On April 14th, God emcee Kendrick Lamar came back for the three-peat with DAMN, a fourteen-track reflection on human emotion with tracks titled “FEAR,” “LUST, ” and “LOYALTY.” When it dropped, I relieved myself from all social media opinion, I waited a few days to prepare myself, and when I was ready, I lay down on my floor and pressed play.
By the time the closing track “DUCKWORTH” came to a halting, phenomenal end, there wasn’t an ounce of doubt in my mind that Kendrick Lamar is one of the greatest writers of our time. He is a literary hero and DAMN a brilliant example of that, but so was Overly Dedicated, Section.80, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, and especially, To Pimp a Butterfly. He’s just too good.
I am an over-indulgent consumer of Hip-Hop and a firm believer that Hip-Hop taught me how to write, taught me how to tell efficient stories.
It has always confused me, the flack that rap gets, the blame of bravado, when in all actuality it should be praised for its sustainability and influence over many generations. It has never gotten the proper respect that it deserves as being one of the most affluent, political, and artistically challenging forms of art. Nor has it ever really been seen as an art to begin with.
This is the only genre of music where it’s imperative that what is said comes from your own brain. It is the only genre of music where you have to write your own stuff in order to be taken seriously. Yet, it has taken up until now for mainstream America to even consider it a form of songwriting, where Jay-Z just became the first rapper ever in the Songwriters Hall of Fame after decades of blessing our ears with his teachings.
Music theory defines a bar as a measure of four counts, where a line of lyrics is considered one count. This is how rappers formulate their stories. It’s way more intricate than the way us “traditional” writers do it. We sit down and type for hours any way we see fit. We have endless space and opportunity. It’s harder for them. They tell a story in three to five minutes, the average length of a song, condensing it… we do it until we feel like it’s done. We don’t have any constraints when we’re writing on that page. They are confined by the beat. Yet the density in their lyricism seems like it has no end.
Literature, in a broad sense, is defined as written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit—books and writings published on a particular subject matter—leaflets and other printed matter used to advertise products or give advice.
Hip-Hop takes literary elements and catapults them—twists them—makes them better in ways that allows listeners to question what they think about things outside of themselves. This music is filled with literary devices. In literature it’s called metaphor but in rap it’s called a punchline, such as Lil Wayne’s infamous “Real Gs move in silence like lasagna.” In literature it’s called repetition, but in rap it’s called flow, something that Biggie mastered. In literature it’s called alliteration, but in rap it’s called wordplay, something that lives and breathes through Andre 3000’s entire aesthetic. In literature it’s called voice, but in rap it’s called sound, like something as distinct as a Vince Staples’s track. In literature it’s called motif, but in rap it’s called a concept, such as Mick Jenkins’s theory of “water.” All of these elements are things that connect audiences to particular artists in ways that move millions at a time.
I’ve always looked at Hip-Hop this way. If it’s good, each track on an album resembles a chapter, and each verse on a track resembles a beginning, middle, and end—resembles exposition of conflict and resolution—represents a completely polished draft of a memoir.
To say that this isn’t sophisticated songwriting, let alone literature, would be a disservice to the writer.
To dissect the trajectory of skill and craftsmanship involved in the cultivation of a great Hip-Hop album could take forever. It began as something not as complex, more monotone. But now it has evolved into something that is limitless. The samples that are involved, the expression that has become acrobatic, the sound that is sometimes undefinable—all is a testament to how far these artists have taken something that has been viewed as something less than high art. Fans, now more than ever, are anxious to see what is going to be said by their favorite rappers. And saying something meaningful is all literature is about. And this is how this genre bleeds into the universal aspects of humanity. And when someone is really good at their job, it can become a therapeutic, meditative experience for their listener. It can create the same feeling that a great book does.
I don’t think people appreciate how skilled great rappers are in their craft. The attention they pay to every small detail. How attentive each bar is in the forward progression of telling a story. Hip-Hop is not just a sound, it is a complication of elements that come together to create something magically moving.
Some rappers master the art of effective storytelling and model their careers after creating visuals through their words—the Tupacs, the Nases, the Jay-Zs, the Eminems, who have perfected it. But so has Joe Budden, so has J. Cole, so has Big K.R.I.T. They know how to tell a story that makes you think densely about theory and conspiracy and religion and love—all themes of great literary contributions.
All these names deserve to be mentioned in the grand scheme of great American literature for they’ve birthed albums such as Outkast’s ATLiens, Common’s Be, A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, Isaiah Rashad’s Cilvia Demo, Schoolboy Q’s Blank Face, Kanye West’s Graduation, Ab-Soul’s Control System, Omen’s Elephant Eyes, Devin the Dude’s Waiting to Inhale, Joey Bada$$’s B4.DA.$$, and countless others that we keep coming back to in order to be fed.
When I write, I am inspired by rappers, by emcees, long before I open any book and read. Before I s
eek out authors I love and respect for inspiration, I am listening, dissecting how 50 Cent structured the details of betrayal on “Many Men.” I am listening, dissecting the way Nas personifies an object as small yet as heavy as a gun on “I Gave You Power.”
Hip-Hop flows through my work more than anything else. I’ve read books my entire life and they’ve taught me a great deal about subject matter. Books have taught me about taste and about voice. But Hip-Hop has taught me how to tell stories in an intentional way that is so complete that by the time the song is over, by the time the album is done, it becomes something that is self-preserving culturally, and a blueprint artistically.