Saturday, November 12, 2011

Jay-Z, Adam Bradley, & the Rap-Poetry Conversations

Questions about the degrees to which rap is or is like poetry have persisted since the days even before old-school rap. But you'll probably recall that the rap-poetry conversation gained new life a year ago with the publication of Decoded by Jay-Z and The Anthology of Rap edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois.

Jay-Z and Bradley were especially important figures on the rap as poetry side of the conversation. Jay-Z was inclined to really highlight the extents to which rappers are poets in all the interviews he was doing to promote the release of his book. What better spokesman for rap as poetry than one of the leading rappers of all time?

In addition to co-editing The Anthology of Rap, Bradley had also written Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop (2009) and thus contributed to an already expansive scholarly discourse on the artistic nature of the music. His work went steps extended or deepened the discourse by pinpointing the particular literary qualities of rap lyrics.

Although reviewers often and rightly concentrated on the content of Jay-Z's Decoded and Bradley and DuBois's The Anthology of Rap in the conversations about rap as poetry, there was less conversation about the significance of material production in shaping perceptions of the music. In short, books matter, and so part of what made Jay-Z's claims about rap as poetry especially credible was that so many of the lyrics were now appearing in book form.  More so than Decoded, which contained several of Jay-Z's song lyrics, an anthology of rap lyrics really strengthened the case that the rappers were or like poets.

Rap lyrics have been appearing in liner notes and online for years and years now. However, anthologies have a way of solidifying the literary nature of  song lyrics. During the black arts era of the 1960s and 1970s, spirituals and blues lyrics began appearing frequently in anthologies featuring poetry. After a while, scholars and students took it for granted that the lyrics constituted crucial features of the literature.

The first edition of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997) included lyrics by Gil Scott-Heon, Grandmaster Flas, Public Enemy, and Queen Latifah. The second edition of The Norton (2004) included those figures as well as lyrics by Biggie Smalls and Nas.

The Anthology of Rap, with its inclusion of more than 300 songs by approximately 100 artists, has taken the conversation, or more accurately, the material production of rap as poetry or literary art even further.

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