There will come a time in the life of every hip-hop fan when he or she will be called upon to defend the art form. We are told that rapping is not really an art, that it is a bastardized form of gutter poetry or that it is intolerable for its glorification of drugs, violence or rabid misogyny. Those of us who have been in this sometimes racist and always condescending minefield before have picked up some fancy steps: We can compare the hip-hop we love to the gutter poetry that has come before that made much of drugs (Samuel Coleridge) or violence (Mark Twain) or misogyny (literally anyone). But a concrete solution often evades us as we search for a way to really nail this argument — to prove as through a mathematical theorem that the work of a rapper is as valid as, say, the work of Bob Dylan.
To the rescue comes Kreston Kent, author of “The Literary Genius of Lil Wayne: The case for Lil Wayne to be counted among Shakespeare and Dylan.” In a long essay posing as a short book, Kent presents thorough and incisive proof of Lil Wayne’s genius. If you expect to enter this minefield again to defend this art form against academics, critics or old-fashioned haters, this book is the map.
Kent sets aside as pointless the question of whether or not rap or hip-hop is an art form. “We expect literary merit to be reserved for venerated forms of expression, not mixtapes and radio waves,” he writes. But that kind of classist division is beneath him and indeed beneath us all. He follows that up with an enumeration of Lil Wayne’s skills as a writer: his tendencies toward complex rhyme schemes and literary and cultural references. He credits Lil Wayne with the construction of language puzzles that take even this University of Virginia professor some time to solve: “I still got the vision like a line between two dots,” where “the vision” is pronounced “da vision” — meaning division, or ÷. It is this kind of layered loveliness that Kent dissects in order to prove the genius of Lil Wayne.
The author addresses the question of whether the artist truly understands the depth of what he himself creates with the aplomb of a trial lawyer: “Great art is great art whether it is consciously constructed or subconsciously produced.” It is a tricky step to avoid giving all cerebral credit to an artist who doesn’t always act smart but to argue nonetheless for the validity of his genius. Kent pulls it off.
When taking on the sometimes distasteful nature of the subjects Lil Wayne chooses to base his art upon, Kent does not apologize for the artist or the art. He makes the case that this is a conscious choice, including the “banality of the gutter as if to remind us that it’s simply the genre in which Wayne works.” Just as Bruegel painted the peasants and just as Cyndi Lauper left the opera to hiccup her way through “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” Lil Wayne chooses to bring his highbrow skills to lowbrow subjects.
Finally, the book wraps up with close and careful reading of the types of rhyme and allusion Lil Wayne puts to use in his work. Many of the terms used will be familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with Rap Genius, such as the concept of internal rhymes. But terms such as macaronic rhyme, scarce rhyme, acopated rhyme and thorn line will leave even UC Berkeley English majors running to brush up on definitions.
By the end, Kent has not only proved his point but effectively drops the mic. All hail Weezy. Call it bad weather.
Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].