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posted on 10.28.09

Dream City (1921) by Paul Klee

(from the chorus for ‘Thug is a Drug’)
Gangsta, birth sign is danger
It's like thug is the drug
That make 'em fall in love
When love don't love nobody
Gangsta, star sign is danger
It's like thug is the drug
Ready rock, steady pump
Man they leanin' and they fiendin'
Cuz they can't get enough...


Mos Def is a critically recognized hip-hop artist well-known for producing music that is not only openly critical of the flashy- and gangsta-life epitomized by popular rap artists, but seeks to create music whose continuum makes nascent a dialogue for a new critical response to popular black culture.  Poetry is too often underrated as an unpopular art form, but Mos Def, along with other underground hip-hop artists (such as Common and Talib Kweli) continue to challenge the status quo by creating poetry of depth and a poetic style that transcends the mediocrity of the marketplace and gets to the heart of the matter. 

Respiration is one of two hit singles from the 1998 album Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star; this work along with Definition would go on to be featured in VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of Hip-Hop.

This is a link to the full lyrics.

I think that this is a serious work of poetry; therefore I’ll just describe (briefly) some aspects of traditional poetic form that are contained in this lyric, and then describe the work as I see it.

Respiration is organized into three stanzas with two alternating refrains; there is a different speaker for each refrain. The rhyming scheme is not strictly held, which allows for a more fluid interplay of words, ideas and metaphor.  However, it is clear that all three rappers integrate a combination of hard and soft rhyming types meshed out in regular and internal formats.

The first four lines of Mos Def’s opening stanza include a combination of alliterative and regular rhyming sounds:

“The new moon rode high in the crown of the metropolis

Shinin’, like who on top of this?

People was hustlin’, arguin’ and bustlin

Gangstaz of Gotham hardcore hustlin’…”

I’ve underlined the regular rhymes in the first and second lines, the third line contains an internal rhyme based on “-in’”. The last line contains two pairs of alliterative rhymes based on the consonants (capitalisations mine): “G” and “H”.

In this example:

 “…like city lights stay throbbin’

You either make a way or stay sobbin’, the Shiny Apple

is bruised but sweet and if you choose to eat

You could lose your teeth, many crews retreat

Nightly news repeat, who got shot down and locked down”

Mos Def creates a heightened, faster rhythm incorporating assonant sounds in lines three, four and five of the previous example. Lines one and two include regular internal rhymes.

But enough of this banter!

I just wanted to describe some aspects of poetic form that Mos Def (et al) share with the traditional poetic genre: my point isn’t contested, but sometimes I think that too many music listeners that are unfamiliar with hip-hop write off the genre as trite and debased without discerning between the good stuff and the mediocre.

In short: this lyric is a dark, melancholic and poignant ode to city life.

In Mos Def’s first stanza, he describes a city in which the role of power is not transparent or benign, and does not serve the people, but his ability to ‘speak’ of the oppression allows him to get to the underlying disconnect between reality and expectation:

“The new moon rode high in the crown of the metropolis

Shinin’, like who on top of this?

My ears is picky, seekin’ what will transmit

the scribes can apply to transcript, yo

This ain’t no time where the usual is suitable

No Batman and Robin, can’t tell between

the cops and the robbers, they both partners, they all heartless

With no conscience, back streets stay darkened

Where unbeliever hearts stay hardened

My narrative, rose to explain this existence

Amidst the harbour lights which[sic] remain in the distance”


Talib Kweli continues in a similar vein:

“Breathin’ in deep city breaths, sittin’ on shitty steps

we stoop to new lows, hell froze the night the city slept”


(and continuing) Kweli’s  lines are particularly beautiful and poignant:

“Look in the skies for God, what you see besides the smog

is[sic] broken dreams flying away on the wings of the obscene”


Common, who is the third artist, focuses on Chicago in the third stanza and remarks on how the individual citizens of a city can become numb and desensitised to the larger world:

“My circumstance is between Cabrini1 and Love Jones2

Surrounded by hate, yet I love home

Ask my God, how he thought travellin’ the world sound

Found it hard to imagine he hadn’t been past downtown”


The final stanza includes Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Common:

“So much on my mind I just can't recline
Blastin’ holes in the night ‘til she bled sunshine
Breathe in, inhale vapours from bright stars that shine
Breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline
Yo how the bass ride out like an ancient mating call
I can't take it y'all, I can feel the city breathing
Chest heavin’, against the flesh of the evening
Kiss the Ides’ goodbye, I'm on the last train leaving”






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