Friday, June 27, 2008

Rappers and Romantic Poets

What do Tupac Shakur and William Blake have in common? Well, on the surface of it, not much. But digging a little deeper, I believe they share many common bonds, parallels and an almost eerie relation to one another. Chief among these correlations (beyond their wordsmith-related occupations) is the desire to be heard, to deliver a message and to affect change with that message. If these bonds appear fragile before you finish reading this post, then me let me just say, for now, that what 2Pac and Blake truly have in common is me (as a fan). Rap music scored most of my high school and college experiences and the Romantic Poets still influence my attempts at fiction. I grew up listening to Jay-Z, Dre and Snoop and I learned a lot about writing (and life) through the poetry of Wordsworth, Keats and Coleridge. I never gave a thought to any possible similarities between the two groups until a late night pub argument with a friend. He told me that I had no business judging, critiquing or ranking the best rappers of all time because I'm a white dude from the suburbs.

Well touché.

His well-timed, right hook caught me off guard. We were also three-hours deep into cocktail time, so I couldn't to find a suitable comeback. It wasn't until a few weeks later whilst ruminating on a piece of Wordsworthian poetry that the connection between the kings of rap and the Romantic Poets hit me. Then, once it did, I was floored by the obvious similarities. They were everywhere and unmistakable. The closer I looked, the more uncanny the parallels became. I suddenly realized that although separated by the Atlantic Ocean and more than 200 years of technological, social and political progress, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Jay-Z were, for all intents and purposes, cousins of a sort. Once I saw the relationships I knew I had to share this knowledge with the rest of the world.

So I invite you to come along with me, as I explore (and explain) the link between the six Romantic Poets and the six kings of rap. Afterwards you can tell me if you find the connections as eerie as I do.

 Before we start though, a brief history lesson for context (for those of you perhaps a little unfamiliar with the Romantic Poets): Imagine the political and social upheaval of the 1960s multiplied by ten, or perhaps twenty, on the intensity scale. Then imagine this more intense version of the '60s spread across three or four decades. That's the scene you'd get in Europe during the time of the Romantic Poets (approximately 1790-1820). The United States had overthrown English rule by 1783 and our founding fathers drafted the Constitution and built the foundations of a democracy by 1787. All of this was an entire world away to most Europeans however. Why should they care that a 100-year-old, backwater colony chose to govern itself? The American Revolutionary War was hardly viewed as a driving force for change to the 2,000-year-old ruling monarchies in Europe.

But in 1789 in France, the roots of democracy inspired the people and ignited the French Revolution. The rest of Europe watched with baited breath to see what type of government would emerge from the rubble. They watched nervously as France struggled to right itself after the initial, righteous flames of the "people's revolution" turned ugly. Then they saw the villainous Robespierre put hundreds under the guillotine during 'the terror' but many still hoped a democracy would emerge; one that might stand as a sterling example of how a country could (and should) govern itself. They prayed France would become a shining beacon of democracy that would urge other Europeans to challenge 'king-and-queen rule' in their own countries.

Unfortunately (for just about everyone) what finally climbed out of France's rubble was a midget in a bicorne hat who declared war on everything in sight. But this is beside the point. The roots of the French Revolution (true democracy and a government of the people) were ideals the Romantics championed. Old notions of monarchs ruling by birthright and the unchallenged rule of kings and queens were being questioned across the continent. But the French Revolution wasn't the only thing challenging old ways… the Industrial Revolution was also taking hold. The Romantics watched as businessmen and industrialists created a new class of nobility. They made enough money to rise up alongside the old aristocratic bluebloods.

For the first time, these 'new money' captains of industry achieved wealth and status as a result of personal success and business accomplishments, not simply by family money or birthright. As promising as the Industrial Revolution seemed however, the Romantics also watched in horror as these 'new nobles' subjected workers to years of backbreaking labor, murderous working conditions and wage slavery (conditions which can still be found in diluted forms around the world today). What the business owners and bosses subjected the peasantry to on a daily basis was more gruelling and punishing than anything the monarchies had done en masse to the peasantry since the Spanish Inquisition. But as if that weren't enough. As if the total transformation of basic political structure coupled with the complete shift from daily agrarian work to backbreaking manual labor wasn't cause for trouble by themselves... there was one final piece of social turmoil piled on top of this volatile mix. The long and difficult fight against slavery.

English abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilbeforce fought for many years to get the slave trade abolished in the British Empire. In 1807, after 25 years of petitioning, writing and protesting, they finally succeeded. But the victory in their lifelong devotion to the cause still rang hollow. The 1807 ruling only outlawed the slave trade and not slavery itself. It would be another 26 years (1833) before slavery was completely abolished in the British Empire and, of course, another 58 years before the United States finally followed suit. Needless to say, all six of the enlightened Romantic Poets threw their weight behind democracy over monarchy, the rights of workers over forced labor, and human rights over slavery. What we can clearly see is that the Romantics not only had the standard poetic inspirations (love and loss / Earthly desire / religious questioning / the meaning of life) but also three timely and worthy causes to champion.

All of the Romantics willingly folded these causes and convictions into their poetic repertoires. Now you might be saying to yourself that the parallels of the Romantic period to the 1960s demand I compare the Romantics to '60s artists like Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles. To which I point out one glaring flaw in your argument – I didn't grow up in the '60s! So the comparison has to be between my favorite rappers and the Romantics… deal with it.

Anyway, without further ado, let me present the six, main Romantic Poets paired (for the first time ever) side-by-side with their "legends of rap" doppelgangers.
Dr. Dre – William Wordsworth
Snoop Dogg – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
2Pac – William Blake
Notorious B.I.G. – John Keats
Jay-Z – Percy Bysshe Shelley
Eminem – Lord Byron
William Wordsworth --- Dr. Dre 

Wordsworth was the father of the Romantic movement. He created the movement and paved the way for everyone else. He created the ideals of Romanticism and blazed the trail for all the later poets. He infected the other five Romantics with his theories and influenced the overall style of poetry at the same time. Dre, meanwhile, stands as the father of west-coast rap and one of the founding fathers of gangsta rap. He blazed gangsta rap trails with N.W.A. and influenced the overall style of hip-hop with his g-funk beats and rhythms on albums like The Chronic and Doggystyle. But Dre and Wordsworth were also similar in their workmanlike approaches to lyrics and rhyme. Nobody would compare Dre to Eminem or Snoop lyrically, but without Dre would there even be an Eminem or Snoop?

Similarly, Wordsworth didn't lack the ability to adorn his poetry with eloquent lyrical flow, but he self-selected a more subdued style and left the lyrical beauty to his contemporaries. However, even knowing how blessed Wordsworth was as a poet, it's hard to imagine him ever styling a poem as well as Coleridge or Keats, even if he'd wanted to.

In addition to their workmanlike lyrics, these two share their roles as tutors and father figures to their contemporaries. Snoop owes his career to Dre (who discovered, launched and promoted the young rapper) and Coleridge's rise to prominence owes a great deal to Wordsworth's choice to include him as a collaborator on the Lyrical Ballads. Without Dre, there might not have been a Snoop and there probably wouldn't have been a Coleridge without Wordsworth. Wordsworth's influence and career lasted longer than most of his peers and this reflects another main reason I paired him with Dre -- whose contemporaries, like Chuck D. and RunDMC were tempting choices for this slot since they both preceded Dre as leading influencers of rap, but Dre's career, much like Wordsworth's, lasted significantly longer and was arguably more influential because of it.

Dre's early N.W.A. days were filled with the fires of revolution. He often used radical lyrics to draw attention to the harsh realities of ghetto life in Southern California. Racism, drugs, disease, gang violence, absentee fathers and police brutality all figured prominently in his early rhymes. But as he aged the fires cooled and he settled into a comfortable, more conservative life of producing (supplemented with the occasional bland, self-promoting guest rap on a Snoop, Eminem or 50Cent track).

Similarly, Wordsworth's earlier poems were also filled with political fire. He was one of the biggest proponents of the French Revolution when it started but its failure to create a democracy soured him in later years. When France finally collapsed into a dictatorship and the Industrial Revolution churned forward like the unstoppable force it was, Wordsworth's hope for European democracies and daily pastoral lifestyles for everyone faded. In his later years he turned heavily conservative. The later Romantics (Keats, Shelley and Byron in particular) lambasted the old master for betraying his earlier political leanings and the ideals of Romanticism. However, it's undeniable that Wordsworth laid out the pattern of the entire movement and it's undeniable that his influence is still felt today – for example, J.R.R. Tolkien's attack on industrialization in Lord of the Rings (though ultimately misdirected) borrowed heavily from Wordsworth.

Even though both Dre and Wordsworth appeared to go soft and "sell-out" their revolutionary ideals in later years, they still exemplified Romanticism and Rap respectively. Both men took on father-figure type roles to the rappers and poets who succeeded them. In the end, even though neither truly created rap or Romanticism, they certainly both shaped it.


Express Yourself (N.W.A.) – An earlier gem from his N.W.A. days with a more uplifting message than most of his bland, later work.

Let Me Ride – Signified the laid back day-to-day life in South Central L.A. and one of the three lead singles from (arguably) the greatest rap album of all time.
Been There, Done That – An underrated attempt at inspiration in his later days. Rhymes like, "You got drama? I got the gat. But we're both black so I don’t wanna lay you flat," held an understated message.

Tintern Abbey – Perhaps the first great Wordsworth poem that clearly outlined the underlying theme of Romanticism; namely communion with nature to achieve peace and enlightenment.

The Prelude – Wordsworth's answer to Milton's Paradise Lost. It’s a huge poem, an autobiographical epic and Wordsworth's statement that love of nature leads to the love of mankind (compassion for everything, basically).


Snoop was discovered by Dre at a young age. The master gave his new pupil a high-profile role on The Chronic and Snoop's innovative lyrical style stole the spotlight (especially on two of the album's biggest singles: Dre Day and Nuthin' But A G Thang). Snoop's guest spots on The Chronic raised the rap world's attention and set up Snoop's first solo album perfectly. The end result, Doggystyle, was an album on which Dre handed Snoop the lyrical reins and settled into a producer's role. But the production on the two albums (with guest raps by both artists), almost make The Chronic and Doggystyle sound like one, big, collaborative effort by the two rap superstars. 

96 years earlier, a young Coleridge was discovered by Wordsworth. The old master recognized talent in his new pupil and together they collaborated in planning, writing and publishing one of the most important and influential pieces of literary work in history – The Lyrical Ballads. Their styles influenced one another on the huge, joint volume of poetry. However, Coleridge's more innovative lyrical flow stole the spotlight with two significant poems: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. But the similarities between Snoop and Coleridge run deeper than just the fact that Snoop collaborated with his mentor on two, hugely influential rap albums while Coleridge collaborated with his on a hugely influential volume of poetry -- they both had drug problems.

Coleridge struggled with an opium addiction throughout his life. In a lot of his verses, it's hard to tell which lines belong to the opium wrote and which belong to Coleridge. And Snoop has blatantly bragged about his heavy marijuana use. He was such a heavy, lifelong user that it actually made news headlines when he announced he'd quit. Snoop's early raps frequently centered on alcohol, drugs and a constantly altered state of mind. With these two artists working in such a fog for most of their lives it's a wonder they created anything. But for many critics and fans, it might have been nice to see what they could have created without the drugs (then again, perhaps the drugs are the reason for their success).

Continuing the comparison -- both men hinted at potential greatness and a transcendence of their genres, Coleridge with Ancient Mariner and Snoop with Murder Was the Case, but ultimately both fell short of greatness with their careers as a whole. Coleridge's masterful work on Mariner (a poem many of us remember from high school or college lit classes) is about a sailor, a white albatross and the dead calm seas. Every object in the poem doubles as a social parallel (the Mariner as a sailor on a slave trading ship, the albatross symbolic of the sailor's guilt in his complicitness in the continuance of slavery, etc.). The dual meaning of the poem and it's creativity and flow, have always hinted at potential greatness beneath Coleridge's surface. But well-known Romantic critic Harold Bloom has often wondered what Coleridge might have created if he'd had the same indomitable will as Wordsworth or Blake. The opium certainly didn't help, but Bloom felt Coleridge was intimidated by Wordsworth's talent (and was further intimidated by John Milton's Paradise Lost). The opium and that intimidation stunted Coleridge's growth and he never again penned another epic masterpiece like Mariner

As for Snoop, Murder Was the Case was one of the few times he stepped above the usual money / girls / cars / drugs lyrics to pen something powerful. It's the only time Snoop turned his attention to something meaningful. Living his life in a haze and living under the shadow of gangsta rap pioneer, Dre, I find myself wondering at Snoop's potential. I often think he might have been better suited to a career that happened in the 1960s. I think he was born 30-years too late. Can you imagine what he might have done at Woodstock alongside Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin? Personally I think the '60s would either have killed him or given the world the transcendent Jimi Hendrix-type artist he could have been (or perhaps killed him AND given us a transcendent artist). But I'm getting off track. 

 In the end, although neither Coleridge nor Snoop ended up as strong as the other rappers and poets on this list, their styles remain as unique as ever. Snoop's sing-songy, almost lazy, flow spawned a wealth of imitators from Mase to Nelly to Fabolous, while Coleridge's lyrical gymnastics have been copied and envied by poets and writers for generations. 


Murder Was The Case – A vision of Snoop's death as he contemplates his own mortality and what it would mean should he leave the world.

Gin & Juice – An ode to drinking, drugs and partying encapsulating both Snoop and Coleridge's addictions.

RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER – Pretty much covered this already, but it deserves mentioning, once more that the poem's hidden message makes it a solid contender against anything Wordsworth or Blake penned. 

KUBLA KHAN – A kind of trippy poem that feels like it was created in an opium-induced haze. This poem set the stage for generations of artists, poets and musicians to justify drug abuse as a necessary ingredient for inspiration.


If Wordsworth ushered in the Romantic era and Dre fathered rap, then Blake and 2Pac took Romanticism and rap to dizzying heights. No other Romantic poet attacked the world quite like Blake. His ferocious poetry explodes on the page and his work contains brazen animosity for the ills of the world. His transparent anger shines in his poetry and is so blatant that it would have made the much more subtle Wordsworth blush. As for 2Pac, nearly every one of his songs are a 'still-image' of the man… a momentary capture of the furious complexity and raw essences of rap's king. 2Pac rapped as if his life depended on it while Blake wrote as if the world itself depended on it. 2Pac's complexity is unrivaled among his rap peers. His widely varying motivations and emotions come across on almost all of his songs; at times hopeful, sad, guilty or apologetic, mischievous or contemptuous, 2Pac was often angry, and frequently that anger misled him. 

But when all of his energies and emotions were properly directed the end result was some of the greatest rap songs in history. I still don't believe a rapper alive has ever come close to matching the mixed message of despair and hope in Keep Ya Head Up or Dear Mama. Only a few rappers have put out a diss rap as frightful and fearsome as Hit 'Em Up.

2Pac's time on Earth was marked by a lot of misunderstanding. Half of his albums came out posthumously with nine Top-10 singles coming from those albums. Some of those posthumous releases give a deeper insight into him but it's still tough to summarize 2Pac even with the large amount of material we do have. It's also difficult to understand all of his works completely when the artist has already passed. Similarly, none of Blake's work reached critical popularity until after his death.

In his life, Blake never achieved the popularity of Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Byron. Instead, his claim as the very embodiment of Romanticism came posthumously. But even the snippets of material that were read in Blake's day conveyed his talent. To understand just how powerful his poetry was, consider that when Wordsworth received a copy of Songs of Innocence & Experience he said Blake was a thousand times stronger a poet than Byron. This is shocking praise because Wordsworth was not known for complimenting or admiring anyone else's poetry. Coleridge also read Songs of Innocence, and afterward called Blake a 'genius' and said, "I am in the very mire of common-place, common-sense compared with Mr. Blake." 

 2Pac and Blake were also similar in that they were both skeptical of the institutions of their day. Blake questioned the political and social control of the clergy, industry and monarchy, while 2Pac questioned the morals of the police, the schools, religion and democracy. In the end, the two major similarities between Blake and 2Pac are that 1.) they both are nearly unapproachable by others in their field, and 2.) neither of them were totally viewed as transcendent artists until after their deaths.


2PAC: Keep Ya Head Up – The single that every rapper wishes they had in their arsenal yet none have matched. Uplifting and hopeful, it’s rap's masterpiece.

Dear Mama – Though 2Pac had a lot of haters, he got love from somewhere and this is his apology to the one person who loved him through thick and thin (I wonder what Eminem's life and work would have been like if just one person had loved him). 

WILLIAM BLAKE The Tyger – One of Blake's most popular poems. It's read by grade-schoolers and grad students alike. This short, yet delicious piece from Songs of Experience was written after Robespierre had begun guillotining people in France, and some scholars claim the Tyger is a metaphor for the French Revolution.

Proverbs of Hell (from The Marriage of Heaven & Hell) – A bonanza of ideals and literary meanings course through the herky-jerky tumbling lines in Marriage. Blake's central argument is that the systems created by religion obscured the true message created by true priests when the scriptures were first written. But perhaps the Proverbs of Hell provides the most pithy lines and best examples from the nearly overstuffed work:

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings. To create a little flower is the labor of ages.

The Chimney Sweeper (from Songs of Experience) – this counterpart to the version of the same name from Songs of Innocence brilliantly attacks religion and industrialization all at once.


The eerie parallels between the rappers and Romantics continues with two of the brightest stars of their genres. Both of these men died young: Biggie just before his 25th birthday and Keats just after. If Wordsworth, Blake or Shelley had passed at such a young age, they'd have been given the 'promising' label and nothing more. And if Dre, Jay-Z or Eminem had died at Biggie's age we wouldn't even know who they are. Biggie and Keats created some of the finest works in their respective arts in a remarkably short amount of time--both demonstrating precocious talent during their youth and leaving us all wanting more. 

 Let's start with Biggie. He met and married his wife (Faith Evans) just ten days after meeting her, and if that doesn't sound like the act of a passionate, romantic man, I don't know what does. But in truth, Biggie probably struggled in the romance department and his rushed first marriage was likely the result of a desperate desire to grab the first thing that passed by. After all, he was a grossly overweight man, looking for love and companionship from the opposite sex that (without fame) had to be difficult to come by (contrary to his many boastful raps professing bedroom conquests). Biggie eventually lost his wife to an affair with his rival (2Pac) shortly after their marriage – a relationship none of the three ever denied.

In likewise fashion, Keats struggled in the romance department – he was a pale and sickly man who pursued his love (Fanny Brawne) for many years. She rebuffed him continually, but his persistence paid off and after four years of pursuit he managed to convince her to agree to marry him. Once he finally got that agreement, however, the tuberculosis ravaging his body worsened and, knowing his death was imminent, he released Brawne from her commitment just six months later.

Keats put a lot of heartache and pain into his work, and had Biggie lived longer and abandoned the preening lyrics of his fellow rappers, we might have gotten the same anger / pain / heartache material from him (basically the same "inner-pain canvas" that has served Eminem so well). Both artists were, at first, taken lightly by the rest of the world: Biggie's Big Poppa and One More Chance (the two biggest singles from Ready to Die) are hardly anything more than lighthearted fare. Biggie's videos and association with Puff Daddy also ushered in the Shiny Suit era in rap-- an era named because Puff and Ma$e would wear jewelry and expensive suits in their videos that literally shone.

During Keats' time his work was given the label of lighthearted, pretty poetry with little depth or meaning. After his death however, Keats had his work more closely scrutinized and that extra attention revealed gems. Keats' Odes are masterful works exploring the timelessness of imagination and thought. Conversely, after his passing Biggie's songs also received more credibility. Everday Struggle and Suicidal Thoughts reach for higher meaning with a more complex message than most of his other works (and they also highlight Biggie's mastery of rhyme and flow).

In the end, it's difficult to summarize these two artists' careers but the comparison is apt because their time was too short and most of us wish we had more of their work to enjoy.


NOTORIOUS B.I.G. Juicy – Biggie's first hit single chronicles his rise from a struggling, poor street dealer to rich rapper.

Everyday Struggle – Interesting journey that illuminates the reasoning and situations that lead to choosing a life of dealing. (People look at you like you'se the user / Selling drugs to all the losers / Mad Buddha abuser / But they don't know about your stress filled day / Baby on the way, mad bills to pay).

Hypnotize – The (now) classic single that created the entire shiny suit era. 

JOHN KEATS Ode on a Grecian Urn – A gorgeous poem about the timelessness of the carvings on a Greek urn. Certain lines obviously reflect Fanny Brawne's influential presence in his life. For instance the Greek man carved near a woman (Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss / Though winning near the goal – yet do not grieve / She cannot fade, though thou has not thy bliss / Forever wilt though love and she be fair!).

Hyperion I & II – Keats' attempts to reconcile his philosophy with that of Milton's in Paradise Lost. With more time perhaps Keats would have finished the work, but as it stands, it's an unfinished excursion into Keats' belief that imagination and thought are the keys to the universe.


Shelley and Jay-Z may not match up as well as the other pairings on this list save for one outstanding fact--which I'll get to in a minute. Shelley was as forceful a poet as Wordsworth and Blake. He held extremely radical political and social views and fought for every liberal cause imaginable. Jay-Z, on the other hand, while definitely a more talented rapper than Dre or Snoop has carved out a career of doing little more than posturing and bragging with a constant egotistical 'best rapper alive' mantra.

If rap shifted in the late '90s to rhymes primarily about money, cars, partying and women then Jay-Z defined that era – and hits like Big Pimpin' and Money Cash Hoes pretty much define Jay-Z. In fact, Jigga's biggest hit to date, Hard Knock Life, has more rhymes about money, expensive cars, expensive champagne and sex, than about struggling through a supposed "hard knock life"… and if cars and champagne are a hard life, then it's one I'd like to live. 

In his defense, Jay-Z's rhymes also coincided with the digital age and the internet generation. And perhaps he's the first rapper of that generation, which may help explain why it's so rare for any of his songs to contain a long narrative arc from beginning to end. Most of Jigga's tracks jump from idea to idea as if every other line is an A.D.D.-like snippet of whatever's on his mind. Despite these shortcomings, Jay-Z still stands as one of the greatest rappers alive and although he doesn't quite match Biggie, 'Pac or Eminem in the emotionally powerful department (99 Problems is a good start though), he's still recognized by many to be the reigning king of rap. But if Jigga isn't as forceful or socially conscious as Shelley and these two are so different, what's the missing link between them? What do they share that pairs them together? What deeper connection exists between the radical Romantic and the braggadocio Brooklynite? Well, in this case, it's their choice of wives.

Jay-Z and Percy Bysshe Shelley might have been two of the premier lyrical wordsmiths of their time but their wives arguably overshadow them both. Beyoncé Knowles is one of the biggest pop female artists on the planet and Mary Shelley wrote one of the biggest pop-culture books of all time. Frankenstein is an unquestioned, epic masterpiece. It spawned a wealth of movies, tv shows, comic books, Halloween costumes and even a marshmallow-stuffed breakfast cereal I used to love (along with Count Chocula). 

 Anyway, when we think of Frankenstein today we think of the big, green guy with the bolts in his neck, square head and scarred face. But that creation is a far cry from Mary Shelley's original monster (and her original story and intent). In Shelley's novel, Victor Frankenstein successfully creates life and the big, green monster emerges (though not nearly so dim-witted or slow-moving as the monsters of the movies). Frankenstein is horrified by his creation and he ignores it, runs away from it and abandons it. The monster leaves him alone, feeling shunned and ashamed, but eventually the beast returns, going on a silent rampage, killing all the people (and things) closest to Frankenstein. In the final confrontation the monster says he did it to get Frankenstein's attention because he wanted to know why his creator abandoned him and why his creator didn't love him.

This encapsulates Shelley's statements about God, religion and man. God, after all, is the only one that can create life from scratch, so if you view Frankenstein as a stand-in for God then a much deeper theme begins to emerge. Instead of a horror story, Frankenstein becomes a book about God, horrified by his own creation, one he abandons and one that then runs amok, trying to get back God's attention and wondering why it isn't loved. Well anyway, I didn’t want to get off on a tangent explaining Shelley's novel, but perhaps next time you see a Frankenstein costume at Halloween, it'll blow your mind that you're looking at Shelley's thoughts about the desperation of humanity (on many levels). 

Getting back to the Romantic & rapper parallels… we know that Beyoncé is an unquestioned pop princess but perhaps eighty years from now people will listen to her music and realize that she had a much deeper message too. Well, okay this might seem farfetched but then again, most people don't know about Frankenstein's deeper meaning either. So while Mary Shelley's original edition collects dust in libraries, movies like Young Frankenstein occupy space in the same pop-culture realm as Beyoncé. So in that sense, Mary Shelley and Beyoncé share similar space and are therefore the primary reasons why Jay-Z and Percy Bysshe Shelley match up so well on this list. 


JAY-Z: Hard Knock Life – Clever hook from wonderful single that showcased Jay-Z's rap skills.

99 Problems – One of the few songs with a long-running narrative all the way through (or at least from verse to verse). A good cross-genre piece that hearkens back to the Beastie Boys but outclasses most of their early work.

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY The Mask of Anarchy – A politically charged poem written in response to the Peterloo Massacre. The Massacre occurred when a political meeting of 60,000 workers were dispersed by mounted cavalry and eleven people were killed and 400 people wounded. The conclusion of Shelley's retaliatory poem urges the people to rise up in non-violent protest (Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you / Ye are many, they are few).

Prometheus Unbound – Shelley's attempt to reinvent the Prometheus mythos (Prometheus stole fire from the Gods to give to man and was chained to a rock for 3,000 years while crows fed on his intestines as punishment).


If the comparisons so far haven't impressed, then perhaps the final one will. Lord George Gordon Byron was the highest selling poet of his day; a man whose works sold out the day they were released. He was more famous in his time than any of the other Romantics. He found fame intoxicating yet tedious and was fuelled by a hatred of the literary world for its early criticism of his poetry. As such, his early work lambastes nearly everyone in poetry (Wordsworth and Coleridge included), while his later, more popular work does little more than chronicle his life and the women in it. If any of this sounds familiar it's because most of the same can be said of Eminem. 

Slim Shady is the highest selling rapper of all time. His albums sell millions the day they're released and he's more famous than any of his peers. He's found fame both intoxicating and tedious, and his early career was fuelled by a hatred of the rap world for initially shunning him. His first two albums lambasted everyone and anyone who ever dared criticize him and most of his songs do little more than chronicle the pain of his life – much of it caused by two of the three women in it (his mother and ex-wife). But the parallels don't stop there.

Lord Byron's work is perhaps most significant for Byron's creation of what scholars and academics have termed the Byronic Hero (basically an anti-hero). The Byronic hero was the first time an author created a passionate yet moody character; one imbued with advanced emotional and intellectual capacities but one that lacked any real "heroic virtues". In short, Byron's leading characters were the first literary renegades. Slim Shady, as Eminem's alter-ego, is a cut from the mold of the Byronic Hero. Defiant and rebellious, Shady is also too smart for his own good and often lets his passions get the best of him. He disrespects authority and delights in making mischief wherever and whenever he can. Don Juan, the main character of Byron's poetic masterpiece of the same name, is a character with total absence of respect for anything sacred. He disrespects authority, creates mischief and his sense of humor is a major reason for the poem's lasting popularity.

That same type of humor is a major reason for Eminem's lasting popularity. Every Eminem album has been released with the lead single coming from the Slim Shady alter-ego. And although the rest of Em's songs take a more serious tone, the opening single from each album has always proved the biggest draw (listed below are the opening singles from each album). The Slim Shady LP – My Name Is The Marshall Mathers LP – The Real Slim Shady The Eminem Show – Without Me Encore – Just Lose It Only one other Eminem song charted as well as any of those four singles and that was Lose Yourself, Eminem's attempt at a more hopeful, uplifting message.

Which brings me to a main shortcoming between Eminem and 2Pac. So far, Lose Yourself, is as close as Mr. Mathers has come to 2Pac territory. It's easy to argue that 2Pac had more "social" material to work with but if Eminem ever wants to take that step forward (and this can actually be said of all the rappers on this list) their next album should probably contain some sort of socially or politically motivating work. All Em has to do is listen to the Flobots to see that anything he's passionate about that also applies to the world-at-large can be writ across a hugely popular single. But, for now, Eminem, just like every other rapper on this list falls short of 2Pac. Just like every Romantic on this list falls short of Blake. 


EMINEM Lose Yourself – The most popular Eminem song due to it's uplifting message of hope (always a better motivator than anger or fear). Though an inwardly focused song it still resonates well with a lot of people.

The Way I Am – If it's possible to have an underrated Eminem song, this would be it. He originally intended it to be the lead single from The Marshall Mathers LP. Record producers wanted him to make another "My Name Is"-type single to kick off the album, but Em struggled to think of one. This is the end result of that, but fortunately or unfortunately (depending how you look at it), Shady was able to create The Real Slim Shady just in time to make the cut on his second album.

Stan – It's been said this work resonates with nearly every musician, singer or actor who has achieved even a modicum of success. Now if only Eminem can focus his energies on a song that relates to the rest of us

LORD BYRON Don Juan – The first place the Byronic Hero was created and immortalized. A classic in every sense of the word and a work on par with just about anything the other Romantics created.

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage – A near autobiography of Byron's journey through sensual indulgence that eventually dulls his senses. His travels through the baser social classes erodes his opinion of the human race.


So that's it... but this should really be seen as just a beginning. The list of Romantic Poets includes more than just the big six. Hannah More, Robert Southey, Charlotte Smith and John Clare did a lot for Romanticism as well. Just as Chuck D., Run-DMC, Nas and LL Cool J deserve consideration as great rappers. But the comparisons and parallels don't fit as well with the rest of them.

No matter how you feel about the poets and lyricists on this list, I hope you've enjoyed the post and (perhaps) learned something interesting along the way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I loved this post!!! Thank you for making this! Really a good read for anyone who likes classic English literature and rap!