A few years back, Ice-T did a Ted Talk where he said "if [rap] is done correctly, it's poetry." I agree, and would go further to say all rap is poetry, and, in my lifetime, rap has kept the poetic tradition alive far more than any literary magazine has.
Rap has been popular for most of my life, but with exception to a handful of songs, I wasn't terribly interested in rap until my teen years. And perhaps my real introduction to the genre impacted my views on the topic, at least to an extent: when I first got interested in rap, the rappers I listened to the most were 2Pac, NWA and, of course, Ice-T. In other words, not only well-respected in the genre, but some of the strongest writers. I doubt too many people are going to argue with me that 2Pac wasn't a great writer:
"I see no changes all I see is racist faces
Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races
We under I wonder what it takes to make this
One better place, let's erase the wasted"
(Changes by 2Pac)
I suppose Charlton Heston might have argued with me about Ice-T, but he isn't exactly available to argue much these days, so I'm not terribly concerned about that. Also, "Cop Killer," is only tangentially related, since Body Count is a rock band, so I'll defend that at a different time (because I like that song, dammit!). How about "New Jack Hustler?":
“That's how the game is played,
Another brother slayed.
The wound is deep
But they're givin us a Band Aid.”
(New Jack Hustler by Ice-T)
And so on and so forth. I can already hear the response: "It's easy to call rap poetry when the examples you use are by strong lyricists. But these are both older songs, and generally accepted as amongst the best. What about some more modern music? And I’m not just talking about Lupe Fiasco. You said all rap is poetry.” Yeah, the critic in my head is an asshole. Okay, my biases aside, here are a few arguments people might not to like:
Whether or not you like unfinished similes (also referred to as hashtag lyrics), as were popular for a long time, particularly amongst Lil Wayne and Young Money, they are inherently poetic. It’s taking a poetic convention and altering it to create a certain effect.
Whether or not you like some of the popular songs, a lot of them utilize a lot of classical poetic styles.
Lyrics are part of most popular music, and we've already accepted a lot of popular musicians to be poets. Yet, whether or not you enjoy rap musically, word choice and lyrical style are a lot more important to rap than most musical genres.
“But how can you argue that a song like ‘Anaconda’ is on the same level as ‘Howl’?!” I can’t and I don’t. I doubt Nicki Minaj would, either. But you're going to pretend that there's no rap song that is? I'm a Ginsberg fan, and even I say "give me a break!" to that. But maybe we're doing this backwards, because quality of content is a debate you’re supposed to have after you've accepted something as part of a literary form.
This isn't exactly the first think piece on the subject, and I doubt too many fans are terribly interested in hearing about this topic from a white girl who can't rap to save her life. But most fans have already accepted that this is poetry; that’s part of the reason rap has remained popular. This isn't an appeal to popular culture; this is an appeal to academia. The literary community needs to take rap more seriously as a poetic form. Kendrick Lamar just won a Pulitzer Prize for music, yet the nicest thing I hear from lit professors about rap is that rap lyrics can be used as a way to get students interested in “real” poetry. But if rap doesn't qualify is “real” poetry, tell me, which major writers in our culture are currently keeping the poetic tradition alive more than rappers are?
And if rap isn't poetry the same way beat poetry is poetry, kindly explain why not. Because at the moment, it’s difficult not to fill in the blanks with some ugly answers.