Every Time We Ride
Lupe Fiasco, who Bradley praises in Book of Rhymes, is represented in the Anthology by “Dumb It Down,” in which his bravura performance—
and I’m peer-less, that means I’m eyeless
Which means I’m tearless, which means my iris
Resides where my ears is
—is met with a derisive chorus:
You goin over niggas’ heads, Lu (Dumb it down)
They tellin me that they don’t feel you (Dumb it down)
We ain’t graduate from school, nigga (Dumb it down)
Them big words ain’t cool, nigga (Dumb it down)
Bradley and DuBois are on Lupe’s side. Like highbrows of all genres, they mock the best seller (Vanilla Ice comes in for a sharp word) and praise the obscure. They complain that, in the last few years, “it has become increasingly difficult for anything related to hip-hop to be considered avant-garde,” and they make room for an eight-page lyric by Canibus, “Poet Laureate Infinity 3,” which sounds a lot like an avant-garde poem:
The Polar Manitoba’s melted by lava
A team of er doctors climbed aboard the chopper
My skull is a submarine hull, I emptied the ballast tanks
I could smell the shit from the seagulls
My mind dives deep between yours, Poseidon Trident
Seahorse bubbles form, I scream with extreme force
Mariana’s Trench detour to Ultima Thule
Let me explain what my sonar saw.
But this piece is one of the least faithful to the conventions of rap, as they come across in the Anthology. In fact, if you had to formulate the essential difference between rap and poetry, it would have to do with their attitudes towards convention. For a century, the biggest imperative in poetry has been to break conventions, and every poet can quote Pound’s “Make It New.” Bradley and DuBois quote it, too, in their introduction to the anthology’s last section, “New Millennium Rap”: “In the words of André 3000, [rap] ‘makes new shit.’ This crass and creative injunction, echoing the modernist motto of Ezra Pound from nearly a century ago to ‘make it new,’ is an artistic call to action.”
But, in fact, the kind of novelty rap rewards, on the evidence presented here, is the kind that modifies a convention or wittily plays with it, not the kind that assaults it head-on. The book’s afterword, by Chuck D of Public Enemy, makes the point clearly: “A rapper’s style is not to itself. It comes from somewhere. All of these lyrics evolve as the griot-like timeline with the words finally manifesting themselves into a solid testament of the craft.” And to master a craft takes study:
Something should separate a professional rapper from a sixth grader. Lyricism does that. . . . Even when a term or a line is mastered, the challenge should be on how many more peaks a rapper can scale to become a good lyricist.
In this sense, rap, whose subject matter is so often the breakdown of urban society, is an excellent example of a stable literary culture. Over the decades, mcs seem to agree on what rap should be and do, what qualities deserve to be rewarded, what subjects can be addressed. And because of this consensus on the rules of the game, rappers can compete directly with one another in a way that poets today virtually never do. In fact, from the beginning of the Anthology to the end, it is hard to find a rapper who does not make elaborately rhetorical boasts about his own skill at rapping. Often enough this is the entire subject of a rap, as in Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke”:
I got a question, as serious as cancer:
Who can keep the average dancer
Hyper as a heart attack, nobody’s smiling
‘Cause you’re expressin the rhyme that I’m styling
This is what we all sit down to write
You can’t make it so you take it home, break it and bite.
“Biting,” stealing another rapper’s style, is part of the technical vocabulary evolved for boasting, along with “sucker mcs” and “wack flow.” Poets, too, used to vaunt—think of Shakespeare’s “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” But for Shakespeare, as for Horace long before, the rival was not so much other poets as death itself, and the prize was not personal supremacy but literary immortality. There are hints of this kind of ambition in the Anthology: in Canibus again (“Always remember: I’ll be gone forever / I made these bars so you all could remember”), and Kool Moe Dee (“I don’t write, I build a rhyme”—echoing Milton’s “build the lofty rhyme”).
Most of the time, however, the stakes are more immediate and personal