6 Times Rap Referenced Literary Classics

By: Sam Fletcher, May 9th, 2024 12:05 pm.

From Tupac to Tolstoy, rap and literature have always been tight. And given the genre’s focus on lyrics, it makes perfect sense. Rap, as an art form, is the ultimate combo of spoken word, poetry, and music. That’s why literature offers so much, as hip-hop explores its words and ideas to its own beat.

But which literary classics have bounced through the bars? Here are six examples we’ve caught for you.

Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”
Things Fall ApartChinua Achebe (1958)

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I could’ve easily chosen Kunta Kinte from Alex Haley’s Roots, given its title connection. But Chinua Achebe’s classic ‘Things Fall Apart’ deserves recognition — and this kickass tune from an equally awesome album is the perfect choice to showcase that.

Lamar mentions he’s ‘got the Yams,’ symbolizing social status in African cuisine. Chinua’s novel states that in his community, men are judged by their yam yield. Kendrick then uses them as stand-ins for corruption, bringing down the likes of Richard Pryor and Bill Clinton. Things Fall Apart explores personal downfall and cultural disintegration, themes still relevant today.

There’s a reason Black Thought also references Achebe in The Roots’ track ‘100% Dundee’ with his line ‘push pen to paper like Chinua Achebe.’ And that’s simply because Chinua’s words were just that powerful.

Dead Prez – “Animal in Man”
Animal FarmGeorge Orwell (1945)

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I’ve felt Prez was often overlooked as a political group (their tracks were also absolute bangers). Their lyrics still pack a punch, and they remain true to their convictions.

Similar to Orwell’s revolution fable, his allegory on Stalin’s corruption of Socialist ideals also stands the test of time. After booting the farmer, the animals (heroically!) seize the means of production, yet the pigs begin hatching other plans.

Echoing the 1917 Russian Revolution, stic.man’s lyrics warn against concentrating power, underscoring the need for equality. By closely mirroring the classic’s narrative, Dead Prez drives the point home; it’s the book distilled to its rawest form.

Little Simz – “Stillness in Wonderland”
Alice in WonderlandLewis Carroll (1865)

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I’m glad I got to work Simz in here; the more people hear her, the better. And her second album ‘Stillness in Wonderland’ is the perfect intro.

Adapting Lewis Carroll’s classic, she takes it to the city, giving it a dark, moody vibe. Submerged in funk, her lyrics highlight a dingy, grimy atmosphere, lending a vibrant, supernatural edge. It’s deceptively simple, with so much riding just beneath the surface.

Like with Animal Farm, Simz takes you on a journey through a classic text, but this time via an entire concept album. With colorful (yet stark) visuals laid over a deep groove, it demands your full attention.

Originally, it also came with an accompanying comic book, so there’s that too…

MF Doom – Sofa King
OthelloWilliam Shakespeare (1603)

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“The beast with two backs…”

This line from Othello provides a colorful metaphor for doing the bad thing. So let’s just say Carry On (and every camp British seventies sitcom for that matter) had nothing on the pure poetry of William’s smut-filled innuendos.

In the first scene, Iago winds up Senator Brabantio by revealing his daughter Desdemona’s getting down with Othello. He states, ‘Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.’

Doom used this line to knock critics incessantly asking about new tracks:

“They came to ask him for at least some new tracks,
But only got confronted by the beast with two backs”

Basically new tracks will come once he’s taken care of business. And, saying the song’s title fast enough lets you know what’s really up.

Danny Brown – “Atrocity Exhibition”
Atrocity ExhibitionJ.G. Ballard (1970)

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Inspired by a J.G. Ballard novel and a Joy Division song, Danny Brown’s fourth album features some of his rawest hooks. Unflinching and direct, the same can be said of Ballard’s highly experimental short-story collection.

Divided into sections, Ballard’s short stories are loosely interconnected, seamlessly blending science fiction with the avant-garde. Ballard doesn’t hold back either, offering incendiary titles that span from Kennedy’s assassination to then-Californian politician Ronald Reagan’s psychosexual appeal (and what to glean from that…).

Hot off the back of this, Brown’s album makes perfect sense once heard. A collection of stories in itself, each song feels open and truthful, reflecting Brown as an artist. Introspective and honest, he shines a light on both himself and society.

Not to mention, the album is filled with absolute bangers.

Black Star – “Thieves in the Night”
The Bluest EyeToni Morrison (1970)

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“And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life.” – The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison (1970).

Claudia’s reflections in this classic novel highlight an inner struggle shaped by societal oppression and the expectation to conform to white society’s standards, forcing African Americans to live inauthentically. Made to live up to white society’s expectations and conceal their true selves, their emotions become mere survival instincts rather than genuine expressions. Concealing who they truly are, they hide from life itself.

The nineties rap duo Black Star—Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (Mos Def)—brings these words into the chorus of ‘Thieves in the Night,’ paying homage to Morrison’s novel. By likening Claudia’s reflections to the ongoing struggles faced by minorities and inner-city residents, they highlight the risk of black culture being assimilated and erased within white society.

Stay true to yourself and don’t let anyone take that away from you.

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