Rap as a Literary Expression

I was perusing some old material of mine and came across this. I still feel this way, so I’m republishing it.

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As a writer, I appreciate all forms of expression … including rap. Now, I realize a whole lot of browsers just shut down, but the reality is that rap is simply a literary expression set to music. To clarify, I’m speaking of rap back when the movement began not as it exists today.

When rap was first born, it was a lyrical movement that detailed the American black experience. The best rappers were poets of extraordinary talent. The rhymes forced you to think. They were metaphorical and imbued with the defiance that it took to survive as a young black man in America who was more likely to die before the age of 21 than to graduate high school. I’m not exaggerating that. The number one cause of death for young black men in the 1980’s was homicide.

Rakim

Rakim

“Follow the Leader” by Eric B. and Rakim is widely considered one of the greatest rap songs of all time and it’s MC, Rakim, is considered one of the greatest rappers of all time. This is lyrical poetry through and through. Consider …

Follow me into a solo, get in the flow,
And you could picture, like a photo,
Music makes mellow, maintains to make,
Melodies for MCs, motivates the breaks.
I’m everlasting; I can go on for days and days,
With rhyme displays that engrave deep as x-rays.
I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard,
Flip it… now it’s a daily word.

Or…

This is a lifetime mission.
Vision a prison. All right, listen.
In this journey, you’re the journal, I’m the journalist.
Am I eternal or an eternalist?
I’m about to flow long as I can possibly go.

The entire song follows the same dynamic. He is taking the black experience and making it art. Turning it into something to be pondered, considered, challenged and then absorbed. I love rap like this.

Eminem

Eminem

Over the years, rap has died and hip-hop was born. Rappers are no longer poets, they are vehicles for merchandising. In my mind, there are very few true rappers left. One I particularly enjoy, however, is Eminem. The way he puts words together is raw, urgent and defiant. I consider his songs poetry first and foremost. Consider his song “Not Afraid,” the hook in particular gets me:

There’s a game called circle and I don’t know how
I’m way too up to back down
But I think I’m still tryna figure this crap out
Thought I had it mapped out but I guess I didn’t
This f-cking black cloud’s still follow’s me around
But it’s time to exorcise these demons
These motherfu-kers are doing jumping jacks now!

[HOOK]
And I just can’t keep living this way
So starting today, I’m breaking out of this cage
I’m standing up, Imma face my demons
I’m manning up, Imma hold my ground
I’ve had enough, now I’m so fed up
Time to put my life back together right now

I recently stumbled across this little video of him freestyling along with Mos Def another stunning lyricist while searching out the video to “Not Afraid.” The thing to keep in mind as you watch is that they are all making this up on the spot. This is not planned or memorized. Love it!

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