By: Justin Cook
Hip-hop is poetry, whether you’d like to admit it or not. I equate a great 16 bar verse to a great 14 line sonnet; sure, they are stylistically different, but both rely heavily on sound, meter and vivid imagery. Most people wouldn’t necessarily make this connection (imagine Shakespeare and Tupac freestyling with one another), but these two art forms are very intertwined. I feel the masses—especially Fox News fed White America—viewing hip-hop as a degrading art, not only to society, but to music and grammar as well. Being a poet, this frustrates the hell out of me. Some of the most honest and thought-provoking rhymes to come out in the past 20-30 years were from hip-hop artists; they are the poets of the people, the poets of the struggle. To combat this injustice in the hip-hop world, I bring to you The Art of 16 Bars. Every couple of weeks, I will break down one of my favorite MC’s lyrics.
To begin fittingly, I will discuss the poetry of Common, who is basically the poet in-residence of hip-hop. I mean, he got invited to Poetry Night at the White House, which freaked Conservatives the fuck out. They said he was a “thug” that supported “terrorists” (Assata Shakur)—man, could they be anymore off? Seriously, it’s time to set the record straight; this man has the heart and soul of a poet, spitting holy words of wisdom and health: that holistic language.
1.) Pharoahe Monch- “The Truth (featuring Common & Talib Kweli)”
Despite being a Pharoahe Monch song, Common’s verse is too good to pass up. This song gets into some real shit, real quick—by the time Common spits, my mind is already unraveling. His verse has two key elements: the internal rhyme scheme and the extended metaphor.
Common flips the internal rhyme on its head and gets meta as fuck:
“But the false prophets by tellin’ us we born sinners / Venders of hate, got me battlin’ my own mind state / At a divine rate, I ain’t in this just to rhyme great.”
In these lines, Common literally rhymes great while rhyming great; he rhymes multiple words with great (hate, state, rate), and by doing so, rhymes in a great way. Taking a step back from the words, the full poetic meaning comes into context: Common isn’t rapping just to rhyme, he’s rapping as a messenger of The Truth. He steps beyond aesthetics, unraveling a deeper meaning, by using aesthetics. Poetry!
He then concludes the verse with an extended metaphor, which I’m pretty sure contains the meaning of life:
“Took a picture of the truth and tried to develop it / Had proof, it was only recognized by the intelligent / Took the negative and positive, cuz niggas got to live / Said I got to get more than I’m given / Cuz truth’ll never be heard in religion / After searchin’ the world, on the inside what was hidden / It was the truth.”
He uses the metaphor of taking a photograph to the art of hip-hop, which led Common to his own understanding of the universe—in a sense, he is creating a “still life” within the poem. In the art of photography, it takes time to “develop” a picture, just as it takes time to develop MC skills; his “proof” are the words right in front of you. The “negative and positive” not only symbolizes the duality of life, but refers to developing negative and positive photographs. He ends the metaphor by bringing it back to The Truth, which he uncovered within himself through rapping—not through religion like commonly believed.
Just listen to this damn song. The assonance. The alliteration. The puns, punch-lines and metaphors. Everything about this track is on point. I’ll leave the poetry to Common.
Electric Circus is such an amazingly weird experience, and “Aquarius” is definitely one of the best cuts on the album. It is poetic in it’s odd delivery and interesting use of syntax. Common begins the track by comparing his wisdom to that of a revolutionary high:
“Nigga deep in the rhythm, experience speak / Some keepin’ the wisdom, the life hustlers seek / I seeking it with ‘em, I’m dope the streets need me to hit ‘em / With some of that (revolutionary rap) / Revolutionary blunted rap / My peoples want hits, I hit it from the back / Under the cherry moon, I hold notes and carry tunes.”
These lines are another example of extended metaphor; Common carries the metaphor of dope through multiple changes. It starts in the streets, representing his wisdom, as what the people need. Then, it becomes “that/Revolutionary blunted rap” that gets passed around—revolving—to whoever wants a hit. He ends the metaphor as “the cherry moon,” giving it multiple meanings; one being the cherry of a blunt, holding in the hits, and the other being the red recording light, which shines as Common “holds notes” and raps in studio.
He also uses Aquarius very nicely as a reoccurring concept. Aquarius is an astrological sign, whose symbol is the water carrier; Common literally carries water as a metaphor throughout the song. He begins by mentioning “the Age of Aquarius,” which represents a shifting of human consciousness. He is making a connection between his knowledge, and the knowledge obtained during the Age of Aquarius: “water that arrives/to purify the world.” In the second verse, Common floods the verse with water metaphors and consciousness:
“Between churches and liquor stores, my mic leaks.” (…) “I flow over water that’s as troubled as teens / For the love of the team, trying to double the dream.” (…) “The black human genius will never play out /I take you way out, where you never been before / Been it since birth, sent to replenish the Earth.”
All in all, this is one of Common’s strangest moments, but it’s truly a beautiful, empowering song. He’s got those “punch-lines like Roy Jones poems.”
4.) “I Used To Love H.E.R.”
Like seriously, this is THE HIP-HOP POEM of all time, ever! This was one of the first songs that really made me realize that hip-hop is poetry; it functions as a poem much better than most rap music. He uses the trope of a young girl to explain his relationship with hip-hop, while in turn telling a story about the history of rap. It is thought-provoking and an example of why Common is that motherfucker. This man is a poet. He even starts the song with that classic hip-hop refrain:
“Yes, yes, y’all and you don’t stop / To the beat ya’ll and you don’t stop / Yes, yes, ya’ll and you don’t stop / 1, 2, ya’ll and you don’t stop / Yes, yes, ya’ll and you don’t stop / And to the beat Common sense’ll be the sure shot.”
5.) “G.O.D. (Gaining One’s Definition) (featuring Cee-Lo Green)”
This song is just the gospel of life. It is one of Common’s finest moments, and Cee-Lo just makes the experience that much sweeter. If “The Truth” and “Aquarius” doesn’t solidify Common’s Buddha mind, “G.O.D.” seals the deal—I literally feel like an enlightened angel after listening to these golden bars. Just play the damn song, paying particular attention to these lines:
Understanding and wisdom became the rhythm that I played to
And became a slave to master self
A rich man is one with knowledge, happiness, and his health
My mind had dealt with the books of Zen, Tao, the lessons
Qu’ran and the Bible, to me they all vital
And got truth within ‘em, gotta read them boys
You just can’t skim ‘em, different branches of belief
But one root that stem ‘em, but people of the venom try to trim ‘em
And use religion as an emblem
When it should be a natural way of life
Who am I or they to say to whom you pray ain’t right
That’s who got you doing right and got you this far
Whether you say “in Jesus name” or “Hum do Allah”
Long as you know it’s a bein’ that’s supreme to you
You let that show towards other in the things you do
Cuz when the trumpets blowin’, 24 elders surround the throne
Only 144,00 gon’ get home