Wednesday, March 31, 2004

An article about rap:

Rap at its best is capable of amazing effects. To stand in spitting distance of a freestyling MC can be a thrilling experience. Any skilled rapper will rock his whole body as he takes on the character of his subject matter, twisting his features and splaying his fingers as feeling demands. But the key to the performance is vocal delivery. In an essay last year in the Hudson Review, the poet (and head of America's National Endowment for the Arts) Dana Gioia deconstructed rap's prosody, holding up its rhythmic vitality as a contrast to the weakness of free verse. Gioia argued that rap represents a reconnection with fundamental principles of rhythm that literary poets - in their effete self-consciousness - have long since abandoned: "Rap characteristically uses the four-stress, accentual line that has been the most common meter for spoken popular poetry in English from Anglo-Saxon verse... to Rudyard Kipling." Gioia described how the stress meter, freed from the visual scanning of the written word, permits as many syllables per line as the rapper requires (provided the number of stresses remains constant). This is why, with a superimposed beat, MCs can accelerate to the verbal velocity of a livestock auctioneer. And, linking rap to the African-American tradition is its deployment of the impulsive, improvised rhythms of jazz, which impose themselves on either side of the downbeat.

As with meter, so with rhyme: rap briefly reinvigorated our sense of aural pleasure. But Gioia doesn't acknowledge the logical conclusion of his comparison. Just as free verse emerged in literary poetry because the possibilities of rhyme were exhausted, so it is with the rhymes of rap - with the added disadvantage that rap is far more limited in its often crude couplings, exhausting itself after 25 years rather than 2,500. The history of all art tells us that no sooner do we grow accustomed to one form than we begin searching for another. And it is unlikely that rap can extend itself much beyond the rhyming couplet.

The predominace of rap can be attributed to its increasing acceptability and loss of shock value. Like all sensationalism, it is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Expletives like muthafucker (since described as the "Oedipal now"), nigga, bitch and ho (whore) are overused and banal, while gangsterisms like the drive-by shooting are as hackneyed as the spaghetti western quickdraw. Nowadays, parents dismiss such outrages with a tut, if not openly enthusing about the lyrics of Eminem. Such profanity once drew attention to ghetto life, forcing conservatives, policymakers and critics into sociological debate; now hip hop is more likely to suffer admission into the American literary canon.


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