Flipping the Script

Book of Rhymes argues that rap is underappreciated as a poetic form.



"Rap may be the music of the street corner rather than the conservatory, but mastering its verbal art requires as much attention to craft as the most rarefied forms of artistic expression."

So asserts Adam Bradley in his persuasive and rewarding Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, a serious and sustained argument not simply that "Tupac was a poet," but that rap as a whole represents an evolution of the Western poetic tradition. As such, it can be analyzed with the tools and techniques normally reserved for poetry—and such an analysis leads to a deeper understanding of and respect for the form.

Bradley's writing gets technical at times, but never at the expense of readability. Assonance and consonance, perfect rhymes and slant ones—these poetic terms and more are invoked to ensure that rap lyricists get their due as poetic innovators whose techniques follow in a direct line from Shakespeare, Coleridge, Keats, et al. (Bradley is careful to note that he is not whitewashing rap's identity as a "defiantly black form," but that "African American rap artists transformed the poetic forms they've inherited.")

Because one hallmark of rap lyrics is that they sound effortless, Bradley's dutiful parsing of certain rhymes is essential in highlighting their formal complexity, whether it's Tajai's use of simile in "Disseshowedo" ("I flip the script like a dyslexic actor") or Tupac's use of rhyme, assonance, and alliteration in "California Love."

Book of Rhymes is not merely an extended explication of Jay-Z lyrics, however. In sections about rhythm, rhyme, wordplay, and more, Bradley explains how the constituent elements of rap have evolved from the two-turntable days of the 1970s. He also doesn't shrink from addressing some of the problems endemic to contemporary rap, in particular the deleterious effects of commercialization and the misogyny that seems to plague the genre. His conclusion about the latter is worth repeating: "To define rap as poetry is not necessarily to defend it as always good for us. But a mature audience can understand rap in context and measure its value not simply in the quantity of its curse words, but in the variety and sophistication of its poetic forms." Book of Rhymes is essential reading in fostering just such an understanding.


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