I picked up Decoded, Jay-Z’s book of memoir/collected lyrics, from Type on Queen yesterday, and can’t stop reading it. I’ve like Jay-Z, he’s always seemed more dexterous and inventive than his peers in mainstream hip hop, and I’ve respected his rather static post-fashionable approach to an art form with more buzz and fad than most. The book is divided into a long ongoing memoir, punctuated by a collection of paragraph-long tangents into the mechanics of hip-hop prosody, and an annotated reading of his lyrics. I want to share a bit.
It’s completely invigorating to hear someone externalize a mastery of a craft closely enough related to poetry that it seems this immediately translatable. Given that that art form is the dominant popular aural art of the era, and poetry’s public perception is that of anachronistic sideshow, it’s also notably generous. I’ve been comfortable with my “I don’t dislike spoken word or hip-hop, I just know it’s not poetry” stance for a long time, but am coming around now to the idea that I was just speaking to the wrong spoken word artists, and the wrong rappers. I’m only about 75 pages into the thing, but it’s already my favourite book about poetry this year. It’s like when you listen to a painter or a sculptor go on about their work, and something slips in their vocabulary enough to trigger the stream of metaphor that opens a door into how you perceive your own art. This is the great, simplifying moment of, “I see how this could help me work out what I’m doing. I can make this work for me.” The ideas in these three pull quotes aren’t all original, per se, but they are originally derived, an originally blunt. The headers aren’t in the book. You can consider them my re-translations.
On Rhythm as a Vehicle for Meaning
A poet’s mission is to make words do more work than they’d normally do, to make them work on more than one level…a poet makes words work sonically—as sounds, as music. Hip-hop tracks have traditionally been heavy on the beats, light on melody…Think about Run-DMC—turning words into percussion: cool chief rocka, I don’t drink vodka, but keep a bag of cheeba inside my locka. The words themselves don’t mean much, but Run snaps those clipped syllables out like drumbeats: bap bap bapbap. If you listened to that joint and came away thinking it was a simple rhyme about holding weed in a gym locker, you’d be reading it wrong: The point of those bars is to bang out a rhythmic idea, not to impress you with the literal meaning of the words.
On the Standardization of Content in Traditional Forms
The subject of the first verse [from Public Service Announcement] wasn’t blazingly unique. It’s a variation on a story I’ve been telling since I was ten years old…: I’m dope. Doper than you. But even when a rapper is just rapping about how dope he is, there’s something a little bit deeper going on. It’s like a sonnet…Sonnets have a set structure, but also a limited subject matter: They are mostly about love. Taking on such a familiar subject and writing about it in a set structure forced sonnet writers to find every nook and cranny in the subject and challenged them to invent new language for saying old things. It’s the same with braggadacio in rap. When we take the most familiar subject in the history of rap—why I’m dope—and frame it within the sixteen-bar structure of a rap verse, synced to the specific rhythm and feel of the track, it’s a test of creativity and wit. It’s a metaphor for itself; if you can say how dope you are in a completely original, clever, powerful way, the rhyme itself becomes proof of the boast’s truth.
On Metrical Verse (and, if one takes “flow” to mean breath points, both lineation and enjambment)
It’s been said that the thing that makes rap special, that makes it different both from pop music and from written poetry, is that it’s built around two kinds of rhythm, The first kind of rhythm is the meter. In poetry, the meter is abstract, but in rap, the meter is something you literally hear: it’s the beat. The beat in a song never stops, it never varies. No matter what other sounds are on the track, even if it’s a Timbaland production with all kinds of offbeat fills and electronics, a rap song is usually build bar by bar, four-beat measure by four-beat measure. It’s like time itself, ticking off relentlessly in a rhythm that never varies and never stops.
The other is the flow. When a rapper jumps on a beat, he adds his own rhythm. Sometimes you stay in the pocket of the beat and just let the rhymes land on the square so that the beat and flow become one. But sometimes the flow chops up the beat, breaks the beat into smaller units, forces in multiple syllables and repeated sounds and internal rhymes, or hangs a drunken leg over the last bap and keeps going.