Op-Ed

Why is pop music the people's poetry? That's what they like

Poems top the Billboard Hot 100: This week, Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” wrested the No. 1 spot from Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble.” The two songs are a study in pop contrasts. On “Humble,” Lamar is confrontational and uncompromising. On “That’s What I Like,” Mars is playful, even silly. Despite their vast differences in tone, however, both songs are poetry.

Say the word “poetry” and many people will think of lilting cadence and singsong verse. Perhaps they will call to mind the love sonnets of William Shakespeare, or the fractured images of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.” But poets today have mostly abandoned those patterns for something more esoteric. They’ve left it to pop stars to give people the poetry they really want: lyrical language charged with rhythm, rhyme and metaphor.

On a first listen, “That’s What I Like” may seem an unlikely place to look for poetry. Most of the imagery is recycled, drawn from a 1990s R&B tool kit: Sheets are silk, diamonds are white, and the champagne’s always on ice. Listen more closely, and you will hear that Mars and his crew of composing partners — eight people get writing credits — are playing with language in weird and compelling ways.

In each of the verses, Mars name-checks cities around the world where he intends to take his lover and drops phrases that rhyme with those names. For Manhattan, there’s “what’s happenin” and “get to clappin.” In Miami, there will be “no jammies” and “that scampi.” In Paris, “karats.” Most outlandish of all: “I’m talkin’ trips to Puerto Rico / Say the word and we go / You can be my freak-a / Girl, I’ll be a freak-o.”

If these rhymes look forced in print, they become whimsical in performance. To connect words that do not fully rhyme, Mars bends the language to distortion, like Jimi Hendrix creating artful noise with his whammy bar. Mars’ lyrical mischief is lively rather than profound, accessible rather than restrictive. “I can’t overthink everything I wrote or worry about that kind of stuff,” Mars has said. “It’s just [expletive] poetry, whether you believe me or not.”

Lamar, meanwhile, offers handcrafted lyrics that demand a listener’s active engagement. Like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Smokey Robinson, the virtuosic Compton-born rapper writes songs that retain their dynamism on the page.

Though “Humble” delivers the most familiar theme in rap history — why I’m dope and you’re not — Lamar’s variation avoids cliche. Rather than counting his “cheddar” (rap vernacular for money) in front of us, Lamar is “countin’ this Parmesan where my accountant lives,” underscoring Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation that all language is “fossil poetry.” Figurative language abounds in “Humble.” In the second verse, Lamar invokes an unlikely series of metaphors to describe his song’s excellence: “This that Grey Poupon, that Evian, that TED Talk.”

Poetry is even more evident on Lamar’s “DNA” (No. 7 on the Billboard chart). He begins with a multisyllabic rhyme (“loyalty”/“royalty”) and follows with something called a mosaic rhyme, joining a single phrase (“win again”) with a single multisyllabic word (“Wimbledon”). In “Fear,” (No. 91) he structures four verses through intricate repetition, evoking near-biblical cadences with the use of anaphora (the repetition of words and phrases at the beginning of successive lines) and epistrophe (that same repetition at the end of successive lines).

The poet Adrian Matejka, author of the collection “Map to the Stars” and a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist, told me he thinks Lamar is reaching poetic maturity: “It’s like he’s been reading poetry and it’s opening up all kinds of lyric associations for him.”

Before Lamar knocked it from No. 1 a few weeks ago, Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” had ruled the chart for most of 2017. Sheeran’s song splits the difference between the lightheartedness of Mars and the rigor of Lamar. It opens: “The club isn’t the best place to find a lover / So the bar is where I go / Me and my friends at the table doing shots / Thinking fast and then we talk slow.”

Those lines might sit awkwardly in a Norton Anthology, but they satisfy the ear with rhymes that fall on alternating lines. Because “go” and “slow” rhyme perfectly, the other two lines can remain defiantly unrhymed. Sheeran’s lyrics also adapt to a melody that sways with the song’s tropical house track. Although the first line has 12 syllables, the second has only seven. The third line swells to 11 syllables before the fourth line closes with eight. There’s a subtle science at work.

You’ll find Kyle and Lil Yachty’s ebullient “iSpy” at No. 8, a dirty little ditty built on what sounds like my 6-year-old daughter’s piano riffs. The song’s theme, too, is simple — girls, girls, girls — a subject Kyle and Yachty share with Motley Crue and the Beach Boys. What makes their lyrics amusing are the echoes on the “I” sound of the title: “I” becomes “high,” which becomes “lie,” which becomes “reply,” which becomes “fly,” before coming full circle to “I.” The sounds fall on points of rhythmic emphasis, endowing the lyrics with more meaning than the words alone warrant. Thankfully, Kyle and Yachty’s joking tone suggests they don’t take any of it too seriously, which gives us license to do the same.

Sometimes artists make their poetic intentions known outright. The country singer Sam Hunt does so on “Body Like a Back Road” (No. 12), written with several veteran Nashville songwriters. The two lovers “go way back like Cadillac seats.” He’s “drivin’ with his eyes closed,” because he knows her every curve “like the back of his hand.” Like someone “doin’ 15 in a 30,” he’s going to “take it slow just as fast as he can.”

The Billboard Hot 100 reminds us that poetry doesn’t have to be profound or even elegant in order to please. When it comes to rhythm and rhyme, Rihanna is every bit as good as Rilke.

Adam Bradley is a professor of English at the University of Colorado in Boulder and author of the recently published “Poetry of Pop.”

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