I was recently arguing with a friend who called me a deluded fool for believing that hiphop lyricists are a significant force in today’s poetry scene. I get in arguments like this a lot.
In this particular case, my friend asked me to name three examples of hiphop lyricists who can be taken seriously as poets.
I can name about eight, actually. I see that the intersections between the separate worlds of hiphop and poetry are multiplying fast, and I think anybody who cares about modern literature should get behind this trend. If your view of modern poetry does not include any part of the hiphop universe — whether it be old school, new school, or just strange spoken word poet you caught on Def Poetry Jam on HBO — then it’s possible you are out of touch with the best stuff that’s happening today. Here are three major hiphop writers who have new releases out this season:
‘Street’s Disciple’ is the new double CD by Nas, one of the most serious and respected hiphop voices. Nas’s words almost always express anger and defiance, and he explicitly urges a revolutionary agenda for the world.
Nas is often great but famously inconsistent, for which he was brutally flamed by Jay-Z: “That’s a one hot album every ten year average”. Even Nas’s most classic album, “Illmatic”, had a couple of lame songs. But Nas also turns out amazing gems on a fairly regular basis: “Hate Me Now”, “Made You Look”, “One Mic”. I’ve only listened to about half of his new CD so far, and I’m happy to report that Nas is in the zone on this album, with the intensity turned up to eleven. In one track, he blasts the “coon picnic” of WB-TV style black comedy. In another, Nas’s father provides the backing track by singing against a powerful Muddy Waters beat. Every cut on the album is an attempt at a serious spiritual message (okay, with a couple of party anthems thrown in).
Jay-Z has been writing an autobiography since his first album, ‘Reasonable Doubt’. Every CD is a new chapter. This highly driven overachiever best hit his stride with perhaps the best album in hiphop history, “Blueprint”, which was released on the day four airplanes crashed in America. This album spelled out in brutally honest detail Jay-Z’s own internal battles, as well as a few battles with others.
Every Jay-Z song talks about Jay-Z, aka H.O.V.A., aka Jigga, aka S. Carter, aka H to the Izzo, and every song tells the same story: a boy from the projects smartened up and conquered the world. After ‘Blueprint’, Jigga followed up with an almost equally strong ‘Blueprint 2.x’, and then suddenly announced his retirement with last year’s ‘Black Album’. This was a surprisingly bitter farewell statement, triumphant but largely joyless. Jay-Z was tired of winning the game, and he was taking his ball and going home.
Luckily, though, he had barely finished retiring when he started producing again. His collaboration with R. Kelly went nowhere, but his new film ‘Fade to Black’ is a classic. It’s a concert film interspersed with scenes of Hova at work with various producers from Timbaland to Kanye West to Pharrell to Rick Rubin. Jay’s songs are often about the burden of being a creative soul, and this movie shows us the vast existential void an A-List Genius faces when trying to create a new classic. We see him and his producers gazing helplessly at walls, playing one lifeless beat after another. Then suddenly something hits and Jay is at the mic. ‘Fade to Black’ is a great look at a creative process and a very thought-provoking film.
Eminem is the most metafictional artist in music. His twists of character and identity would have made Luigi Pirandello and Italo Calvino proud. Is he rapping as Slim Shady, or Eminem, or Marshall Mathers, or maybe just the Lead Singer of the Band? These four identities provided the outlines for his first four albums. For his fifth, thankfully, he did not invent yet another kaleidoscopic angle on himself but instead seems to be interested in reconciling his several selves.
I haven’t heard this full CD yet either, but I’m impressed with what I’ve heard. ‘Encore’ is as intense as a Nas CD, and as always Eminem does not shy away from controversy or psychological complexity.
So that’s my top three. What do you think about the intersection of hiphop and literature? Do you take song lyrics of any type seriously as poetry?