Thursday, April 5, 2012

An Urban Pastoral

As we discussed in class, pastoral poetry romanticizes the life of a shepherd, portraying country landscapes and idealizing the rural lifestyle. However, the idea of the pastoral can be expanded to the urban lifestyle as well. In the song “New York (Ya Out There?),” Rakim idealizes the city of New York in an urban pastoral. He includes powerful images such as the Garden of Eden and Mecca in order to glorify the city. Like classic pastoral poetry describes rural landscapes, Rakim describes city scenery in his song. In the line, “Ease your mind staring at skylines from rooftops,” he shows that an urban setting can be just as relaxing as a rural one. He depicts the city as a peaceful retreat, demonstrating that it is not always necessary to seek a rural setting as an escape.

In addition to scenery, Rakim also covers many other domains to describe life in New York. For example, he references fashion in order to represent New York as a city of style. He describes it as the place “where trends are set from ways to express the outfits,” where there is “a lotta gear to rock with blocks of clothes shops,” and where “styles are top notch.”

Rakim also describes life on the streets, idealizing this side of New York City as well. He tries to show how the streets of New York make the city both tough and powerful. He twists the danger of the urban lifestyle into something positive in these few lines:

Yo this is where the bullshit stops
Where herbs get got, if you snitch you get shot
We get down and leave the town in a state of shock
We got dangerous hang out spots and slick cops

Finally, Rakim also boosts the city by referencing the influence of hip-hop:

DJ’s and MC’s and graffiti artistes
Who use walls and subway trains for marquees
We go back to b-boys, breakdancing, breakbeats
And it’ll never cease and on that note, we say peace

In these last four lines, Rakim uses the four pillars of hip-hop culture to further elevate New York. He uses hip-hop as evidence of the success of New York City—a success clearly demonstrated and idealized in this urban pastoral, “New York (Ya Out There?).”


  1. When listening to this rap track once more, something that really stood out to me was the combination of the Big Apple" and the Garden of Eden in Rakim's second verse.

    "And the Garden of Eden against the sea that we got// To make sure the core of the Big Apple don't rot// Where seeings believing we be achieving a lot// Since disc jocks created hip hop, check it out!"

    I believe these four lines are the most important in Rakim's song "New York (Ya Out There?)". This may be due to my religious faith falling with Christianity, but regardless: Rakim made this reference for a reason. It was not just a slight play on the words. The Garden of Eden was where sin originated. By making this reference, it seems as if Rakim is making the following conclusion: Through this powerful image facing a place through which people find transport to the city, it protects the city by reminding people not to take advantage of the city. The Big Apple is to be enjoyed and used, but not to be "plucked" from its origin (New York state).

    It is simply this religious reference I wanted to place more emphasis on, as Rakim is bringing the city to a much higher level of treatment. Despite the rough situations that may occur in the city, it is something to be cherished and accepted as is. By bringing the Big Apple to this religious level, Rakim is reaching even further "into" his audience, to tap into a deeper level of emotion (in my opinion). To bring up such a major event in this religion, Rakim has placed much importance on the sustainability of the Big Apple as is.

    Though this sustainability may gain importance throughout the rest of the lyrics, I believe the religious impact Rakim delivers here helps to bring the city and its culture to a new level of admiration.

  2. Looking at Rakim's final verse, we see that the rapper portrays New York as a kind of promised land: "the oasis, New York, the far east." It's interesting how he contrasts this thought with the mention of "five bouroughs of ghettos" in a previous line. Regardless of whether the listener agrees with either perspective, it's fairly obvious what makes the city such an inspiring place for Rakim. Those final four lines (referenced at the end of the original post) illustrate the way he was influenced by his urban environment. Artists of all kinds make pilgrimages to the big city; it is a place where "DJ's and MC's and graffiti artistes" thrive upon each others' presence to create new material. As a "city that never sleeps," New York is always providing some source of inspiration to its artists. As Eden was for Adam and Eve (see previous comment for some interesting thoughts there), New York is a paradise for the creative mind.

  3. I believe that New York is very much an urban pastoral as it has much influence on its inhabitants in the hip-hop industry. Neighborhoods are very diverse in New York, and this has a strong impact on the rappers that come from each neighborhood. As you mentioned style, styles change greatly from neighborrhood to neighborhood, creating a unique identity for urban pastorals as opposed to rural pastorals. Many rappers are often heard describing their cities and its inhabitants in great detail in their songs, suggesting that the pastorals do have a significant impact on their music.

  4. I find it really interesting that something starting as idealizing rural life made a complete flip into the urban pastoral and songs idealizing the concrete of NYC. We see examples of this all the time in rap music, and not just with NYC. Pittsburg has been idealized through the music of Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller, Cleveland through artists such as Kid Cudi and Machine Gun Kelly, and NYC with way too many to mention. I think this relates back to the idea of rappers wanting to represent where they are from, both to make them accessible and to give credit to the city that made them who they are today.


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