Yale’s Anthology of Rap has been kicking up a storm within the literary establishment. Seeking to showcase the inventiveness and vitality of rap’s lyrical art, Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois’s anthology has either been praised as a trailblazing project that sheds fascinating new light on a largely unstudied musical genre, or dismissed for straying into unwanted territory.
From the school yards of the South Bronx to the tops of the Billboard charts, rap has emerged as one of the most influential cultural forces of our time. In The Anthology of Rap, editors Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois bring together more than three hundred lyrics written over thirty years, from the ‘old school’ to the ‘golden age’ to the present day. The book features both classic lyrics that helped define the genre, including Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message” and Eric B. & Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend”, as well as lesser-known gems like Blackalicious’ “Alphabet Aerobics” and Jean Grae’s “Hater’s Anthem.”
Author Will Self praised the book in the Times stating that ‘for the reader who’s really interested in modern poetics, a profitable week or three could be spent sitting with The Anthology of Rap.’ He actually became converted to the genre after reading the Anthology alongside Jay-Z’s memoir. Similar praise came from the Independent, who called it a ‘landmark’:
In a powerful, sword-wielding introduction that seeks to slay all counter-arguments, [Bradley and DuBois] present a persuasive case for a serious re-evaluation of the “poetry of hip hop culture”: a poetry utilising standard poetic devices of rhythm and rhyme, figurative language, enjambment, alliteration and assonance. To accusations that rap is doggerel, they argue that a lot of if it isn’t, comparing Vanilla Ice’s rudimentary, “Will it ever stop? Yo, I don’t know/ Turn off the lights and I’ll glow”, with Rakim’s scintillating, “Dead in the middle of Little Italy little did we know/ That we riddled some middlemen who didn’t do diddly”.
In the Financial Times literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr wrote an entire feature around the book, using its lyrics as an argument championing the lyrical dexterity and cultural weight of the genre. He argues that rap is a continuation of the African-American traditions of ‘signifying’, ‘playing the Dozens’ or ‘toasting’ a form of spoken poetry that was ‘linguistically intricate, funny and spirited, and astonishingly profane’. Highlighting snippets of lyrics to support his argument, Gates uses the anthology to advocate the genre:
Rap, the postmodern version of an African-American vernacular tradition, connects through its percussive sensibility, its riffs, and its penchant for rhyme… Rap is, in other words, a multifarious, multifaceted tradition embedded within an African-American oral culture that shares in the rich history of human expression. At its best, rap, though a serious genre, doesn’t take itself too self-consciously, or try to overburden its lines with rehearsed wisdom, or the cant of ideology. It complicates or even rejects literal interpretation. Just like the Dozens before it, rap draws strength by shattering taboos, sending up stereotype, and relishing risqué language and subject matter.
Although reviews of The Anthology of Rap have been largely positive, the few dissenting voices have provoked a wider debate about whether rap music should be studied at all, arguing that academics should confine their scholarly ambitions to more traditional forms. The Daily Telegraph concluded that it was a mistake to try and ‘elevate rap to the status of poetry’ while Private Eye produced a humorous but ultimately condescending rap parody arguing the same. Some would argue that these claims are profoundly out of touch with the prevailing influence of rap, as well as a new generation of scholars who aim to use the academic tools of their forebears to interrogate contemporary art instead of traditional areas of study.
It seems that the position you take on the Anthology depends on your relationship with rap itself. Whether using the lyrics to dismiss the genre as subordinate to poetry, or using it as Gates does to champion the lyrical dexterity of the art form, the Anthology allows us to interrogate the lyrical quality of the rhymes, free of the surrounding production values of the music. Whatever your opinion of the genre, The Anthology of Rap already seems to have proved its worth as an important tool in examining the a highly influential, varied and controversial musical and lyrical art form.
The Anthology of Rap is available now from Yale University Press