Poetry in Rap

As popular as hip hop is, it remains under-appreciated as a literary art form.


graphic by Kendel Barber

Kendel Barber, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Despite the wild popularity of rap music, the genre seems to still be under-appreciated for its artistic elements. Yet, like all forms of music, rap is art. It contains elements that deserve the literary merit and esteem that other genres of music receive.

Rap, which started in urban centers of America in the 1970s, is the poetic alignment of lyrics that are typically found in hip-hop, which describes the musical elements and beats to accompany the rap. While some weaker rappers do execute an artistic portrayal of their work, creating a negative reputation for the genre, many of the successful rappers are arguably the most talented writers in the music industry. They exemplify the beauty and deep significance of rap to elicit an impactful response from the listener.

One of the reasons why people tend to associate rap music with a chaotic string of meaningless words and sounds is that people disregard the lyrics. To truly enjoy the effect of rap, you have to listen intently to the lyrics, and you will realize the art is sometimes overshadowed by the underlying beat and upfliting, fast-paced sounds.

When you start to listen to the lyrics in a rap song, you will start to hear themes resonating throughout them. For example, the lines: “Reach for the stars, so if you fall you land on a cloud,” and, “I guess you never know what you got till it’s gone,” are both found in Kanye West’s “Homecoming.” These verses convey important messages about setting high expectations, failure, and valuing every moment of life.

Imagery is an important poetic element often found in rap. One of the best examples of this is in Jay-Z’s verse in “Empire State of Mind.” The song takes the listener through an auditory tour of New York City. Jay-Z describes the city as “the meltin’ pot” with “eight million stories,” referring to the population of the city, that “for foreigners it ain’t for/they act like they forgot to act.” He uses common nicknames and descriptions of the city to paint an image in the listener’s mind of the wonders of the city, conveyed through his choice of diction.

In J.Cole’s song “Crooked Smile,” he communicates the message that while a perfect appearance is what seems to be most valued, it is not the most important. He mentions the pressure faced by society to look good, saying, “They tell me I should fix my grill ‘cause I got money now,” and then provides his response, saying “A perfect smile is more appealing but it’s funny how my [smile] is crooked, look at how far I done got without it.” His underlying theme of the song is that no one should give into this societal pressure. Talent is what matters more, and he even goes on to compare a “crooked smile” to bigger issues faced in the country and the hypocrisy of people to point out the problems with individuals while ignoring societal issues like racism. His lyrics “Look at the nation, that’s a crooked smile / Braces couldn’t even straighten / Seem like half the race is either on probation, or in jail” portray this idea.

One of the many important elements of poetry is figurative language, a device commonly used by rappers to add the artistic feelings within the song. In his song “DNA.”, Kendrick Lamar compares his success to one of the most prestigious athletic competitions in the world, with the line, “I just win again, then win again, like Wimbledon I serve.” Eminem’s lyrics are known for frequently mirroring his own life and inner thoughts, which he continues throughout the song “Lose Yourself.” He tells as story of the monotonous life that he lives and how he has lost motivation. He incorporates a simile into one of the closing lines mentioning how another routine day has “Gotten me to the point I’m like a snail, I’ve / got to formulate a plot.”

Some verses in rap can show their expressive nature simply through a methodical and intricate structure of the lyrics. In Drake’s “Headlines”, he raps, “I might be too strung out on compliments / Overdosed on confidence /…stopped fearin’ the consequence / … drink too my accomplishments / faded way too long, I’m floatin’ in and out of consciousness”, using slant rhymes at the end of each line to make the lyrics cascade together into a literary masterpiece.

While rap is a relatively new genre of music, it has already provided people new ways of expressing and sharing meaningful ideas in literary ways. Certain noteworthy lines from rap are widely recognized, due to their deep meanings and beauty in structure, one being from the legendary 2Pac: “Even though you’re fed up, you gotta keep your head up.”