Book of Rhymes (PDF)

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					 Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip
       Hop by Adam Bradley

                        Rap And The Lineage Of Poetry

If asked to list the greatest innovators of modern American poetry, few of
us would think to include Jay-Z or Eminem in their number. And yet hip
hop is the source of some of the most exciting developments in verse
today. The media uproar in response to its controversial lyrical content has
obscured hip hop’s revolution of poetic craft and experience: Only in rap
music can the beat of a song render poetic meter audible, allowing an
MC’s wordplay to move a club-full of eager listeners.Examining rap
history’s most memorable lyricists and their inimitable techniques, literary
scholar Adam Bradley argues that we must understand rap as poetry or
miss the vanguard of poetry today. Book of Rhymes explores America’s
least understood poets, unpacking their surprisingly complex craft, and
according rap poetry the respect it deserves.
Personal Review: Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop by
Adam Bradley
In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, the author Oscar Wilde
defended his and all literary works by stating that "there is no such thing as
a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That
is all." Condemned for his writings' homoerotic overtones, Wilde was
publicly vilified and even imprisoned for his sexual orientation. Outspoken
individuals like Allen Ginsberg and George Carlin famously received
similar albeit less severe treatment for their expletive antics. A century
after Wilde, rap music faces comparably harsh criticism for its explicit,
aggressive, violent, misogynistic and, ironically to this analogy (both to
Wilde and Ginsberg), homophobic rhymes. But like the diamond in the
rough, below the surface of many of these lyrics lies profundity and value.
After all, the culture that points the finger at rap is the very culture through
which rap emerges - to describe, confront and reshape how we think, feel
and live in this world.

In 2004, comedian Chris Rock performed an HBO special called Never
Scared which was subsequently released on DVD and as a Grammy -
winning CD. One of the highlights of this standup set was a segment called
"Rap Stand Up", in which Rock professed his love for hip hop. Rock went
on to lament the fact that while old school artists like Grandmaster Flash,
Run-D.M.C. and Whodini could be "broken down intellectually", it was
becoming increasingly difficult to "defend" new school emcees; he went on
to mock rhymes like "I got hoes in different area codes" and "move, bitch,
get out the way" by Ludacris. The questions then arise: What exactly
constitutes the intellectuality that Rock was referring to? Can hip hop be
valued as poetry and not just "beats and rhymes"?

This debate has been going on since hip hop first emerged in the
mainstream consciousness. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop by
Adam Bradley offers a unique academic perspective to this conversation.
Bradley's knowledge on classical literature and hip hop go hand in hand as
he interweaves the two in an instructive manner that's both entertaining
and enlightening. Typically, in the rare case that hip hop is incorporated
into studies in literature, it's tacked onto the discussion with little
seriousness given to its substance. Emphasis is plac ed less on truly
looking at hip hop as poetry, instead placed on the perceived open-
mindedness of the writer for including rap lyrics to begin with. That's not
the way to honestly size up hip hop as a form of poetry and art. Bradley's
approach is refreshing for its brutal honesty, most importantly because he's
an open and unapologetic hip hop head.

Book of Rhymes begins, much like any introductory course, with an
historical look at the topic: Bradley digs deep into the rhyme books of
emcees and poets alike, discussing hip hop history and the emergence of
the emcee apart from the deejay. Concluding his preface, Bradley
poignantly writes:
Walt Whitman once proclaimed that "great poets need great audiences." ...
It is our turn to become a great audience, repaying their efforts with the
kind of close attention to language that rap's poetry deserves.

The first time I heard the aforementioned Chris Rock bit, my knee-jerk
reaction was one of total agreement. He's right, I thought, in the sense that
these lyrics seem to lack the poetic integrity of, say, a Rakim or a Nas. But
how or where does the old school/new school argument step in? Is it
because new school raps are more explicit? It certainly can't be the
simplicity of the rhymes. After all, hip hop's first hi t, Sugarhill Gang's
"Rapper's Delight" - Bradley references this particular track in depth
throughout the book - was as simplistic as can be: "See I'm Wonder Mike
and I'd like to say hello/ To the black, to the white, the red, and the brown,
the purple and yellow/."

Bradley's open-ended reach of hip hop lyrics disrupts Chris Rock's black
and white analogy. When we think about hip hop and its place alongside
"respectable" literature, conscious lyricists like Lupe Fiasco and Talib Kweli
often come to mind. But as Bradley points out, even artists like 50 Cent
and Juelz Santana follow a tradition of classical poetry and metered verse.
Providing both hip hop quotables and poetry terminology, Bradley pulls
from all angles as he identifies repititio in Juelz Santana's raps,
homophones in Chuck D and Jay-Z's lyrics, and kenning in Biggie and
Jean Grae's rhymes, just to name a few.

On the flipside, Bradley identifies specific classical writers and their writing
habits as precursors to rap lyricists. Using Edgar Allen Poe as a case in
point, Bradley pulls from Annabel Lee to spot the easily -recognizable
rhythm in the writing. Poe clearly had some sort of beat in mind as he was
writing, but it wasn't the same kind of beat that an emcee/poet like Nas
takes into account as he pens his raps. Poe wrote to the beat of the meter,
whereas Nas writes to the beat of the instrumental he'll rap over. The
nuance of these two "beats" is important in understanding literary verse
and its relation to music and performance. Alternately, Bradley
demonstrates that there's not that much separating hip hop lyricists and
their process from acclaimed poets of other genres, such as Bob Dylan or
Arlo Guthrie.

One particular highlight of the book, a concrete example of Bradley's
expertise on hip hop and poetry, is a comparison between the lyrics of
Langston Hughes and Ice-T. As he pairs up portions of their rhymes, you'll
be amazed by the stark similarities which seem to pop right out of the
pages as you read along. Though at times Bradley's exte nsiveness may
seem over-analytical or over-generous, it'll really make you think twice
about your conceptions of "poetry". And in the end, that's what The Poetics
of Hip Hop is all about: He concludes the book by offering his own Ten
Rap Commandments of Poetry to lay the groundwork for earnest
discussions and debate about hip hop lyrics. "As active listeners," Bradley
states, "we can affect rap's values by what we choose to hear."
The most serious look at hip hop as an art form that I've read, Book of
Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop will prompt you to pay closer attention to
rap lyrics in print form. As Bradley writes, "Reading rap as poetry heightens
both enjoyment and understanding. Looking at rhymes on the page slows
things down, allowing listeners - now readers - to discover familiar rhymes
as if for the first time." In the end, hip hop heads will earn an added sense
of esteem in their music of choice, while the uninitiated (and critics of rap)
will see a side of hip hop that is rarely, if ever, presented or discussed.

- Originally posted on my blog, Hip Hop Is Read (Dec. 9th, 2009)

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