For the nerd in every hip-hop fan, we take a close look at the idea of "poetic license," and how an MC is able to bend or completely ignore standard grammar rules because of it.
Poetic license is not a new concept. The idea of poetic license can be traced back to the Greco-Roman classical era and is derived from the Latin words, 'poeta' ('maker') and 'licentia' ('to be permitted,' 'liberty'). The concept was encouraged by a Greek philosopher by the name of Aristotle (maybe you've heard of this dude?). In one of the first-ever treatise to describe poetry and literary theory, the philosopher referred to something called "poetic effect"-- which, today, we would call poetic license. "For poetic effect, a convincing impossibility is preferable to that which is unconvincing but possible," he wrote, encouraging authors to defend any uncommon or "impossible" language with the use of said phrase. The idea is that a poet or author can choose to ignore a set of grammar rules in order to focus on another aspect of his work, i.e., a rhyme structure or rhythm. As a fan of hip-hop, you probably experience this daily, although you probably haven't given it much thought. That's a good sign.
Hip-hop is about creative expression for whoever holds the mic. The person holding the mic, that’s the MC. In hip-hop specifically, an MC refers to an artist who both creates and performs original material he wrote-- rappers are poets, simply put, who have the added benefit of being able to perform their poetry with production behind it. To keep the listener entertained (as is the job of the 'master of ceremonies') an MC can bend linguistics in new ways and come up with creative methods of letting words roll off his tongue (his flow). He can create scenarios in our mind’s eye with his words. These scenarios, such as the one Nas so phenomenally created on Stillmatic's "Rewind," do not rely on the beat but the lyrics-- the beat only enhances our experience.
We often get captivated when a newcomer to the rap game does something no one ever thought of before, whether it is spitting a story in reverse or using a never-before-heard flow. These days, flow is of the utmost importance, and we’re seeing new ones implemented all the time-- there’s the off-pitch melody used by ILoveMakonnen, an up-and-down flow Kevin Gates often employs, or the staccato harmony dubbed as Migos’ flow. Artists that come into the game offering up something creative, something different (i.e., not common-place), something that their own poetic license allows them to do, are quickly separated from the pack. The praise might not be instantaneous; many people were stand-offish, incredulous even, when they first listened to the barely-comprehensible raps of Young Thug. However, that’s how Thug chose to fit his words into his rhyme structure, and poetic license gives him the prerogative to ignore the "norm" in hip-hop. All rappers have this prerogative, but they don’t all use it.
That’s not to say, for example, that Migos or Young Thug take full advantage of other poetic license usages. Meaning, we don’t usually listen to Migos to hear complicated rhyme schemes and elaborate metaphors. Plenty of new MCs in the game are re-inventing flows, but they might be less focused on their rhyme scheme. They might embody one aspect of poetic license while other aspects are neglected.
Read more as we expand on this idea, and delve deeper into it, in the following galleries.