From Shelley to Nelly
Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop
Basic Civitas, 2009
Ever since hip hop went mainstream in the early 1990s, public conversations about the genre have tended to focus on content rather than form. Hip hop’s explicit lyrics, long condemned for their glorification of violence, homophobia, sexism and even racism, continuously overshadow what Adam Bradley, in his new book, deems a bona fide Western poetic form.
Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop offers a respite from a public conversation that has focused almost exclusively on guns and their influence on impressionable youth. Rather than trying to justify or “explain” the objectionable content of hip hop music, Bradley shifts the conversation into a more positive light, focusing on the linguistic innovations of rap and their connection to canonical poetry. In doing so, he repudiates the conventional wisdom that rap exists in a “low culture” vacuum, disconnected from other forms of poetry. Referencing Shakespeare, Coleridge and other canonical poets in his analysis, he signals that the book’s intent is not to revise the definition of poetry, but rather to prove that “Rap is a Western poetic form”.
To illustrate his point, Bradley, an English professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, dissects the mechanics of rap verse. He tracks the appearance of “the Anglo-Saxon tradition of accentual or strong-stress metre” in hip hop verse, showing how rap lines typically contain “the same number of natural speech stresses”. Connections between rap and canonical poetry abound. For example, Bradley compares the Run DMC lyrics “I’m from DMC in the place to be/ and the place to be is with DMC” to Shakespeare’s line from Macbeth, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”. The reference to Shakespeare signals Bradley’s appreciation of “traditional” literary poetry; rather than attacking our notion of “the canon”, Bradley validates it by constantly referencing dead, white, male poets as a standard of comparison.
The book considers how a rapper’s use of rhyme can, as it gains complexity, expand the possibilities of language. Bradley cites Immortal Technique’s lyrics: “The bling-bling era was cute but it’s about to be done/ I leave you full of clips like the moon blockin’ the sun.” The artist is taking aim at superficial rappers and hoping to devastate them, to leave them artistically dead, or in other words, “full of clips”. A person “full of clips” is riddled with bullets, and the experience of death is like the darkness of a blocked sun. Fittingly, “full of clips” sounds like “full eclipse”. The paronomasia, best appreciated when spoken aloud, foregrounds the sonic pleasures of hip-hop, and shows how, as verse that is meant to be spoken, rap lyrics describe experience and become an experience in themselves.
Book of Rhymes offers many such examples from mainstream and underground artists, and Bradley’s love of the genre comes through as he describes the linguistic play of rap that is by turns witty and darkly comic, inventive and lyrical. His close readings of lyrics teach as much about poetry as they do about rap. For instance, he introduces and explains antanaclasis—the repeated use of the same word, each time with a different meaning—with Cam’ron’s “I flip China/ my dishes white china/ from China.” Here the word “china” signifies heroin, crockery and a country. He explains how the rapper’s rhyme, like poetry, works with and against the rhythm of the beat, offering Jay-Z’s lyrics on American Gangster (2007) as an example: “Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra/ I ran contra-band that they sponsored.”
To his credit, Bradley manages to educate the reader without coming across as condescending. He clearly has multiple reading audiences in mind; the allusions to literature and cultural theorists will satisfy the academics, but all references are made within Bradley’s text. The accessible format—no footnotes, bold font and a good deal of white space on the page—will no doubt lure in hip hop enthusiasts without disappointing them.
But some of those readers will be disappointed by the utter lack of female artists in the book, which is perhaps more a reflection of misogyny and inequality in the rap world than it is a scholarly neglect. Bradley cites Lauryn Hill’s verse once, and he mentions Missy Elliott and MC Lyte without citing their rhymes, surely a slight in a book so focused on lyrics. There’s no Da Brat, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown or even Queen Latifah. One laudable inclusion is Jean Grae’s line from “Hater’s Anthem”, in which she calls herself “The cancer-toker, the Mad Hatter, the Jabberwocky of rap”. In recasting herself as a hero of hip-hop, Grae uses kenning, a device popular in Anglo-Saxon verse, in which she replaces her own name with compound phrases. Still, Grae’s self-promotion aside, women are hard to find in this text. The women of rap have been praised for offering a distinct, female point-of-view—alternative lyrical content in a rap world with few alternatives. That Bradley dismisses them from his analysis perhaps suggests an unacknowledged prejudice that persists about male and female poets: Ted Hughes was a genius, Sylvia Plath was a nutter; male poets are wonderfully introspective, neurotic female poets write about their feelings. Bradley’s emphasis on form over content also fails to address the problem of originality in ghostwritten lyrics and formulaic “gangsta” music made at the behest of greedy record executives.
Nevertheless, Bradley succeeds, as scholars so rarely do, in bringing to bear the tools of the academy in an analysis of popular cultural forms. One sees in the Bradley’s conceptual framework flickers of Dylan’s Visions of Sin, the 2004 volume by Oxford professor of poetry Christopher Ricks, which made a compelling case for a serious, academic interpretation of Bob Dylan’s lyrics. Ricks makes a scholarly argument about content, reading Dylan’s lyrics in the context of their relationship to sin and virtue, whereas Bradley makes a scholarly argument about form, reading rap lyrics in the context of poetic devices and tradition. But both are academics braving a vicious peanut gallery in the Ivory Tower, extending the methodology of literary criticism to objects of popular consumption.
Academic feuds often manifest as contests between defenders of the Western canon and proponents of popular art. Bradley refuses to choose sides in those tedious skirmishes, instead highlighting the continuities between “traditional” verse and the poetry we hear from our headphones every day. In fact, Bradley offers a way in which literary studies can evolve without breaking completely from tradition; he shows that the tools of the academy—traditionally used to analyse Coleridge or Wordsworth—can apply, and with an equally productive result, to the rhymes and movements of the everyday street.
Amanda Johnson is a doctoral student in English at Vanderbilt University in the United States, focusing on images of race in the Trans-Atlantic, post-Enlightenment world.