In the Heart of the Beat: The Poetry of Rap by professor of African American and African Studies Alexs Pate fights back against the conception of rap as offensive swill and advocates for the recognition of the artistry of rap and for giving rap lyrics equal value to other literary forms. For Pate, rap is the penultimate form of black artistic expression, and his job in this book is to legitimize it so that it may claim its rightful place.
The heart of Pate’s work is a comparison of rap lyrics to poetry. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate how rap should be read and analyzed the same way we have traditionally approached great poetry. Pate examines each aspect of poetry/rap: namely, saturation, language, imagery, texture, meaning, structure/form/rhythm, and flow, and shows the reader how to assess rap lyrics by using each criterion. In this, Pate is innovative, and it is interesting to read how he would treat two rap songs in the same way a comparative literature professor might treat two world classics. In fact, despite its pop culture subject, this is very much an academic treatise. It is organized in a meticulous manner, and reads at times like a very hip Ph.D. dissertation.
Much of this book deals with the ways the poetry of rap communicate black hip hop culture, and how rap allowed for the prioritization of the black voice. In one example, Pate explains how a Common line, “Under the Fubu is/A guru,” is about the self-empowerment and self-determination of black men fighting against Western norms. There is a part of me that really wants to believe Pate, that rap is still a message of the disenfranchised, but the bigger part of me thinks that Common is name-dropping Fubu just to capitalize on its success, just as Fubu itself is a way to commodify street culture for monetary gain. Perhaps Common is making a racially significant statement, but maybe he is just making money.