Matthew Richardson

Bad boys for life

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References to rap, hip-hop, bling and life in 'da hood' are a rare sight on literary pages. But, in his donnish but beery style, Will Self piloted through his love-hate affair with the genre in the Times recently. Decoded, a new book by one of the proponents of rap-as-literature, Jay Z, comes in for some head-patting, while the Guardian critically dissects the book. (You can read excerpts from Decoded here).

The debate about lyrics as literature is timeless. Bob Dylan's verbal outpourings are usually cited as proof, none more so than by his most unlikely champion, Sir Christopher Ricks. Whether the men of letters are genuine or just wanting to get all down and happening with the yoof remains to be seen. Self gently mocks Seamus Heaney's infamous words (apparently quoted on the back of Eminem's book The Way I Am): 'There is this guy Eminem. He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around a generation'. Nothing like a Nobel Prize winner to boost one's literary credentials, I suppose. But did Heaney have a point?

There are always those who remind us that the origins of Homeric epic and lyric poetry are in song. So, can rap have literary worth? Are lyrics literature? Is comparing Paradise Lost with 99 Problems a category mistake or not? Does Milton's 'Sing heavenly muse' give more food for thought than at first we might have imagined?