Is Rap Poetry?
Lyrical expression, narrative themes, specific rhythms, these are all factors rap and poetry have in common, so is rap poetry? Are they one and the same? Some may argue they are, while other distinctive elements like spoken or written word versus the addition of instruments may define the two separately.
However, there’s no denying rap and poetry belong in the same social circles, so to speak, and share a rich history as well. To further explore the similarities between the two, here are a few elements to consider and the rap artists and songs that follow a poetic format.
The Shared History of Poetry and Rap
To compare rap with poetry, it’s important to take a look back at the history of both and when the two started to intertwine. Rap poems date back to West African storytelling traditions when artists would share tales within a poetic or musical form. This creative approach to narrative verses is not a new concept in music and is one that shows up in various genres of music, all which have influenced rap in some way. From jazz to R&B, gospel and blues, there have been instances of spoken word, scatting, and call-and-answer type of rap song production that illustrates the early comingling of poetry and rap.
The rap genre specifically is noted to have originated in the early 1970s with DJs leading the way with hip-hop tracks, heavy beats, and spoken or rapped words sung over them. This style evolved into smoother verses, increased musical production, and subgenres that venture into other musical categorizations. As with poetry, rap styles allow for creative expression and are subjective to the listener when defining what is good.
Where does that leave us then when answering the question: is rap poetry? There are certain styles that align the two more than others. For example, free verse, narrative poetry, and rhymed poetry all are root elements of rap music from its early beginnings into today. By taking a closer look at these, it starts to shape a resounding “yes” to what is essentially an open-ended inquiry.
Rhymed poetry is one of the types of rap where rap and poetry are intermingled. There is a certain structure, rhythm, and flow with rap poetry whether it’s written or verbal. During the jazz era, this method was popular with minimal instrumentation to serve as the foundation for the verses. Whereas, in modern-day, the beat has the same effect for rappers freestyling. Freestyling is a form of rhymed poetry where the rapper spontaneously comes up with verses similar to spoken word poetry.
Free verse is a style of poetry that doesn’t have a consistent rhythm or pattern. Many times, it’s linked to the spoken word and is often a stream of consciousness type of format for rappers to incorporate into their music today. Famous free verse poets include Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsburg. Though thematically their poetry was united, the structure used didn’t follow a particular format.
Free verse is often used creatively by rap artists as intro or outros to songs. It’s also used commonly on mixed tapes and independently produced albums involving less editing or on extended releases of albums with bonus free verses for fans.
Most rap songs and poems have a general theme the artist follows, but in narrative poetry, there’s a singular tale being expressed, with a solid beginning, middle, and end. Eminem famously achieved a type of narrative poetry with his song “Stan” from The Marshall Mathers LP, telling the tale of an obsessed fan who took things too far.
Slick Rick is also a prolific rapper known for his lyrical storytelling on his debut album, The Great Adventures, debuting in the mid-80s. Additionally, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill used narrative poetry to compose individual songs that came together as chapters to a full story for a rich listening experience.
Rap Albums That Take a Poetic Approach
Poetry has always influenced hip-hop culture and vice-versa. In the early 2000s, Def Poetry Jam was a popular series on HBO that featured spoken word performances, including those by rapper and host Mos Def. The poetry slam style involved poets competing against each other going verse for verse, a style similar to a rap battle where rappers exchange the same, though over a specific beat.
Then, there are certain types of rap and artists who craft rap poems and perform them as songs. Though they may not be labeled this way, fans understand and appreciate the art form for what it is. Here are a few rappers known for using poetic flows to put forth memorable songs and albums.
Me Against the World - 2Pac
One of the greatest rappers of all time, 2Pac, covered heavy, social topics like suicide, gang violence, and poverty on his Me Against the World album, yet his lyrics were rapped in a way that captured a melodic, haunting tone, turning anger into art. His introspection into these subjects and his ability to speak clearly and truthfully regarding conditions many could relate to is what gained him the following he did during his short yet impactful career.
Damn - Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 Damn album won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for its “vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism” offering “affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” It was critically acclaimed and said to contain some of Lamar’s best writing and versatility.
His attention to the storytelling aspect of the album was purposeful whether someone listened to the album in tracklist order or in reverse. In his collector’s edition for the album, he gives fans the chance to experience the music in reverse order and hear it play out as a full story.
The Black Album - Jay - Z
Jay-Z’s 2003 Black Album was meant to be his final bow before retiring from rap music. Though that didn’t end up being the case, he amped up his storytelling on verses for top hits including “99 Problems” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” Critics called songs from the album “thoughtful” and “transcendent,” a last poetic goodbye to a career that continues on.
Cuz I Love You - Lizzo
Hip-hop artist Lizzo stormed onto the scene in 2019 with her third studio album, Cuz I Love You, with audiences whole-heartedly embracing her playful and semi-autobiographical lyrics. Drawing upon the mix of poetry and rap in earlier decades, she works in several comedic moments throughout the album, while also focusing on female empowerment, body positivity, and other social issues with a peppy rhythm that fans could easily catch on to.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised - Gil Scott-Heron
One of the most iconic rap poems is The Revolution Will Not Be Televised released for the Small Talk album in 1970. It is a spoken word performance by artist Gil Scott-Heron but is driven by jazz- and soul-filled beats of bongo drums and congas that move the verses along to hover the line of rap and poetry. Though never known solely as a rapper, Scott-Heron was instrumental in the music world and a great influence on the hip-hop culture as a whole.
The Score - Fugees
For its final production as a group, the Fugees gave fans The Score, an album that included a wide range of rap styles and instrumentation. There’s a relaxed tone to the album with repetitive lyrics that fit a certain poetic rhythm. Critics called the album “warm and intimate” as well as “a sense of organic interactions” such as freestyle beats and exploratory instrumentation to provide a mystical quality to the music. It’s an album you can feel both with the voices and the delivery of the songs.
The Marshall Mathers LP - Eminem
With his first albums released to the hip-hop community, Eminem was notorious for painting vivid imagery with his lyrics, a device often used in poetry to evoke certain feelings from the reader. Many of these themes and stories were wrapped up in violence and anger which, in some cases, was contradicted with his switch between a menacing tone and comedic style raps. Either way, it’s clear that stylistically his songs were purposeful to gain a reaction from his audience. Though not everyone may review his music as poetic, his process resembles it.
The debate over whether rap is poetry is one that doesn’t have a clear-cut answer. Technically speaking, there are specific elements that define poetic devices, hough creative writing is subjective to the artist as much as it is to their audience. The same goes for music, particularly the rap genre. The beauty of both is neither has to fall within a certain scope or be confined to one definition.
However, it’s interesting to explore instances where the two closely resemble each other in ways undeniable to the mainstream. Whether you consider rap poetry or not, exploring an artist’s entire record collection and the purpose behind their music only adds to the overall listening experience. Check out the Victrola record store to find rap poetry albums that speak to you and see how hearing them on vinyl adds to the appeal.