It’s strange, given the profusion of hip-hop scholarship, that rap lyrics have received so little sustained analysis.
But though hip-hop is studied at universities -- as a social movement, a musical form, a manifestation of postmodernity -- the public conversation about it remains a zero-sum game of overzealous attacks and passionate defenses.
As a key part of America’s youth culture and a central battlefield in our culture wars, hip-hop often seems to have forfeited the right to be discussed as art. Most academic and popular writers subjugate its aesthetics to its politics.
Until very recently, such writers could be counted on to begin around the time of hip-hop’s birth and attempt to tackle the entire culture -- which, in addition to rap music, includes break dancing, graffiti and a number of other elements -- all at once.
Luckily, a new paradigm of scholarship is emerging, and Adam Bradley’s “Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop” is a solid contribution.
Like Joe Schloss’ “Making Beats,” William Jelani Cobb’s “To the Break of Dawn” and the Jeff Chang-edited “Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop,” “Book of Rhymes” scrutinizes hip-hop’s artistry with rigor and imagination.
Bradley has his eye on canon-building and his back turned to the debate over whether hip-hop threatens moral fiber. He explains just what kind of verse the most popular poets in the history of the world are producing.
Yet even as he seeks to establish hip-hop’s literary sophistication -- see Stanley Crouch’s statement that rap is “Dick and Jane with dirty words” if you doubt it remains contested -- Bradley is seldom defensive or overly celebratory.
“The caricature of the artistically and intellectually impoverished street thug,” he writes, “fails to account for the linguistic virtuosity and cultural literacy required to rap effectively to a beat.”
This is a striking statement, and it re-centers the conversation toward poetic analysis.
An assistant professor of English literature at Claremont McKenna College, Bradley is an unabashed formalist. He takes obvious pleasure in such obscure poetic terms as apocopated rhyme, ballad form and metonymy -- as well as in rappers’ mastery of them.
Many scholars would characterize the use of these devices as a subversion of the canon. Bradley is more interested in the notion of rap as a Western poetic form and, as such, heir to all that’s come before.
His argument is far too nuanced, however, to suggest that rap’s legitimacy stems from its use of classical techniques.
Rather, Bradley asserts, hip-hop contains many techniques that “rappers didn’t inherit; they created [them] for themselves out of the need for expressive freedom.” He zeros in on metaphoric construction, word bending and the narrative innovations of hip-hop storytelling.
Because he knows “flow” is as important as composition, Bradley spends ample time on voice, style and attitude, making his analysis as three-dimensional as the music.
Rap is a competitive art, and fans are notorious for the fervor with which they parse verses and rank artists. Much of what devotees do instinctively, Bradley formalizes in “Book of Rhymes.”
His insights are compelling. Discussing rap’s limited subject matter, he acknowledges corporate influence as a culprit, but also suggests that “when MCs settle into familiar pairs of rhyme words, they also tend to settle into familiar themes and attitudes.”
Thus, “a revolution in rap’s themes must begin with a revolution in rap’s poetics.” Whether or not this is true, it’s certainly provocative.
In his discussion of storytelling, Bradley pinpoints rappers’ conflation of the narrative voice with the dramatic -- a fusion that allows for “intimacy” and “imaginative freedom” and finds its antecedent in “the tall tales of oral tradition.”
Later, he connects rap’s ethos of “battling” with similar traditions in ancient Greece, 10th century Japan and modern Namibia, pointing out that while much has been made of hip-hop’s “stereotypically masculine” braggadocio, “here [are] young men boasting of . . . poetry, eloquence, artistry.”
“Book of Rhymes” is well-served by Bradley’s discipline. In limiting his focus, Bradley creates space for the kind of analysis often subsumed by polemics and grandiosity.
The result is a book equally enriched by his academic training and his years of studious listening -- not the last word on hip-hop lyricism, but an engaging first verse.