Hip-hop is high art. If you don’t understand that, you’re missing out on some of the best poetry being created today. Grant talks about the new book by English professor Adam Bradley called Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop.
Hip-hop is high art. Yeah. That’s right. And if you don’t understand that, then you’re missing out on some of the best poetry. Literary scholar Adam Bradley examines the style and poetry of hip-hop lyrics in his new book titled Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop.
“When a rapper’s flow is fully realized,” he writes, “it forges a distinctive rhythmic identity that is governed by both poetic and musical laws.”
A hip-hop MC—the one who sings or chants—is a rhyme-maker and “flow” is what an MC has when the rhymes lie easily on top of the rhythm. Rhyme in hip-hop means more than words that sound alike; spitting rhymes is waxing poetic is writing lyrics is storytelling.
There’s a structure there, things that are permitted and forbidden in the art form. Rules about accent, pitch, intonation, force. The conventions of poetry are all there.
So, these hip-hop lyrics are complex. They are connected to each other across samples, across songs, across albums, across artists, across the decades. They could be mapped like a family tree because a good MC knows the hip-hop canon.
And there is a canon, just as there is in literature.
Bradley writes, “Hip hop is haunted by this sense of tradition. It is a music whose death was announced soon after its birth, and the continuing reports of its demise seemingly return with each passing year.”
The old school, the new school, everything that you see in the worlds of prose and in the worlds of poetry—the complex relationships between creator and consumer, between colleagues and competitors, between art and business—those exist in hip-hop.
Hip-hop may be the only place in America where poetry still rules, where it is savored and appreciated by a vast, educated audience. It’s where great poetic skill is rewarded with respect, fame, and money, more often than is the case with the precious poetry you might find in tiny pamphlets near the bookstore register.
I, for one, believe in the pleasure derived from poetically sophisticated rhymes. And I think they’re here to stay.
Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes is just published by Basic Civitas Books. You can find out more about him at AdamFBradley.com.