Frequent commenter lucretius takes issues with me comparing complexity of writing rhymes with writing sonnets:

you may be pushing it comparing the best of rap to sonnets: the purpose of the two things is so different that any comparison is surely moot. but i am prepared to say that it is certainly MUCH harder to write a shakespearean or petrarchan sonnet at a technical level than it is write a rap: the rules of sonnet writing are exceedingly strict. the metre and rhyme work as a means of crystallising a certain thought or feeling. rap is the opposite: it's strength is its looseness: in fact seems to put almost no emphasis on concentration of mood or meaning whatsoever: e.g., the T.R.O.Y. lyrics are a pretty random collection of unconnected thoughts. in fact, isn't this when rap works best, i.e. as a series of one liners? or at least a series of wildly contrasting items? i offer in support of my argument compelling melnges such as chuck d / flavor flav and the wu tangs, but any dozen or so examples are to hand.

I actually have no idea, which is harder. But I'll tell you a story. Before I went into journalism, I was actually a poet, and before that I was an MC. As a rapper, I sucked. I mean I was just awful. But I loved words, and I turned to poetry armed with the exact same logic that lucretius offers here--I thought it would be freer, because I didn't have to stay on beat, and thus easier. Ironic, no? So I turned out to be a so-so poet--a better poet than MC, definitely, though some of my early stuff is just embarrassing. I was going to get my MFA--even did a week long workshop at Provincetown with Pulitzer prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa. But what I quickly realized was that my essential problem was the same--just like in hip-hop, formal poetry put a premium on words. You had to find a way to say as much as possible, by saying as little as possible The premium for me was always Rakim--"I can take a phrase that's rarely heard\Flip it, now its a daily word."

The point is, in my time, I actually got to try my hand at both sonnets and  hip-hop lyrics and I found them both very difficult for the same reasons. I think people who firmly believe that "formal poetry" is harder should do themselves and try to write some hip-hop verses and then offer them up to a knowledgeable audience. Or they can save themselves the embarrassment and listen to Wynton Marsalis laughable "Where Ya'll At" track. Whoever let him within ten feet of a microphone should be caned. And then water-boarded.

But should you try it yourself, I think that you'll find that the rules for writing hip-hop lyrics are shockingly strict. Most frustrating, they change depending on the track--so it doesn't matter if you rocked it one track. Try doing it over twelve different tracks. Second of all, while it sounds like great hip-hop is just some guy freely talking, that's more a testament to the greatness of said artist, than a statement on its relative ease. The greatest compliment you can pay any artist is that they make it look it easy. It doesn't mean that what they're doing actually is easy.


One other point--the literal rules for writing sonnets, tankas, haikus etc. aren't particularly hard to follow. It's following the rules and actually saying something that's hard. You can write a sonnet that makes no sense, and has no real power in the words. Likewise, you could write a rhyme that's technically on beat and say nothing at all. One need look no further than ex-Fugee Praz, reviled for debasing the entire art by uttering one of the worst lines of hip-hop verse ever "And when I rest my head on its on a pee-low\Uh beebeebee-beebeebee-beebeebee-yo." Sure he was on beat, but it was nonsense. 

Place a sonnet written by someone who is working just to follow the rules, next to sonnet written by master and the difference is clear. Likewise, when hip-hop is done be a rapper who is simply struggling with the rules--who is fighting to stay on beat, who's desperate to make his words rhyme--and the difference is obvious. Ignore the dumb sample below and the annoying hook, but listen to the difference between Puffy's and Big on "Victory." There on the same beat, following the same form, and Puff isn't violating the "rules." But Big gets so much more mileage out of his words, and, indeed, makes it sound easy. "In this world I clutch two Auto, Matos/Used to call fatso, now you call me Castro." The caveat, of course, is that you have to know the slang to get the point. But if you can know the slang, you can hear the implicit beauty of what he's doing and why he's so much better at it than Puffy. Anyone who doesn't get the slang, but is actually interested, should feel free to ask away. I don't get it all. But I got the basics, I think.

Last thing--This song is really profane. Know that before you play it.


We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.