The concept of a vocalist who rhymes a poem in rhythm with accompanying music is rather old. In the Old English tradition, such a person was called a Scop (pronounced “shoop”). In those times, a Scop would recite long poems with complex poetic constraints (Each line of Old English poetry was made up of two half-lines and three alliterations per line rather than end rhymes.) Often they would challenge other Scops to see who could recite better poems. Due to the length of these poems, much of it would be improvised, thus each Scop would have a particular style and approach to different poems. In these poetic battles, the winning Scop was sometimes established as the poet of the court. Here then we can see a clear precursor of the modern Rapper. Since this approach to music has been reappeard in Modern Times, it begs the question of why? What is uniquely productive in this style that justifies its existence? I believe that the answer lies in the great emphasis upon words. There are topics, ideas, questions, images, and stories that one can only adequately deal with through Rapping. We can see this in the difference between a novel and a poem. While a poem is a powerful (and perhaps greater) literary genre, there are some stories that never could have been told through a poem. It is hard to imagine Bartleby Scrivener, Moby Dick, Metamorphosis, or The Great Gatsby as poems. Similarly, the rapper is able to speak on issues that a normal Rock or Pop artist simply cannot, or at least with a greater depth. It is a simple fact that some things cannot be boiled down to 10-20 lines. This is the great freedom of Rapping.
The styles and approaches that rapping lends itself to tend towards detail and narrative. In a typical Rock song, the images and their details are limited by the length of the song. In Hip-Hop, however, one can focus on an image and vividly paint it with practically no restriction. This is truly a powerful tool for the Artist. In addition, if the rapper wishes to be concise with his imagery, he can always shorten the song. Thus, a rapper has a freedom that is alien to the Rock and Pop genres. (That is not to say that some experimental and fringe artists in these genres have not taken a more lengthy approach to imagery and lyrics, they have, however this cannot be done as affectively as can be in Hip-Hop).
The narrative style of song writing can be extremely powerful. Because we as humans learn most of what we know through communication with others and much of that is done story telling of some kind, the narrative style can be very evocative if done properly. The telling of a story allows for insight into character and narrator (and thus what it means to be a human, to think, feel, and act), insight into the world and nature, insight into society, culture, and government, insight into the depravity and triumphs of humanity, etc… Everything from the power of governments to the uniqueness of a flower pedal can be evoked through a narrative (Again, I must point out that other genres can also touch on these same topics, but what I am suggesting here is the particular power that the narrative has to affect the reader/listener in regard to these topics.). The narrative is an amazing genre and the best hope for it in Music is the Rap Artist who has the lyrical freedom to create a lengthy narrative.
As I have discussed here, the advantage of Hip-Hop is its emphasis on lyrics and this has a dramatic affect on the instrumentation of the music. Since it is the goal of the Rap Artist to call the listener’s attention to the lyrics, it is important that the accompanying music does not distract from the words. Because of this, much of Hip-Hop is repetitive and simplistic instrumentally. But we must not treat this simplicity has a sign that the genre is any less complex or artistic as other genres. The complexity here is found in the lyrics rather than the music. To say that a Hip-Hop song is less artistic than a Rock song based on the former’s simplicity would be the same as saying that a novel is not as good as a poem because there is no metrical complexity in the novel. That said, we must note that when the lyrics of a Hip-Hop song are weak, repetitive, shallow, or simply bad they will ruin the entire song. Therefore, this lyrical emphasis can be a blessing, or a curse. If it is used properly, the Hip-Hop genre can speak on profound issues with great eloquence and significance. If used poorly, this genre can be horribly commercial and pointless. The simplicity of music in Hip-Hop is not, however, a license to ignore the importance of instrumentation. (See my post entitled “The Struggles of Christian Art: Part One” for more on the necessity of unity between the elements of a work of art and the themes.)
With the tremendous lyrical freedom found in Hip-Hop there is the potential for significant works of Art to be created. In my next post I will discuss why the various elements of Hip-Hop make it a good genre for the Christian Artist.