Is Rap Music Poetry?

Written by Amy Smolcic

→ Amy Smolcic

What’s the difference between the poetry of TS Eliot and the lyrics from a song by your favourite rapper? Andrew Lloyd Webber labelled TS Eliot as the ‘inventor of rap music’ – he has a point, the sound patterns and use of alliteration of Eliot’s poetry can rival the verses of Jay-Z and Nas. But, why do rappers fail to be recognised as poets?

Though some rap is poetry, not all of rap deserves to be classified under the poetry umbrella. Mediocre rap songs tend to feature repetitive phrases and lyrics that are about avid drug use, misogyny and excessive partying. Rap that is considered poetry tends to highlight lyrics that are intricate and complex. ‘Socially conscious’ hip-hop is a sub-genre of rap that aims to question the dominant cultural, political, philosophical and economic consensus. It has become a platform for young people to share their views on exploitation, prejudice, police brutality, injustice and violence. In 2011, Maya Angelou and rapper Common married poetry and rap together on his track ‘The Dreamer’, where Angelou recited a poem she had written. A new-wave of rappers have been associated with the sub-genre in recent times due to the police brutality and Black Lives Matter protests in the US – this has included artists such as Joey Bada$$, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole.

The use of imagery in poetry engages us in the same way as it does in rap music. Rappers connect to their audiences using the images they create. These images encourage reflection of the world surrounding listeners and enables a process of self-realisation. One the best uses of imagery is by Kanye West in ‘Flashing Lights’ where he raps, ‘First class with the seat back, I still see ya / In my past, you on the other side of my memory’s museum’. In the first part of this excerpt, West is trying to say that though he lives a live of luxury, his ex still haunts him. In the second part, he implies that he wants to keep her in his thoughts, but right now he feels separated from her as if glass (like the kind on a photo frame) is dividing them. When imagery is used well, it allows the listener to slip into a dream sequence of sorts where their senses are engaged and they’re feeling everything the speaker is thinking.

Rhythm is something both rap music and poetry have in common. Without rhythm, the lyrics of hip-hop would be a condensed short story. The same can be said for poetry, Irish poet W. B. Yeats once said that poetry is ‘an elaboration of the rhythms of common speech and their association with profound feeling’. This is also what hip-hop achieves – rappers use the organic rhythms from speech and then manipulate them into a beat. Though poems don’t necessarily have to rhyme, all poems do have rhythm. The rhythm in poems and rap can be smooth, flowing, choppy, edgy, violent, gentle, restful or turbulent. Through rhythm, the artist creates a mood that manipulates the feelings they are trying to convey. If we look at ‘Rigamortis’ by Kendrick Lamar, he seamlessly marries the rhythm with his rhymes – even though his rhymes are explosive in their delivery and fast-paced compared to the melody. Though rhyming is important when creating flow, poor rhymes can result in a disruption of flow. An example of this is ‘Stimulated’ by Tyga where he raps, ‘I’m puttin’ in, I’m penetratin’ / I’m getting big, I’m stimulated / I touched the b---h, she disintegrated’. Rhymes are a mechanism for creating rhythm, but they’re not the deciding factor when it comes to creating flow and rhythm.

The use of metaphors is another way rap music is similar to poetry. Lupe Fiasco is a master at using extended metaphors in his music. An extended metaphor occurs when one term is compared to another for multiple lines (or sometimes entire songs) without the use of words such as ‘like’ or ‘as’. An example where Lupe Fiasco has used an extended metaphor is in his song ‘Daydreamin’’. In this track, he personifies a project building in Chicago. Another example is in ‘I Gave You Power’ by Nas – the rapper from New York takes on the perspective of a gun. Through personification, the speaker of the song is represented in the point of a view of an illegal firearm, which has been caught up in the violence that is common in Nas’s native Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Again, it’s important to distinguish the difference between poetry and rap. Just because a rap song has a metaphor, it doesn’t automatically make it poetry – for it to be considered poetry, it needs to portray thoughts that are imaginative and captivating. An example of this is when Lil Wayne uses a metaphor in his track ‘Talk That’ when he says, ‘I plant my seed in her garden now she root for me’, – though he has used a metaphor, this line isn’t considered poetry.

The problem with rap music is that we have far too many rappers and not enough poets. Though there are plenty of rap songs that are about partying and women, if you look deep within the genre you will find songs that exhibit the romanticism of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the alliteration of Edgar Allen Poe and the imagery of Ezra Pound – all rap music needs is for the literary world to finally give it a chance.