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On rap as a literary device

Rap has really gone downhill, right? Its rhythmic beats and aggressive pace have been co-opted by the hip-hop sector to host the constant repetition of a few poorly-constructed self-aggrandizements. Oh, and continuous insistence on how cool the rapper pop star is, how much money he has, and how superhot his, ahem, lady friends are.

I argue that this trend is an iniquitous misappropriation of a valuable literary device.

City of Words, a lithograph by Vito Acconci


The pace of rap is basically a chant, a mantra, a construction reminiscent of certain elements of being a human that are highly relevant to art.

As a chant, it imitates the stream of consciousness; as a tempo, it recalls the resilient beating of a human heart and the sensation of actualizing a path through the consistent tap-tap-tap of steps on concrete.

Great rappers of the past, like Tupac (allow me the pleasure of indulging in the cliché of hallowing Tupac’s work) were storytellers, social critics, lyricists. They used the literary vehicle of rap for its most apropos application: translating the slipstream of thoughts, memories and insights into verbal expression and music.

In anger, the pace of their verse was institutional in strength and blistering in force. In reflection, it was solemn, resigned, yet quietly regulated by the pace of cognition and the cyclical arrival of intuition.

I concede that there are artists recording today who do this literary vehicle justice as a stream-of-conscious communication device; Kid Cudi comes to mind (the original songs, not the dance hall remixes, although those are still some killer tunage), as do the Fugees and Miami’s own ArtOfficial.  A Tribe Called Quest, superior storytellers, kicked it up until a few years ago.

I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on the universe of rap, but I know enough – and am definitely haughty and snobby enough – to be sickeningly disappointed by today’s radio dominators. (Well, I admit grooving to Akon’s “I’m So Paid.” Who can resist?)

In conclusion, while there are shining stars, the lion’s share of today’s hip-hop artists stars far too often bastardize the lovely gait of rap as a template for the formulaic construction of verbal autoeroticism.  Anybody bucking this trend you’d like to direct me to? Leave a comment.

[Image: City of Words, a lithograph by Vito Acconci. Thanks.]

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