New American Songbook: Sean Price and the Art of Violence

Jan 2, 2017

Graffiti portrait of Sean Price in Queens, NY
Credit Youngking11 / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

This piece originally aired on August 17, 2015.

A common critique of hip hop music is to point out the violence and vulgarity in the lyrics as a sign of its lack of quality. I’ve always found this puzzling. Americans are connoisseurs of violence. We are taste makers in this aesthetic, and we know what and where we like each particular violence.

Much of our creative output is saturated in violence—for no particular reason, my mind sticks on Bruce Willis’ entire acting career—and when we run out of marauding heroes, we glorify vigilante crusades or even criminal violence. Everybody knows Bonnie and Clyde.

Hip hop is a fully American expression, and as such, its aesthetic includes, and often relies on, violence as a narrative device. I prefer my violence to be free of complications like justice or vendetta, and there’s no better rapper for violence as simply violence than the Brooklyn emcee Sean Price. Raucous and rambunctious, Price’s lyrics stand out from the white-collar criminality of more polished hip hop, telling tales of stick-ups, bag snatching and almost comically low-level drug dealing.

While the stories and bravado are entertaining, what buttresses Price’s lyrics is a technical virtuosity employing a dizzying array of internal rhymes and Byzantine verse structures. As Price developed as an artist, he moved away from traditional verses and structure and towards potent vignettes, creating a poetry of violent antics that few other emcees can measure up to.

Sean Price died in his sleep, August 8th of this year. He left behind a wife and three children.

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