The Poetics of Hip-Hop: On Uncommon Nasa’s Debut Book ‘Withering’

The US underground rapper releases a selection of his lyrics as poetry, as well as new pieces
WORDS BY JACK MCKEEVER

The parallels between song-craft and poetry don’t need exploring. Rhyme and verse, in various forms, have been at the epicentre of discourse for as long as humans have been communicating. Just like language itself, poetry, prose and music have all evolved via numerous man-made indents, constantly adding new flavours and dimensions.

Nowhere is this truer than within the genre of hip-hop. Certainly, if you were to look at the rap music that permeates the charts these days – all searing drill-style noise and braggadocious assertions about wealth and sex – then it would seem poetry and storytelling have been demoted to the absolute basest of natures, hoodwinking the public into believing that consumerism is all that matters. But in rap’s gritty, surrealist underbelly the art of storytelling is in rude health, and New York MC Uncommon Nasa’s debut book ‘Withering’ is a multi-textured example.

Nasa’s writing and music stems from two deeply set wellsprings. The first is a desire to outline the truth. He’s a man who has been deeply embroiled in the media sphere via Twitter (though he recently announced that he would ‘no longer be utilising that space’) and the ‘Dope Sh!t‘ podcast which he co-hosts, but he’s also fully aware of the perils of mob mentality and the buffer that it can be. In its capacity as the most malleable and personal form of prose, the poetry in ‘Withering’ is almost an excuse for Nasa to convince himself – and the seemingly small number of people open to it – of the truth.

The second foundation for Nasa’s perspective is his rich history within the New York hip-hop scene. His rhyming and writing style comes from a long lineage of East Coast tendencies, from Mobb Deep’s grim-as-hell depictions of life in New York’s projects to El-P’s 21st century paranoia. His deliveries are resolutely off-kilter and his imagery treads the line between being opaque and direct, entwining the reality of any given subject matter with evocative, late-night analysis. Nasa doesn’t so much create characters as use them as terminals through which his worldview can pass. In ‘Withering’, those deeply personal traits are laid bare in refreshing ways.

Though most of the poems presented here are from Nasa’s musical back catalogue, when delivered outside of that context they take on a whole new precedence. It’s not the notion that hip-hop isn’t powerful or widely enjoyed enough to make an impact; that’s been a misconception since the genre began. It’s that, in ‘Withering’, the words are allowed new freedom, new space to breathe and roam, and to take on new meanings by design. As before, the ethos behind the collection is to deliver the truth from the perspective of a man who has reached and embraced the ‘halfway’ point in his life, but there are ideas here that could be like looking in a mirror for any deep thinker – ideas that don’t always seem obvious when listening to their three minute, experimental recorded incarnations.

Take a piece like ‘Black Hole’, for example: in terms of sonic effects, it’s one of the strangest, most dystopian pieces in Nasa’s recent recordings (from his 2017 LP ‘Written At Night’), and its bleak analysis of the darkest aspects of the media are hard to misread. But in the book it becomes part of a bigger whole. Disgust at the despondency of the human condition continuously rears its head, along with the stagnancy of life and the proposed notion that nothing ever really changes. This frustration both strikes a more personal chord with him as well as holding universal relevance. At some point everybody’s life becomes stagnant and empty.

The moment where the collection undoubtedly makes the crossover into the sphere of poetry is in ‘Destiny’. Originally a track from Nasa’s 2014 acclaimed New York Telephone record, here, it’s the only example of Nasa veering from the structurally conventional template, presenting words and lines as short sharp shocks to the system and utilising grammatically destructive see-sawing. It’s one of the collection’s few examples of real spirituality, seeing Nasa write of how life is dictated to us via noise and outside influence beyond our control; the idea that things are predetermined and that paths are mapped out for us. The form of the poem reflects that ambiguity, but he quite literally brings the piece back down to Earth by capitalising the ‘NY’ at the end of ‘destiny’; an assertion that New York is where he belongs, no matter where life takes him.

The two short stories presented flesh out Nasa’s creative mindset, giving insight into it and his processes. It’s here that Nasa’s world view is portrayed through unlikely mediums; a female parking ticket officer in ‘Withering’, and a world weary, undefined office clerk in ‘Burt’s Dead’. Both of them are consumed by awareness of life’s perils, the former so dark as to assert that death is the only release from the mundane that leads to the moribund. But, the same inclination to keep people at arm’s length that permeates much of his poetry comes from a deep understanding of how people work. ‘Burt’s Dead’ is a damning rumination on the idealistic desperation of ‘do-gooders’; but, when you delve below the surface the true depth is revealed, meaning it makes perfect sense.

‘Withering’ is a prime example of how poetry, whether dictated in musical or prosaic form, can be a personal tool and a primer for one’s own identity. As a collection, the book clearly shows Nasa’s evolution through life, with regards to wisdom, perception and what he’s learnt. As a rapper he’s an antagonist, both sonically and lyrically, always looking for where to land the next punch; however, as a writer, he’s a realist, collected in his cynicism and always shows a studious awareness of the true power of words. Whilst that’s not the sole reason hip-hop has always been culturally important, it’s a new dimension to the sphere and has helped to establish this innovative artist as a creative force within his field.

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