Good Rap 101

I’m making this post because after Eminem’s freestyle on Donald Trump — which, let’s all admit was not a very well done rap — one of the sentiments that exploded on twitter is that rap is a disgrace, a devolution from classical music, etc, etc, and a large amount of the people taking issue with Eminem’s rap admitted to not listening to rap themselves.

Myself, I’m a huge fan of rap as well as rock, grunge, country, prog, metal and even classical.  Rap is one of the most American cultural art forms, it’s woven into the fabric of society and anyone who says it’s unsophisticated is clearly lacking in exposure.  Eminem is a great rapper, but he’s never been one of the rappers known as soul-searching poets. So I wanted to take a few moments out of my day to highlight some of the really great poets who, perhaps, could stand along E. E. Cummings and T.S. Eliot (by the way, smug dudes on twitter showboating with misspelled name drops — one ‘L’, one ‘T’).

1. Eyedea
Michael Larson, better known as Eyedea, was a rapper in the late 90s and earlier 2000s who ultimately died of a drug overdose. Known for rapping about the hypocrisy of society, his personal issues and lamenting the evils of our age, Eyedea is, even today, known as perhaps the most naturally gifted rapper of all time. In the movie High Fidelity, John Cusack’s character stumbles upon some misspent youths who give him their mix tape. Those youths were based on Eyedea and his D.J. Abilities. Of particular note is the 2009 album ‘By the Throat’ which is poetry from beginning to end, culminating in the optimistic indictment of societal dirt and hypocrisy, “Smile”. Eyedea is known for rapping in double time to fast beats, but “Smile” is a much slower track.

2. J. Cole
Jermaine Cole is a contemporary rapper from North Carolina. While several of his songs play off the topical, typical rap style of self-aggrandizement, J. Cole is a master of his craft and on each of his albums moments of artistry shine through. No track is more emblematic of J. Cole’s sensitive, contemplative, self-reflective style than the final track on his last album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive entitled “Love Yourz” where he raps about the emptiness of success and preaches that fulfillment comes from love and gratitude.

3. B.o.B.
Bobby Ray Simmons is well known for his infectiously optimistic, upbeat brand of rap. In a landscape full of rappers pitching new tracks about money and the gangster lifestyle, B.o.B.’s brand of rap has the power to lift your spirits on a bad day and put everyone in its vicinity in a good mood. Known colloquially as the rapper who put romance back in hip hop, he’s put out many chart-topping hits like “Magic” and “Airplanes”, but perhaps the best display of his romantic rap style is “So Good” on the 2012 album Strange Clouds.

4. Yelawolf
Yelawolf is an Alabama native who raps about his pride in the redneck lifestyle, pride in being a father, overcoming fatherlessness and country. He has a unique rap style that fuses class rap beats with Southern style rock and country. He raps with a wide range of anger and humor. While not every song of Yelawolf’s is a hit, he has flashes of brilliance, nowhere more self-evident than than his breakout single “Til It’s Gone”, a song which has one of the most haunting choruses I’ve ever heard. “Ain’t much I can do but I do what I can / But I’m not a fool, there’s no need to pretend / And just because you got yourself in some shit / Doesn’t mean I have come to deal with it / You handle your own when you become a man / And become a man when you handle your own / Ain’t much I can do but I do what I can / But what can I do if I do til it’s gone?”

5. Twenty One Pilots
Twenty One Pilots is arguably the most popular band right now among people under 25 and for good reason. It’s a blend of rock, pop, synth and rap that’s tied together with artistry and musicianship that most are shocked to find come from two twenty-somethings from Ohio. Emotionality and depth are pervasive throughout each of their albums, though it’s unclear people would pick up on it from the pop-leaning singles that got the most radio play, “Stressed Out” and “Heathens”. Take a look at this verse from “Holding Onto You” from the 2013 album Vessel.

You think twice about your life, it probably happens at night, right? / Fight it, take the pain, ignite it / Tie a noose around your mind loose enough to breathe fine and tie it / To a tree, tell it, ‘You belong to me / This ain’t a noose, this is a leash / And I have news for you, you must obey me.’

To deny the alliteration, rhyme and the impact of the content is madness.

Hope if you haven’t listened to much rap, I exposed you to some artists you may like to learn more about. If you are a rap fan, who else do you think should be on this list? Tons of options I left out to keep it to five.

Ryan is a writer from Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter here, and be sure to buy his new book, Gods of the American Wild.