like an analyst, to see if you can handle this”. On the Skyzoo & Illmind’s ironically titled 2010 release, Live from the Tape Deck, Skyzoo performs on “Frisbees” in spiraling stanzas.  Steadily through the first eight bars, and then periodically throughout, he begins each new line with the ending word, or a derivation thereof, from the previous line.

When they aren’t declaring themselves poets, they are equating their work writing in general.  For example, Lauryn Hill, in “Final Hour”, compares her work to a thesis, “well-written topics broken down into pieces”.  Kool Moe Dee boasts that his rhymes are dissertations in “I Go To Work”. LL Cool J titled one of his raps a “Murdergram”, and In “Nitro”, he contends that his recited rhymes are “spontaneous” and, I suppose, more wondrous and ambitious, compared to the “nursery rhymes”, or the labored but inferior work, of his competitors.  Their rhymes are “miscellaneous”. In “Hip Hop”, Mos Def rhymes, “Scrutinize my literature from the large to the miniature”.

When they aren’t calling themselves poets or comparing their work to elite writing, rappers invite comparisons to authors. Q-Tip, in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions”, refers to himself as the “Abstract Poet” who is “prominent like Shakespeare”.  Chuck D, in Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome”, compiles a litany of torture-related images, some with links to literature, including crucifixion (“Crucifixion ain’t no fiction”) and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit & the Pendulum. On Hip Hop Is Dead‘s “Blunted Ashes”, Nas wonders whether Langston Hughes and Alex Haley “got blazed before they told stories.” Talib Kweli’s work is filled with literary references, including some to poets like Langton Hughes, whether it’s a direct comparison (“I’m Langston Hughes, dream deferred, seen and heard in the flesh”) or merely an allusion to Hughes’s work (“Watch me take it there / life ain’t no crystal stair”).  On the aforementioned Live from the Tape Deck, Skyzoo claims to rhyme as if he’s found the famous poet’s writing instrument in “Langston’s Pen”.


In “The Rules of Rap”, Page Kennedy and Elzhi trade verses designed to teach aspiring rappers the tools of the trade. They give advice about beats, cadences, and rhyme patterns, as well as “tools of language” other than similes and metaphors: “Lesson five, you gotta strive not to forget imagery / If you see what I’m saying then it’d be more interesting”.  Elzhi is known in rap circles for his work with the rap group Slum Village, and he has a knack for executing intriguing song concepts, whether he’s describing a vivid dream (“Talking in My Sleep”), toying with the connotations of various hues (“Colors”), or turning the ends of his rhyme schemes into trivia (“Guessing Game”).  If you don’t know Page Kennedy for his rapping, then maybe you’ve seen him on television shows such as Weeds (he played the drug dealer “U-Turn”), My Name is Earl, or The Shield.

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