With a rich history that extends back into oral tradition, it’s no surprise that rap and hip-hop music is rife with exquisite storytellers. Hip-hop giants like Slick Rick, the Notorious B.I.G. and Nas are counted among the best for their storytelling abilities as much as their rhythmic flows and vocabularies. But what exactly makes a “good” story? And are the stories told in rap on the same level as what we commonly know as “literature?” Certainly nobody is comparing Soulja Boy to Shakespeare, but here, I will analyze three different rap songs in terms of traditional narrative elements: characterization, plot, setting, style, and themes. I will attempt to pin down how each of these elements is used to make the songs intriguing, unique, and effective as literary works. (Note: these three songs do not by any means represent the entire spectrum of hip-hop, nor do they span the entire history of the genre, or all its offshoots and iterations. They are simply three of my favorite songs.)
I’ll begin with perhaps the most straightforward of the three songs: the 2001 underground hit “Dance With the Devil” by Peruvian-American rapper Immortal Technique.
Check out the lyrics HERE.
And the Audio/Video HERE.
The plot of this story is delivered matter-of-factly, in a linear fashion that details the rise and fall of William “Billy” Jacobs. Similarly, the same blunt delivery applies to Billy’s character; even his driving desire throughout the story is stated in the first few lines of the song: “His primary concern was making a million / being the illest hustler that the world ever seen / he used to fuck movie stars and sniff coke in his dreams.” Stylistically, the narration resembles Hemingway in both its brusqueness and the frequent judgment of Billy’s character by the narrator. The narrator is as keen to distance himself from Billy as Jake is ready to insult Robert Cohn (and all of his “friends,” really) in The Sun Also Rises. Billy’s and his mother’s fates are linked from the start, when the narrator sets their life paths in opposition (lines 7-8), and the story follows a typical tragic arc, in which both Billy and his mother die at the end. At the end of the song, the narrator asserts its truth by claiming that he also participated in the brutal assault on Billy’s mother, and knew the protagonist Billy personally. Here there is an element similar to both some of Hemingway’s work, as well as the original Sherlock Holmes stories—the narrator (Jake in The Sun Also Rises, or Dr. Watson, for example) is a participant in the action, but not always its central focus. This creates a strong ethos, and adds weight to the final warning he delivers not to follow down the same path. This message underlined with the lingering presence of the devil in the narrator’s life, reminiscent of the “deal with the devil” trope found in classic works like Faust and All Dogs Go to Heaven 2. The lesson of the story is clear: no one should aspire to the lifestyle described, and Immortal Technique conveys this moral with as much deftness as any poet, playwright or novelist.