In his review of The Anthology of Rap (published in the February 2011 issue of Poetry), critic and poet Adam Kirsch maintains that rap, as an art form, is mired in its own adolescence and must overcome it if it ever expects to be taken as seriously as high-art literary poetry, to which is it increasingly (and, perhaps in his mind, too often) compared: “Reading rap as poetry, the way the Anthology invites us to do, makes [rap’s thematic] monotony especially stark, since reading is a more critical mode of engagement than listening. If rap is mainly a genre for and by adolescents, it is largely because its notion of artistic self-assertion is an adolescent one . . . the Anthology of Rap demonstrates that it’s not until this striving is sublimated and turned inward, becoming a struggle for truth and beauty, that an art grows up.” To be fair, Mr. Kirsch is basing his opinion primarily if not solely off of the lyrics printed in The Anthology (which I have not read and will not read until an edition is printed with corrected lyrics), but his opinion of rap–or Hip-Hop music–is a widespread one that has unfairly dogged it for decades, and it’s time to put it to rest.
Leaving aside the question of whether Hip-Hop lyrics are poetry, can be poetry, or at best can only strive to be a distant cousin to serious poetry (I’ll deal with these questions in future posts), I would respectfully submit to Mr. Kirsch and others who share his opinion that one cannot make fair judgments of an entire art form based off of the reading of one book and a sampling of the sort of songs that are played on the radio. Those of us in our thirties and forties who grew up with Hip-Hop saw the art form begin to take itself more seriously, diversify, and mature as early as the mid-1980s.
Despite what its detractors would have others believe, Hip-Hop is not all about boasting or promoting a “gangsta” lifestyle. Yes, there are an overwhelming number of party songs and wildin’ out songs–they have always been and will always be a significant part of Hip-Hop–but there are also the sincere love songs, the humorous songs, the political songs, and the religious and spiritual songs. There are the songs urging respect for women, the songs promoting racial harmony, and the songs urging listeners to look around and within themselves in order to begin a journey toward self-improvement and a better world. And there are the songs where the lyricist simply does nothing but play with words, all without boasting or threatening to kill anyone. In every category, the lyrics range from the simplistic to the complex. To view all of Hip-Hop’s lyrics as focusing on two themes–“I’m bad” or “I wanna be bad”–is a very narrow view indeed. The art doesn’t suffer from the “rigid conventionality” that Mr. Kirsch decries; it suffers from the lack of serious attention by serious, open-minded critics.
I shouldn’t have to tell anyone old enough to read this that popular culture, for the most part, caters to the lowest common denominator. Casual listeners and observers hear and see the worst of what Hip-Hop has to offer because, frankly, that’s what sells, that’s what’s promoted, and that’s what young artists striving to make a career feel–or are told–they have to create. But it’s not the whole story. Hip-Hop has its fair share of mavericks who play with ideas and subject matter as freely as they play with the language.
Since I have not yet read it, I can’t extensively comment on the lyrics the editors of The Anthology chose to showcase in their book, but I did find it curious that the Chuck D/Public Enemy lyrics quoted in Mr. Kirsch’s review are some of the artist’s earliest and, thus, the least representative of his style and usual subject matter. If there’s any Hip-Hop lyricist who can make the case for Hip-Hop’s consideration as a serious art form, it’s Chuck D. But in Mr. Kirsch’s review, the artist comes across as just another self-involved braggart and borderline gangsta rather than the Godfather of Political and Social Consciousness Rap he’s often considered to be. One of the art form’s most literate and complex writers, Chuck D has been engaging in the struggle for truth and beauty for three decades, and he’s not alone. I could also name albums by De La Soul, Killah Priest, Canibus, and a number of others, but rather than go on and on, rattling off a list of artists and their merits, I’ll simply offer Public Enemy’s underrated 1999 album There’s A Poison Goin’ On as one excellent example of a Hip-Hip artist using high quality lyrical complexity to tackle serious issues in ways that are anything but conventional or adolescent.
And Hip-Hop’s come a long way since 1999, let alone 1979.
Innovation, introspection, self-criticism, the struggle for truth and beauty–these are not foreign concepts to Hip-Hop’s best lyricists. Those all too ready and willing to accuse Hip-Hop of being stuck in a state of arrested development, lacking in this, that, or whatever, should speak up and explicitly state what they think the art form is missing. Chances are some Hip-Hop fan can tell them exactly where to find it, or an obscure Hip-Hop artist is already busy working in the shadows creating it–possibly in vain.