“What you hold in your hands in more than a book. This is a culture. This is hip hop.” – Common, Afterword
The Anthology of Rap is the first comprehensive collection of rap lyrics that truly treats the music as an artistic form of expression. The anthology is essentially a collection of poetry, and each song is broken down by its historical context and the editors analyze every rapper and group by their significance within the hip hop culture. Part One of the anthology covers “The Old School” rap period from 1978 to 1984, including a live piece by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five at the Audubon Ballroom, and the iconic “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. Part Two features “The Golden Age” of rap from 1985 to 1992, which kicks off with lyrics by the Beastie Boys and continues with names like Ice-T, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, Salt-N-Pepa, Too $hort, and A Tribe Called Quest. Part Three is the core of the book, in “Rap Goes Mainstream” from 1993-1999, where artists like Busta Rhymes, Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z, Mobb Deep, Nas, The Notorious B.I.G, The Roots, Snoop Dogg, 2Pac, and The Wu-Tang Clan defined a generation. In Part Four, “New Millennium Rap” from 2000-2010 shows the evolution of modern rap, with personas and musicians like Atmosphere, Cee-Lo, Eminem, 50 Cent, Immortal Technique, Lil Wayne, M.I.A., Mos Def, and Kanye West.
The anthology’s true focus are the lyrics, transcribed from the air to the page. Rather than hearing the spoken word or seeing the song performed live, the music comes alive as written text. In the afterword by Common, he explains, “Reading rap lyrics lets you see familiar things in new ways. Everything that usually captures your attention – the inflections of the MC’s voice and the style that somebody’s using – fades away and you’re left with just the words.” Once all the performance is removed from song, including the beat and rhythm of the track, the real poetry is revealed. When lyrics are on paper it’s also easier to separate the true talent from the hit-single generating machines that just match rhyme and rhythm to create catchy songs:
Rap, like other artistic forms, thrives on constraint as much as it does on freedom. Every rap lyric must fulfill certain demands, the dominant ones being the listener’s expectations of rhyme and the rhythmic strictures of the beat. In unskilled hands, rap’s requirements can prove too much, leading to insipid lyrics that confuse meaning to find rhyme and strain syntax to satisfy rhythm. But in the hands of a skilled MC, rap’s formal limitations are a means to eloquence.
The introduction continues to explain: “Good rap lyrics are poetically interesting because they have to be; they have little in the way of melody or harmony to compensate for a poor lyrical line.” An example of a poor lyrical line would be in DMX’s hit song “Party Up (In Here),” where he uses the same word over and over for the sake of rhyming:
“There go the gun click, nine one one shit
All over some dumb shit, ain’t that some shit”
However, the editors Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois carefully chose which songs to include in the anthology and which to leave out (“Party Up (In Here)” is thankfully, omitted). For example, which Notorious B.I.G. songs could the editors possibly have selected to show the breadth of his genius? In an interesting choice, one of the four Biggie songs selected is the live “’95 Freestyle” featuring Scoob, 2Pac, Shyheim, and Big Daddy Kane.
The Anthology of Rap functions as a music manual, a sociological textbook, a cultural milestone, and a book of poetry.
Image Source: Colorado Public Radio