What You Should Be Listening To: Epistolary Rap

What should you be listening to during this strange time? Epistolary rap songs, of course! I mean, if we can’t hang out with people we want to see, we can at least write to them, right?

If you’re not familiar with “epistolary” as a word or form, it means that something is written in the form of a letter. So that’s what we’re talking about here: two rap songs whose lyrics come to you in the form of a letter written from one person to another, and sometimes you’ll even get the response. GET TO IT ALREADY! I hear you. The two songs you should be listening to are “One Love” by Nas and “Stan” by Eminem. These are standouts of the form not just in rap, but in any genre.

Nas’s “One Love” appears on his legendary debut album, Illmatic. The song opens with incarcerated men talking in what is assumed to be a prison yard, and one of them announces that he has received a letter from Nas, updating him on what is going on on the outside. The remainder of the song is this person reading the letter aloud (in Nas’s voice), with rapper Q-Tip providing vocal backing on the chorus. Why should you listen? For pure flow and storytelling, this is quite possibly the best rap song even written and performed. I’ve listened to this song over a thousand times and I still don’t know how Nas did it–the song is fast paced, so it’s a demanding performance, and nothing is forced. There are no obvious rhymes, nothing cliche–it’s like if someone walked up to you and started talking and everything feels completely natural, but it just so happens that the words rhyme and work as a perfect rap song. It’s high art.

Now this isn’t going to make much sense, but while “One Love” is possibly the best rap song ever made, Eminen’s “Stan” is the best epistolary rap song. Why? Because there’s more than one letter in the song! “Stan” is an incredibly well-known song, its premise being that Stan is a fan who writes repeatedly to Eminem, and though it takes awhile, Eminen eventually writes back at the song’s conclusion. If you’re one of the cool kids, then you know the term “Stan” is popular slang right now, meaning that you are the superfan whatever for are stanning for. So what’s the story? Well, and this is what makes this song so great…I would have to provide a spoiler alert. Can you name another song for which you would say “spoiler alert”? You can’t. And that’s one reason why this song is an all-time rap great. Minus the spoilers, the song is told through multiple letters, the majority of them written by Stan, a fan of Eminem who becomes more obsessed with each letter sent. This song is a master class is voice, storytelling, rising action and turning point, all with Dido’s song “Thank You” sampled in the background with its chorus included (“Thank You” was a hit song by itself.) 

Warning: There’s a bit of objectionable language in both songs, and the narrative arc of “Stan” is, by design, graphic and disturbing. Bonus points to Eminem for having the sound of a pencil scratching in the background. 

If you can think of other songs written in the form of letters, please let us know!

Both of these songs get 5 out of 5 chicken wings.

By Dr. Chuck Rybak

Chuck Rybak is the Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he teaches literature and creative writing. He is the cohost of the Canonball podcast.

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