The eminent linguist and social critic John McWhorter has issued a diagnosis. Hip-hop, he says in a column in the New York Times (August 24, 2023), has become “America’s poetry.”
If McWhorter’s claim sounds challenging, it’s a familiar sort of challenge. Decade by decade, it seems, there are moves to rub out any border between popular song lyrics and poems—often in the attempt to make the latter a little less scary. I grew up with an anthology edited by Josephine Miles titled, simply, The Poem; it closed with some witty verses by Cole Porter. A little later there was the collection Beowulf to Beatles. Various singer-songwriters have dubbed themselves poets. And in 2016, a figure with a weaker claim than some others took home the ultimate recognition: Bob Dylan won his Nobel.
Outrageous? Not in principle. There is no legislated line between words set to music—or chanted on top of an insistent, dominating beat—and words that are not. The choruses in Greek tragedies were apparently sung. Opera librettos used to be versified. And lyrics gain some charm when they rhyme engagingly, toy with metaphor, or otherwise smuggle in poetic devices.
The question remains: how do the words stand up as words? Strip away the melody, harmony, sonic heartbeat, and what have you got left?
In the case of rap, quite a lot, McWhorter implies. Others do more than imply. “When all the club bangers have faded, when all the styles and videos are long forgotten, the words will remain.” writes academic Adam Bradley. Yale University Press has published a 900-page rap anthology; Jay-Z has a hefty collection all of his own.
By all means read these books. Once past the lively introductions, they are dreary.
In the cold light of the printed page, the subtleties some readers find in this verse (a squinting eye can find subtlety anywhere) disappear. The broken-backed rhymes that can seem clever when rapped have lost their feisty charm; the repetitive boasts and satirical jabs fall flat. The form is simply not meant to be absorbed in silence.
Unlikely though the comparison may seem, I think of Richard Wagner’s librettos. As a young opera buff, I thought his texts might be good poetry in German, as they certainly were not in the English versions I saw. It took a couple of years of learning the language to teach me otherwise. Wagner’s stories are fascinating, his music often sublime. His words, a few passages excepted, are not.
Of course, McWhorter is not precisely assessing the qualities of rap and of hip-hop culture in general. He is simply observing their dominance. But that’s another conversation.