Unwrapping the Message
Can lyrics alone speak for hip-hop?
The Anthology of Rap
Yale University Press
$35.00 List Price
Rap music now has something no one might have predicted when it emerged in the South Bronx in the mid-1970s, often relying on lampposts for power: a history. As had been the case with the blues and jazz that helped birth it, hip-hop is a music of the ever present. Thinking of its mix tapes as material for the archives may give any rebel among us pause. What once was new is now old school.
But The Anthology of Rap is not exactly interested in curating the sort of formal history that jazz scholars tend to favor. Instead, the excellent editors, Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, have sidestepped history in favor of "the story of rap as lyric poetry." Using four large eras ("The Old School," "The Golden Age," "Rap Goes Mainstream," and "New Millennium Rap") as an organizing structure, the anthology lists the artists within each alphabetically, as if it were a poetry annual. The editors do not argue that rap lyrics might be poetry. They assume they are already.
Is rap poetry? The question has become a loaded one. It seems today the only people who don't write poetry are poets. The work of anyone else we feel deserves praise, from Toni Morrison to Bob Dylan—and now, Roxanne Shanté—is called poetry. Far from democratizing the practice, this designation of "poetry" for those we like and whose work we respect risks reducing poetry to little more than a free-floating feeling. In one sense, this instinct is true enough: Poetry is ultimately where you find it, and many will find it here. But aren't the lyrics profound enough as the words to great songs? Need they be poetry, too?
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