THE ATLANTA-BASED RAPPER Mulatto collects scraps of language on her iPhone, words and phrases that come to her suddenly, or that she’s picked up while performing online during the pandemic. Not surprisingly, one of the words that has come to mind during the past year is “pandemic”; the 22-year-old M.C. has used it twice on record so far: once last summer during a cipher — a competitive and collaborative freestyle session with other rappers — when the hip-hop magazine XXL named Latto (as she’s known) to its 2020 “freshman class” of breakout stars; and again on the opening track from her major-label debut, “Queen of Da Souf,” released last year.
“I just dropped a hundred on jewelry during a pandemic,” she raps, give or take a word. It’s standard-issue braggadocio, in praise of her newfound wealth. But boasting about spending $100,000 on a diamond-encrusted chain and watch amid a global health crisis also rates as particularly brazen, even in a musical genre that often centers the self and celebrates conspicuous consumption. Latto is aware of this. A few bars later, in her cipher verse, she adds: “I donated, too, so don’t mock me!”
Listen to Latto perform and you understand what she heard in that word. On the XXL freestyle, she raps “pandemic” fluidly over a lazy instrumental, so the word sounds like urgent speech. On “Youngest N Richest,” she raps it more deliberately atop a frenetic track fretted with a tense violin sample. “Pandemic” becomes “PAN-demic,” the stress displaced from its natural position. In reaccenting the word, Latto charges it with her Southern drawl. She puts Atlanta on it. She also does the very thing that makes rappers poets: She works the language. “Rap is definitely poetry,” Latto tells me. “We just do it on top of a beat.”
Many poets would agree with her. Nonetheless, a line of demarcation persists between rap and poetry, born of outmoded assumptions about both forms: that poetry only exists on the page and rap only lives in the music, that poetry is refined and rap is raw, that poetry is art and rap is entertainment. These opinions are rife with bias — against the young, the poor, the Black and brown, the self-educated, the outspoken and sometimes impolite voices that, across five decades, have carried a local tradition from the South Bronx to nearly every part of the world.
Yet today, a new generation of artists, both rappers and poets, are consciously forging closer kinship between the genres. They draw from a common toolbox of language, use the same social media platforms to reach their audiences and respond to the same economic and political provocations to create public art. In doing so, rappers and the poets who claim affinity with them are resuscitating a body of literary practices mostly neglected in poetry during the 20th century. These ghost appendages of form — repetition, patterned rhythm and, above all, rhyme — thrive in song, especially in rap.
But the story of rap and poetry’s reunion is as much about people as it is about language. Many of the artists in both realms who have come to prominence between 2010 and 2020 were raised during hip-hop’s golden age, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. The poets Reginald Dwayne Betts and Kyle Dargan were born in 1980, the same year as T.I. and Gucci Mane. The poet Saeed Jones and the rapper J. Cole were both born in 1985. The best-selling poet alive, Rupi Kaur, born in 1992, is the same age as Cardi B. By the time they all reached elementary school, and well before they published a single line, hip-hop had gifted them a rich cultural inheritance. Earlier generations of rappers had won major battles for artistic legitimacy, established — though certainly not maximized — rap’s profitability and produced a catalog of music and lyrics that a new generation could revere and revile, remix and reject.
Through its first four decades, rap was defined by bravura performances that embraced the qualities print-based poetry neglected, whether it was Gift of Gab’s artful exercise in alliteration on Blackalicious’s “Alphabet Aerobics” (1999) or Nicki Minaj’s shape-shifting voice in her breakout verse on Kanye West’s “Monster” (2010). The last decade, however, has challenged and changed rap’s aesthetics: Flows — the rhythmic patterns of vocal performance — have grown more melodic and more repetitive. Rap, at least in the mainstream, has become less narrative and less complex in its rhyme structures and metaphors than it was in the time of Eric B. & Rakim’s “Paid in Full” (1987), Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” (1998) or Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” (2003).
A facile interpretation would be to mistake rap’s recent turn as a decline in craft; really, though, it demonstrates an inclination on the part of artists — and their audiences — to rethink what poetic and musical qualities most resonate in tumultuous times. Pop Smoke, the 20-year-old Brooklyn rapper who was killed during a Los Angeles home invasion early last year, had a baritone that charged even unremarkable words with haunting power. On his 2019 hit “Dior,” he seeks out open-ended vowel sounds, like the long “o” in the title word, stressing the syllable to showcase the low rumble of his voice. When the 25-year-old North Philadelphia rapper Tierra Whack uses the same word on her 2020 song “Dora,” she playfully clusters around it a verse’s worth of end rhymes: “door,” “more,” “Porsche,” “of course,” “horse,” “floor,” “adore.” Then there’s the 28-year-old New York rapper Young M.A, who in 2019’s “PettyWap” plays on the percussive possibilities of the word in a line that hits like a drum fill, the pounding bass drum of strong-stress syllables and the hissing high-hat of alliteration on the “s” sounds: “DI-or my col-OGNE, she said my SCENT is her OBSESS-ion.” What draws these artists to Dior is not simply the luxury associated with the brand but the texture of the word on the tongue. In contemporary rap, sound often leads sense, defining rhythm, rhyme and voice all at once.
MEANWHILE, A PARALLEL evolution is underway in poetry, spurring a renaissance of sorts. In 2012, according to the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, only 6.7 percent of adults reported having read poetry in the last year. By 2017, the number had nearly doubled, with the largest increase (from 8.2 to 17.5 percent) occurring among 18- to 24-year-olds.
Several factors have contributed to poetry’s resurgence: the influence of Twitter, Instagram and TikTok as performance and promotion platforms; the proliferation of small presses and online journals publishing increasingly varied work; the pull of poetic language, as both balm and bludgeon, during periods of national struggle. Poetry’s growing readership is no doubt also tied to its expanding authorship, as a diverse array of voices are now choosing to express themselves in patterned words. “Access is all you need,” the poet Morgan Parker says. “People just don’t know that they like poetry.”
Parker’s revelation came when she discovered that poetry didn’t only have to sound like Robert Frost; it could speak in words and tones familiar to her, a Black woman born in Southern California in 1987. Writing in 1944, one of Frost’s contemporaries, William Carlos Williams, defined a poem as “a small (or large) machine made of words,” by which he meant to emphasize the precision of form over the profundity of meaning. “Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship,” he continues. “But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy.” Economy of language remains one of poetry’s hallmarks. By contrast, language in rap is usually abundant, functioning on the rhetorical principle of copia, which Erasmus defined in 1512 as a practice of amplifying expression through variation, adornment and play. It’s no wonder that rap inspires writers like Parker to think more expansively about what their own work could be. A poem is “no longer just a nice thing to say at a wedding,” she says. “We’ve reached cultural acceptance of a broader definition.”
Still, at their most basic levels, poetry and rap are both structured on repetition and difference. Repetition functions by accretion — building up a sound or an idea until it reaches critical mass — and transformation, keeping some parts and changing others. Repetition has an indelible place in Black expressive culture: in the syncopated rhythms of jazz, the phrasal repetitions of the blues and the guttural moans of soul made meaningful by dint of remarkable vocal performances. “Repetition shapes Blackness in a lot of ways,” Parker says. “For me it becomes, ‘What am I going to repeat? What is not being heard the first time or the second time or the third time?’” Her most recent poetry collection, “Magical Negro” (2019), includes a poem called “‘Now More Than Ever’” that opens with a 44-line near-clinical account of white guilt and the burden it imposes on Black people. In the middle of the 44th line, the language catches, like a record stuck in the groove, and the remaining 31 lines repeat “and ever” across the page, uninterrupted save for two bracketed ellipses and a closing parenthetical, “(cont.)” — an innocuous abbreviation made metaphor for unrelenting Black suffering.
Another 1987 baby, Compton’s Kendrick Lamar, is similarly drawn to repetition. On “FEAR.,” from Lamar’s fourth studio album, “DAMN.” (2017), he upends assumptions about what rap virtuosity should sound like. Rather than displaying his vaunted vocabulary, he constricts his language, repeating words and shading them with new meanings through a technique called incremental repetition, a term first used to describe the practice in medieval ballads of incorporating the same phrase through shifting contexts. “Repetition foregrounds emotion without having to go out and express that emotion explicitly,” says Dargan, a Washington, D.C.-based poet. Lamar puts that principle into action: On the second verse of “FEAR.,” “I’ll probably die” — or some slight variation of those words — starts all but two lines. With all that repetition at the beginning of lines, it’s easy to overlook what’s missing from the end: rhyme. In an art form in which end rhyme is the rule, finding a way to deliver your verse without your listeners’ missing the rhyme might be the greatest poetic flex of all.
IN FINDING THEIR own words, many poets have likewise turned to hip-hop. The 31-year-old poet Nate Marshall, a prodigy of the youth slam scene of early 2000s Chicago, fell in love with language through performance, spitting rap verses in ciphers with friends and reciting spoken-word poetry onstage at competitions. Though slams emerged in the 1980s in Chicago and spread across the world through the 1990s and early 2000s, spoken word has existed in different forms for millenniums across all continents; simply put, it’s poetry that even when written is intended to be performed. In his younger years, Marshall thought of his writing as little more than a script. Now the author of multiple books, he carries that declamatory approach to print: “As a poet, you want to think of your page as a place to perform. … I try to do something on the page so that if you can’t see me, you’ll still know how to approach my poetry.”
The key strategy that Marshall borrows from hip-hop is the sample. Sampling, the practice of taking an existing recording and repurposing it, is foundational to rap’s soundscape. You can hear it on Megan Thee Stallion’s “Go Crazy,” a track from her debut studio album, “Good News” (2020), that samples Naughty by Nature’s “O.P.P.” (1991), which itself samples the Jackson 5’s “ABC” (1970). Sampling also informs her lyrics, as when she channels N.W.A’s Eazy-E on “Girls in the Hood,” borrowing elements of his delivery. In literary terms, sampling is akin to allusion — a brief, indirect reference. Sampling, however, is also born of the Black vernacular tradition that gave us chitterlings, jazz and, yes, hip-hop. The writer Ralph Ellison once described the vernacular not simply as a spoken dialect but as a “dynamic process in which the most refined styles from the past are continually merged with the play-it-by-eye-and-by-ear improvisations which we invent in our efforts to control our environment and entertain ourselves.” Hip-hop has historically taken that which is given, discarded or even foisted upon it and turned it into something entertaining, even liberating.
For both poets and rappers, sampling can become a political act. Betts, who is 40 and lives in New Haven, Conn., used sampling as the organizing principle of his collection “Bastards of the Reagan Era” (2015). Contained within his measured lines are allusions to Homer and Public Enemy, Nas and Paul Laurence Dunbar. “I got all of these influences that are in here,” he says. “’Cause hip-hop, it’s like, ‘Let me flex and show you how I can do this thing.’” The book received plenty of praise, but many critics missed the point, describing Betts’s work as raw and gritty, when the title poem is entirely in blank verse — unrhymed iambic pentameter. “That’s Shakespeare! If you didn’t hear that, then I know all that you were able to see,” Betts says. Hip-hop gives him license to engage in audacious amalgamations of poetic forms and traditions. “It’s vigorous in that way,” he says. “I get that from hip-hop.”
Hip-hop is often subject to this same mismeasure: that it is artless, unmediated expression; that its first-person voice speaks for rappers alone, never other personas; that anyone can do it. But just try rapping to a beat. It requires the orchestration of lungs and vocal folds, teeth and tongue — not to mention rhythm and invention. Neuroscientific fMRIs tell us what hip-hop artists already know: “Spontaneous improvisation is a complex cognitive process that shares features with what has been characterized as a ‘flow’ state,” researchers reported in the open-access journal Scientific Reports in 2012, offering a provisional understanding of the zone rappers enter when performing. Perhaps that’s what it really means to flow.
“You listen to the flow first, and then you catch the lyrics,” Latto says. She often starts writing by mumbling sounds, which she’ll record on her phone, capturing the cadence in nonsense syllables. Later, she’ll go back and fit words to the beats, but she starts with rhythm because she knows that her audience will, too. “After they get over the flow and actually listen to what I’m saying, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow!’” That kind of flow comes through in poets’ pages as well. In “slave grammar,” from Marshall’s most recent collection, “Finna” (2020), he approximates the rhythms of rap, voicing in print the swagger that makes certain verses memorable: “whole time i’m bending the language / like a bow every arrow is spinning itself / a new sharp tip. whole time / i’m writing this down its obsoleting / itself. whole time we talking we ain’t got / no dictionary we guessing the spelling / we deciphering the phrases through / our slurs we slurring like we ain’t sure until / we murmur a sure vow.” With simile and sonic devices like assonance (the nonrhyming echo of a vowel sound), Marshall compels us to flow, whether we want to or not.
Rappers have an obvious advantage over page-born poets when it comes to rhythm. But poets can shape rhythm, too, through patterns of stress, as well as through their lines on the page. Poets differ from writers of prose in that they, not the typographer, choose where their lines should end, thus giving them the ability to play with a reader’s sense of time. Enjambment, when a syntactic unit overflows from one line to the next, is a bedrock poetic practice, one that endows poets with the capacity to make and remake meaning. In “Highest,” from his forthcoming collection “Somebody Else Sold the World,” the 49-year-old Indianapolis-based poet Adrian Matejka riffs on Travis Scott’s 2019 hit “Highest in the Room,” but where Scott’s lines are almost entirely end-stopped — that is, resolving in a completed phrase — Matejka’s are mostly enjambed. Sometimes the effect is syncopation: “That’s / Machu Picchu high.” Other times, it suspends then reanimates an image with simile: “I raise up / like the highest Black hand in history class.” Still other times, it allows Matejka to unfurl a complex idea across several lines: “I am risen like the blood pressure of anybody / Black mimeographed in the textbook / of this monochromatic year.” In bearing witness to a year of pandemic and racist violence, Matejka’s line breaks deny any effort to skim past the pain.
Moments like these reveal the reciprocity between rap and poetry, small matters of form with large impacts on meaning. “For me, it’s sound,” the 45-year-old Los Angeles poet Khadijah Queen says of her work’s connection to hip-hop, though her poetry also makes use of silence. In her most recent collection, “Anodyne” (2020), she uses the entire page, writing not just with words but with the blank space around them. Her lines dance, yes, but they also stumble, pick themselves back up, stop and start in ways that call to mind an inventive M.C. riding a dozen different beats in succession.
Queen also understands her role and that of her fellow poets and rappers as necessarily engaged in civic work. She looks to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, perhaps the most prominent Black woman writer of the 19th century, who used her platform to advocate for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women and children. “Our role is to capture what folks are feeling in this time of contradiction: the difficulty and the beauty together. We are called to acknowledge what is happening with clarity,” Queen says. In the aftermath of the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many others, rappers were likewise moved to speak out in song. Atlanta’s Lil Baby, 26 and one of the most successful rising artists, released “The Bigger Picture” in June, in which he earnestly grapples with police brutality: “It ain’t makin’ sense; I’m just here to vent.” Over the last year, several other songs gave voice to Americans’ anger and pain: Terrace Martin’s “Pig Feet,” featuring Denzel Curry, Daylyt, G Perico and Kamasi Washington; Noname’s “Song 33”; Meek Mill’s “Otherside of America”; H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe”; Anderson .Paak’s “Lockdown.” For Queen and other Black poets, hip-hop is not only beats and rhymes but something more needful. Hearing Black voices speaking on their own terms creates a refuge, particularly at a time when Blackness and Black people are under siege. “I love hip-hop because it foregrounds the use of Black speech as the default,” she says. “It’s a space to be who you are, unapologetically.”
THE CITY GIRLS don’t apologize to anybody. Childhood friends from different areas of Miami-Dade County — Yung Miami, 27, is from Opa-locka and JT, 28, is from Liberty City — they grew up with defiant hometown pride. “The Miami sound is our slang. The way I talk is the way I rap,” JT says. One of their biggest hits, “Pussy Talk” (2020), featuring the fellow newcomer Doja Cat, 25, is about just what you’d expect from its title. They use the term with joyous abandon, uttering it 73 times in just over three-and-a-half minutes. The song might sound like an act of reclamation — taking back a word weaponized by men. But mostly it’s a mood, JT says: “The sounds, the fast beats, the movement, the raunchy lyrics, being real outspoken, just saying whatever we feel.”
When the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape leaked just weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump and his supporters rushed to characterize his words as “locker room banter.” Claiming that slang for a part of the female anatomy belonged to an all-male space was baffling. Still, his offhand utterance projected the word into common parlance. “Donald Trump really did blow up ‘pussy’ in the public consciousness of the United States,” says Anne H. Charity Hudley, a leading scholar of Black linguistic traditions at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Though the word has been around for generations, it had resided primarily in the intimate vocabulary of private life. Newly public, is it any wonder we now find the word topping the Billboard charts?
Charity Hudley sees shifting attitudes when it comes to profanity — not so much a coarsening of the culture as a liberalization of language. “Bad words are not going to be seen as that bad anymore. We’re not in that time culturally,” she says. That doesn’t mean that anything goes or that words will no longer carry within them the capacity to do harm; rather, it will come down to context.
Context, in fact, explains how profanity can play such an important role in the output of both rappers and the poets whom they inspire. In the poem “my mom’s favorite rapper was Too Short,” (2020), Marshall explores the role that explicit language served for his own emerging literary sensibility: “how / can i unlearn some of the curses / that were the first / spells i saw conjured?” In his mother’s rapturous recitation of Too Short’s “CussWords” (1988), Marshall learned the expressive and emotive range that profane speech can have when put to poetic work. Parker is also attuned to the impact explicit language can make, both on the page and in a song. “I love Black female sexuality being in people’s faces in a lot of different ways,” she says. “I get frustrated when it’s just one way.” She recalls as a young girl hearing the rapper Shawnna chanting the sexually explicit hook to Ludacris’s 2000 breakthrough single “What’s Your Fantasy”: “There’s something powerful about hearing a female voice being ratchet on the radio.”
Ratchet and refined, puerile and profound, it’s no coincidence that women’s voices are the ones largely redefining rap and poetry these days. “It’s deeper than just rapping explicit lyrics,” Latto says. “It’s empowering women. A woman doesn’t have to be submissive or be polite.” Last summer, she appeared in the video for the most controversial song of the year, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” whose acronym belies the lyrics’ exuberant raunchiness. When Billboard magazine interviewed Cardi for its December 2020 Woman of the Year issue, she was characteristically candid. “I like justice. I like to work and be creative,” she explained. “But I also like popping my pussy.”
This choice to be explicit is particularly significant for Black women, who are regularly silenced in both private and public spaces. “Black women are taught to be quiet all the time,” Parker adds. “If we’re loud, we’re playing ourselves and don’t have to be listened to. [These artists are] undercutting so many different mores.”
A COMMITMENT TO speaking authentically connects the City Girls with Rapsody, one of the most technically sophisticated lyricists and most politically minded artists in hip-hop today. “Authenticity” is a vexed term, inviting questions about who defines it and dictates its use. In spite of this, it has long played an important role in hip-hop culture. Jericho Brown, 44, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection “The Tradition,” wrote a 2017 profile in Flaunt on the rapper Future and promoted it by tweeting: “Words aren’t the only thing the rapper Future & I have in common. Both of us, as poets, sell authenticity.” Selling authenticity might seem cynical. But Brown is also teasing out a more nuanced idea, namely that the only way for poets and rappers to project authenticity to an audience is through the artifice of their craft. They must construct themselves through word and voice, through the indirection of figurative language and the contrivances of patterned rhythms and rhymes. Paradoxically, their authenticity rests on selling their readers and listeners on an intimacy of engagement across the unavoidable distance that art imposes.
For Rapsody, 38, authenticity takes her home to Snow Hill, N.C. Growing up six hours from Atlanta and seven hours from New York meant that she was as influenced by the bass-heavy sonics of the South as by the lyrical density of New York rappers. As a teen, she wrote in her journal, her angst turning to poetry. By the time she entered college, she had begun to practice spoken word. It wasn’t until a few years later, when she recorded her first two songs with the legendary producer 9th Wonder, that she apprenticed herself to hip-hop’s stern discipline. “To rap, you have to learn how to take what you like doing with words and put it in a flow, put inflection on certain words and learn when to breathe, letting your voice be an instrument,” she explains. “Rap’s almost like math to me. … I write something and whether I want it to rhyme or I’m trying to connect a certain metaphor, I’m like, ‘This is my end piece. This is my beginning. How do I connect them in the middle?’”
You can hear Rapsody’s precision on her most recent release, 2019’s “Eve,” a concept album where each song is named after and thematically inspired by an influential Black woman. On one of the standout tracks, “Serena,” Rapsody unleashes a run of syllables that challenges your mind even as you bob your head:
That’s Shakur life, Giovanni wrote it. Nikki, that’s a real poet
Black life, we still going. They mad, we still flowing
Black joy, euphoria. We wanna smile like Gloria
That’s Hov mama, word to my mama, that’s a motherlode, mothership
Motherland, this some other shit. Nineties flick, Ninety-Six
Set it off, boy, I’m Jada P with the box braids. If I aim, squeeze
That’s R.I.P. — please kill the noise. If it’s God given, it can’t be destroyed
Rapsody uses internal rhymes (“euphoria”/“Gloria”) in the place of end rhyme. This creates a medial caesura, splitting the line into two more or less equal halves, a technique famously employed a thousand years ago by the unknown poet who set “Beowulf” to the page. For Rapsody’s verse, medial caesura fashions a rhythmic back and forth — a left-foot, right-foot two-step. More practically, it creates a space for the intake of breath necessary to perform the song live. Near the verse’s end, Rapsody fashions a series of echoes, building on a sound that catches her ear: “motherlode,” “mothership,” “Motherland,” “other shit.” Bars like these have earned Rapsody the reputation among her peers — and among poets — as one of the most innovative lyricists in the game. Matejka says that listening to her made him rethink his own approach to writing: “Rapsody is less like an influence and more like a poetic challenge. The way she uses puns and figurative language connected to allusions is so tight, it sent me back into the lab.”
Despite these accolades, Rapsody understands her next evolution as an artist is to strip things away — to pull back on rhymes and punch lines and focus instead on emotion. “People know I can rap. Now they wanna know who I am,” she says. “The challenge for me is being OK with not trying to kill everything, and now just be human and be vulnerable. And that may not come with a lot of similes. And it may not come with a lot of metaphors. It may just be straight truth. That’s OK because that’s beauty, too.”
The beauty of rap, like that of poetry, is in its invitation to expression. Rap’s proximity to speech has always been its most democratizing element. Along with the fact that making it didn’t require access to expensive instruments or conservatory training, it meant that rap could travel to places that other music could never reach — a favela in Brazil, an encampment in the West Bank, a rec room in the South Bronx. Someone once said that hip-hop requires nothing more than two turntables and a microphone, but it needs far less than that: a mind to rhyme and rhythm of any kind, from knuckles knocking on a lunchroom tabletop to the inaudible kick and snare playing inside the head of an artist as she performs a cappella.
On “Nina,” the opening track of “Eve,” Rapsody stops rapping nearly halfway through the song. As her final word, “survival,” echoes into silence, a new voice rises, that of the 26-year-old Los Angeles-based spoken-word poet Reyna Biddy. “Here’s to the honey in you / To the bittersweet in me,” Biddy begins, embracing duality and difference — of individuals and perhaps also of art forms. Her poem underscores the theme of survival and transcendence expressed in Rapsody’s verse while, in Biddy’s words, “trying and dying to breathe poetry to rise in the light of day.” Their shared performance on “Nina” harmonizes lyric forms, recognizing similarities without asking them to be the same. The world needs them both. Taken together, rap and poetry provide the means to do exactly what the events of this past year have proven we need most: to amplify the voices of people who’ve gone unheard — and perhaps, one day, to bring us together under a common groove.
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