rap is poetry -- 2/5/21

Today's selection -- from Decoded by Jay-Z. When Jay-Z released "99 Problems," his third single on The Black Album, it was met with extreme controversy. But "99 Problems" was a provocation to think deeply about the stories rap tells. And controversy was the point:

"Since rap is poetry, and a good MC is a good poet, you can't just half-listen to a song once and think you've got it. Here's what I mean: A poet's mission is to make words do more work than they normally do, to make them work on more than one level. For instance, a poet makes words work sonically -- as sounds, as music. Hip-hop tracks have traditionally been heavy on the beats, light on the melody, but some MCs -- Bone Thugs 'N Harmony, for example -- find ways to work melodies into the rapping. Other MCs -- think about Run from Run-DMC -- turn words into percussion: cool chief rocka, I don't drink vodka, but keep a bag of cheeba inside my locka. The words themselves don't mean much, but he snaps those syllables out like drum beats, bap bap bapbap. it's as exciting as watching a middleweight throw a perfect combination. If you listened to that joint and came away thinking it was a simple rhyme about holding weed in a gym locker, you'd be reading it wrong: The point of those bars is to hang out a rhythmic idea, not to impress you with the literal meaning of the words.

"But great MCing is not just about filing in the meter of the song with rhythm and melody. The other ways that poets make words work is by giving them layers of meaning so you can use them to get at complicated truths in a way that straightforward storytelling fails to do. The words you use can be read a dozen different ways: They can be funny and serious. They can be symbolic and literal. They can be nakedly deceptive. It seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally, as raw testimony or autobiography. And sometimes the words we use, nigga, bitch, motherfucker, and the violence of the images overwhelms some listeners. It's all white noise to them till they hear a bitch or a nigga and then they run off yelling 'See!' and feel vindicated in their narrow conception of what the music is about. But that would be like listening to Maya Angelou and ignoring everything until you heard her drop a line about drinking or sleeping with someone's husband and then dismissing her as an alcoholic adulterer. ...

"'99 Problems' is almost a deliberate provocation to simpleminded listeners. If that sounds crazy, you have to understand: Being misunderstood is almost a badge of honor in rap. Growing up as a black kid from the projects, you can spend your whole life being misunderstood, followed around department stores, looked at funny, accused of crimes you didn't commit, accused of motivations you don't have, dehumanized -- until you realize one day, it's not about you. It's about perceptions people had long before you even walked onto the scene. The joke's on them because they're really just fighting phantoms of their own creation. Once you realize that, things get interesting. It's like when we were kids. You'd start bopping hard and throw on the ice grill when you step into Macy's and laugh to yourself when the security guards got nervous and started shadowing you. You might have a knot of cash in your pocket, but you boost something anyway, just for the sport of it. Fuck 'em. Sometimes the mask is to hide and sometimes it's to play at being something you're not so you can watch the reactions of the people who believe that mask is real. Because that's when they reveal themselves. So many people can't see that every great rapper has a little bit of Chuck and a little bit of Flav in them -- but that's not our problem, it's their failure: the failure, or unwillingness, to treat rap like art, instead of acting like it's just a bunch of niggas reading out of their diaries. Art elevates and refines and transforms experience. And sometimes it just fucks with you for the fun of it.

"This is another place where the art of rap and the art of the hustler meet. Poets and hustlers play with language, improvise, and invent new ways of speaking the truth. When I was a kid in New York and the five Mafia families were always on the front page of the newspaper, the most intriguing character wasn't John Gotti, it was Vinnie Gigante. I'd see him in the New York Post Under a headline like THE ODDFATHER, always in his robe, caught on camera mumbling to himself as he wandered around the Village. His crazy act kept him out of the pen for decades. He took it all the way, but every hustler knows the value of a feint. It keeps you one step ahead of whoever's listening in, which is also a great thing about hip-hop art. And it makes it all the more gratifying to the listener when they finally catch up. Turning something as common as language into a puzzle makes the familiar feel strange; it makes the language we take for granted feel fresh and exciting again, like an old friend who just revealed a long-held secret. "

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