Note: This is a resurrected + remixed article I wrote, that first aired on KatieCurtin.com.
Note 2: This post is why RapGenius.com founders should get a nobel prize for literature. <grin>
This is personal post for me, show-casing lyrics that really ‘get’ me (at time of writing). Not only that, it’s a controversial discussion starter.
Yeah, I said it.
Buckle in, it’s gonna rock.
It’s time for a fresh look, time for a new perspective. Hip-hop’s grown so much as a culture, and with good reason.
Rap is the new shakespeare.
There are some very passionate ‘literary folk’ who I’ve found are a bit sensitive if you suggest that… heaven forbid… language changes and things evolve.
Mercutio: If love be rough with you, be rough with love;
Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.
If applauding hip-hop in the same breath as a Shakespeare bothers you, just skip this post, but straight up, there’s a lot of good ideas if you keep reading..
Note: I won’t be making direct, technical rap-to-shakespeare comparisons, I’m addressing the bigger picture.
Rap’s The New Shakespeare…
…or something similar.
They both use meter, are based on rhyme, and blend music and language to create unique narratives.
They say beauty’s in the eye of the beholder that it’s all in your perspective.
And that’s true, but let’s talk about the people who create this beauty.
The world’s artists, musicians, and writers offer us incredibly powerful insight, often way ahead of it’s time.
Some of life’s best insights come from the world’s poets. Shakespeare, Elliot, and… Jay-Z.
Yes, I just compared a ‘baller like Jay-Z to iconic historical wordsmiths? And with good reason. For their time and their generation, Shakespeare and Elliot moved people, evolved society, added words to dictionaries, and more.
Rappers have done the same thing.
Jay-Z has more records sold than Elvis and California passed the "Donda West Law," as a tribute to Kanye West’s mother. Oxford has added ‘bling-bling’ and ‘jiggy’ to it’s pages.
Not only that, but over the years hip-hop has taken a frowned-upon art and elevated it to a big part of what got Obama elected.
This is not some useless art-form to write-off as ‘trash’ or ‘noise’ or ‘not for me.’
Because it could be for you.
If you’re gonna go through more of your life without realizing the beautiful, immense, life- and society- changing power of hip-hop.
What do you think literary historians and archaeologists of the future will dig up and find, copies of whoever the latest and greatest poet is of our generation, or Eminem’s incredibly moving "Not Afraid" ?
The easiest way to see the beauty in hip-hop is to treat it more like poetry.
Write it down, break down a line or two — like way back in English class, but cooler.
If you want a jumstart on this check out RapGenius.com. Do it, but… after this article.
Here I’ll do some with you, let’s jump right in to one of the biggest releases in hip-hop to date…
Jay-Z And Kanye West – Watch The Throne [wiki link]
Jay-Z & Kanye West working together, (if you’re not aware, these are two of hip-hop’s greats) and recently released their first collaboration album: "Watch The Throne"
It’s expressive, deep, and powerfully moving.
These two are shining examples of artists who understand the DNA of art, audience, influence and success. To me, they’re clear examples of the leading-edges of hip-hop, and I`d love to do the same for other art forms, maybe you would too.
If you want to hear these tracks, they are all available on youtube last I checked.
Excerpt – Lift Off feat. Beyonce – An uplifting track of praise, applauding Jay-Z, Kanye, Beyonce and any movers-and-shakers in the world who are like them.
"When you earn hard(t) as me, eventually you hit a big wall.
5-4-3-2 we need fuel.
Jay’s talking about a phase in most artists lives — when you’re succeeding and moving at a fast pace, ‘obstacles’ & setbacks can feel like a powerful crash or a ‘big wall’. There’s also a play on ‘earn hard’ and Dale Earnhardt, nascar driver.
Basically, the more success you have, the more any kind of resistance or obstacles can ‘bother’ you when they occur. Many people prefer to live a ‘slower’ life, specifically because of this principle. Are you one of them?
The amount of word-play & layers with the pacing, flow and rhythm of the words is pure art. This is one of the most positive rap songs I’ve heard.
Excerpt – Made It In America – These lines look at business gimmicks and manipulating results, instead of focusing on creating good art.
"Started a little blog just to get some traffic
Old folks’ll tell you not to play in traffic
A million hits and the web crashes – damn!"
Kanye West started a blog, and tells us his motivation for doing so was "to get some traffic." He then goes on to reference some wisdom of the ages, ‘make good art and people will come,’ & don’t ‘manipulate people’.
An agenda of simply manipulating results will cause a ‘crash’. These lines work on another level as well, that of drug-trafficking, which Kanye recommends against here. Annnnd web servers can literally ‘crash’ with too much traffic. Lastly, the crash aspect also leads back to Jay-Z’s Dale Earnhardt wordplay. Brilliant.
Rap is sometimes labelled as lowest-common-denominator stuff, but this top-selling album delivers smart commentary after smart commentary.
Excerpt – Who Gon’ Stop Me – Focuses on how someone coming from ‘nothing’, through self-development and mastery can achieve and succeed in their dreams..
"Pabalo Picasso, Rothkos, Rilkes
Graduated to the MOMA
And I did all of this, Without a diploma
Graduated from the corner."
Jay-Z’s demonstrating how he came from the projects, with crack-dealing background, and through his focus on growth and belief in himself, he graduated to a high-rolling musician/business mogul as well as an art-appreciator, who owns some of the world’s greatest masterpieces.
Some of Shakespeare’s greatest tales mirror the pathos in Jay-Z’s life.
Rappers have incredible fan-bases hanging off their every word, do you think people were moved and entertained by Shakespeare? Do you think Shakespeare was passionate about his creations?
A big part of why hip-hop is so masterful with language and pushing the boundaries and evolving the culture is because rappers are passionate about their lyrics. They’re passionate when they create.
Their lines aren’t "just" something they wrote, their lines are personal and powerful.
Our world is filled with words, but how many of them channel the passion that we find in rap?
Excerpt – Why I Love You –This song is powerful. It’s self-expression at it’s best. It’s how Jay + Kanye feel they’ve poured their hearts out, gone beyond the call of duty, and metaphorically ‘crucified’ themselves financially and emotionally for their people (their teams, friends, families, or audiences).
Similar to biblical tales, Jay + ‘Ye were met with betrayal and peeps jumping ship when the going got a bit rough. In spite of all this, they come up roses, reputations looking great and money flowing well, as they forgive those who "know not what they do."
"Same people that I fought for
That I fight for, that I ride for
That I live for, that I die for
Be the reason that these niggas is alive for
and they want me dead
But I’m so sorry but I just can’t die for you
But I can make em put their hands in the sky for you." – Jay-Z
The same audience and friends Jay-Z intend to uplift, those he feels it’s his life purpose to provide value, entertainment, and education to, seem to want him to make choices that will hurt him, or they actively intend to hurt him. Jay`s response?
[I love you. I’ll sing your praises, my haters, and send fans your way…]
"I tried to teach niggas how to be kings
And all they ever wanted to be was soldiers
So the love is gone, Til blood is drawn
So we no longer wear the same uniform
Fu*k you squares, The circle got smaller
The castle got bigger, The walls got taller
And truth be told after all that said
Niggas still got love for you." – Jay-Z
He invests in people, and he intends for them to rise up and become kings of their own domains along side him – as equals, but they all seem determined to embrace a slow pace of settling and remaining ‘soldiers.’
The amount of biblical references in Why I Love You is pretty substantial, and although some may call it presumptuous, I feel strongly that many artists (these two rappers in particular) have divine inspiration. I even wrote a 9 part series on this.
Excerpt – New Day – A deeply personal song about how Jay + ‘Ye see the future for their children. (At the time, Beyonce was pregnant with Jay-Z’s child.) – This song gets me teary every time.
"See, I just want ‘im to have an easy life, not like Yeezy’s life (Yeezy = Kanye’s nickname)
Just want him to be someone people like
Don’t want him to be hated, all the time judged
Don’t be like your daddy that would never budge
And I’ll never let him ever hit a strip club
I learned the hard way, that ain’t the place to get love
And I’ll never let his mom move to L.A.
Knowin’ she couldn’t take the pressure, now we all pray." – Kanye
Let’s talk Kanye.
Kanye West is one of the most controversial, and alternately hated and loved celebrities. He intends a much different life for his child. He renounces his overly hedonistic days and hopes for better.
"Sorry junior, I already ruined ya
‘Cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya
Sins of a father make yo’ life ten times harder…
Look a man dead in his eyes
So he know you talk truth when you speak it, give your word, keep it " – Jay-Z
Jay’s coming to terms with what’s it like to live a life so much in the public eye, like any of Shakespeare’s kings, and then to add a child to the mix.
Not only that — Jay’s father left him and Jay feels he had to learn lessons the slow way, with no direction from his Dad, and he intends to prepare his kid with more knowledge, earlier, and give him a true leg up. In these lines he talks about one of the most powerful father-son lessons: A man’s word.
Question: Didn’t Shakespeare give us great father son drama as well?
Excerpt – Welcome To The Jungle – About the jungle of life, and how we all make our way through it our own way.
"My faith in God, every day is hard
Every night is worse, that’s why I pray so hard" – Kanye
"My dreams is big, reality set in
Let off a clip from a automatic weapon,
Through shots in the door, it died in Vegas
Though it fought so hard, I knew it wouldn’t make it." – Jay-Z
Celebrities, though they hold & direct massive amounts of power & attention, are human just like all of us. Most believe in powers greater than themselves, and have good times and hard.
This is expressed powerfully here.
Jay-Z started a club in Vegas, called the 40/40 Club, a twin to his successful New York location, but eventually he felt he had to let go of his investment and ‘let it die’, trusting that the loss would work out somehow. He mourns the loss a bit here.
Excerpt – Murder To Excellence – A powerful call to stop black-on-black violence. Less philosophical, and more political & social commentary.
"Only spot a few blacks the higher I go
What’s up to Will, Shoutout to O " – Jay-Z
Jay draws our attention to the fact that there could be way more black celebrities of his caliber, and that he, Will Smith, and Oprah are leading the way (not to mention Barack Obama, who was heavily supported by Jay.).
David Amidon of PopMatters had this to say about the album, which I felt was very fitting: "[Watch The Throne] "succeeds in giving us both sides of both artists—the braggadocio and the social consciousness—in nearly equal measure." This is the kind of paradox Shakespeare could craft. Things that were simultaneously epic and inappropriate.
Rappers use all kinds of literary devices, and they do it masterfully.
Here are some rap techniques (and lots ’em are taught in advanced english classes.)
- emotional impact
- extreme honesty
- structure and flow
- polysyllabic rhymes
- fresh, current language (real talk)
- anticipation, emphasis
- and much more (google it :P)
I want you to appreciate hip-hop more. I want you to appreciate it not just ’cause it’s great to dance to, bob with, and sing in the shower. I want you to understand that it’s our cultures most flowing, concise, impactful story-telling from people who’ve truly lived.
Rap can move people, use it well, and to anyone who bitches about hip-hop being ‘degrading’ or whatever — look, if Jay, Ye, and Shakespeare were to sit down today and talk about the art of words, I bet they’d get along famously.
Thanks for reading, hit me with your ideas + feelings on it in the comments.
So there we have it, fantastic
Jay & ‘Yè so climactic
Rhymes cuttin’ all the static
Automatic, gotta have it
Related Post: Hip-Hop Success Wisdom