On the Art of Rap

Relation with Poetry

It is criminal to define rap as a form of poetry. I do generalise but I must if I where to interpret wide, ever-changing art forms. There would be little hope in nuance author and readers alike would understand anyways. Rap has been popularly defined as “Rhythm and Poetry”, but this characterisation is also wholly restrictive and shows misunderstanding with the nature of rap. Similarities between traditional poetry and rap notably includes metaphors, pacing of words and use of rhyme. How this is specific to poetry and rap is beyond me, as this is the case with almost all artistic use of language. For example, one may find it accurate to call singing “melodic poetry”, but it is inexcusable to identify all singing as a section of the wider world of poetry.

The reasoning for this attempt to pigeon-hole rap as poetry is clear, it is similar to how many ask if chess should be identified as a sport. Poetry is old, western and traditional, whilst rap is postmodern, thus juvenile. Rap is characterised as vulgar or blunt, so the everyday descriptivists which wish to timidly embrace hip-hop dilute it by integrating rap as simply a form of poetry, giving it artistic legitimacy. Similarly those that imply chess is a sport wish to give chess competence-based legitimacy because they don’t give all games similar legitimacy. This is to say those that call rap poetry must do so in order to believe rap is art. They cannot see the immense differences between the two and how viewing them as the same is an insult to both, including poetry slam.

Surface-level differences between rap and (traditional) poetry can easily be identified. Rap used similes more often because it typically pertains to the fascinating everyday, whilst poetry uses metaphors to couple the metaphysical, viewing the experience of life as a vehicle to the immaterial. Cadence is a central aspect to rap, whilst poetry occasionally employs it for additional effect. Rap is performative, musical and braggadocios at times, whilst poetry is literary.

If someone understands my point here yet they still insist that rap is fundamentally a form of poetry then I’ll listen, but I believe I’ve done a good deconstruction of the common “is rap poetry” question. My point remains: rap is much more a form of music than poetry. It can be argued that rap is evolved from sung lyricism rather than poetry.

Conscious Sadness and Further Depersonalisation

The postmodern era provides a powerful understanding of hip-hop. The metanarrative of high and low art is ruthlessly destroyed under rap.

As a performance, rap has a direct and unnerving ability to convey complex emotions. In my opinion, it is greater than sung lyrics in pop, folk, rock, punk etc. These have to be shoved through the complexity of harmony. Emotions in rap can be conveyed by cadence, rhythm, pitch, articulation and (obtusely listed here,) content of lyrics. These techniques arrive naturally in rap, whereas techniques such as tremolo are conventionally conjured up beforehand in sung pieces, put in place by the composer. Singing, then, is more geared towards concepts, including anthems of patriotism or happy birthday.

Hip-hop typically involves expletives which would be traditionally understood as low art, but they are used in such an endearing way the words themselves provide power to lyrics. The psychological effect of rap is used to shock (referred to as shock rap) or empower the self. Beyond this, rappers are masters of irony. Irony has evolved (partially due to hip-hop) to not simply imply opposites but create entire hypotheticals which blur the lines between persona and character. They can indulge in what is considered low only to make a self-referential (highbrow) point about the nature of the topic.

Your DNA an abomination

Here Kendrick Lamar is speaking about the historical perpetrators of slavery on the track DNA. Obviously implying genetics can be objectively quantified onto a hierarchy is against the entire anti-racist messaging, but that is exactly the point. Lamar is insulting racists on their own terms, ironically, a demonstration of the constant inability to escape the structures of society, even when being aware of them. It is commentary on commentary, hyper-nuanced and self-doubting. The creation of contradiction is a strength here – the emotion is more powerful than the thought and listeners feel the effect and go “Ohhh!”. He does all this in one line. This is not an over-analysis; fans will understand this type of irony intuitively but not think about it at this length with these clinical words. This type of saddened hopeless irony is the backbone to many rap lyrics across generations of artists.

Topics themselves which have pertained to complex social issues in a landscape of expression since the start of hip-hop. These times of great cultural change are currently over in the west. The wars are over, we have settled into neoliberalism with subtle systemic racism, a class-based society which also strives for equality whilst remaining content with inequality and the demise of ecology. Dreams of space are mostly abandoned, technology no longer guarantees improvement. We are in an age of conscious profit extraction and meh. There is no art form greater than hip-hop (many would be on-par) at portraying the gentle hopelessness humanity has walked into with the 21st century.

Almost all rap is in the minor key, even songs about success, because even success is at the expense of demise. This is either the demise of others or of yourself, typically through struggle. Enemies are typically mentioned in success raps; success is almost always success through conflict. The feeling portrayed is more geared to ideas of triumph from conflict rather than prosperity itself.

They said I can’t rap about being broke no more

These lyrics are from Kill You by Eminem, on The Marshal Mathers LP. They are the first lyrics other than the intro skit and chorus on the album, the album which is the first after his nation-wide success. He clearly expresses how success made is making him lose a part of his own artistic identity. This sadness is a theme throughout the whole album.

The subculture of hip-hop obsessed with lavish spending is simultaneously hyper-aware and self-obsessed.

Now I like dollars, I like diamonds

I like stuntin’, I like shinin’ (Yeah)

I cannot comment on Cardi B’s intent with the lyrics on I Like It. The message that “money doesn’t happiness” has become so meaningless in its use that there had to be a reaction to this concept. There can be legitimate comfort in vapid consumerism, perhaps there is irony involved or simply the desire to be feel carefree in the financial world. If there is music which is wilfully aware, there must be music which is wilfully unaware; there must be blissful ignorance.

The consumption of rap music which is both conscious of the sociopolitical world and simultaneously ironic depersonalises the reality of everyday terrors from individuals as societies are interpreted as unchangeable. In this interpretation, it’s somewhat of a drug.


Rap is becomes a linguistic weapon in battle rap. Publicly released disstracks imitate the effect of battle rap in a more refined way. Other analyses of rap have already inferred that battle rap is way to resolve conflict without using violence. It can be competitive with a formal audience or, in days past, a way to have a fight without having a fight. Psychologically, tensions are expelled when a rap battle occurs.



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