I was part of a conversation last week with two writers of color in which the concept of genius in art was discussed—specifically, how white men have anointed themselves both the sole possessors and the arbiters of it and how reluctant they can be to consider works created by people of color to be worthy of this distinction.
It’s an edict that bleeds into the way our work is critiqued. Even work that’s critically lauded, if created by a person of color, is often described as everything but that. It can be powerful. And provocative. And visceral. And emotive. And explosive. But intellectually rigorous remains elusive. If you watch sports and pay attention to the language used to describe athletes, it mirrors the subtle differences between how white athletes and black athletes are assessed.
For artists of color, this dynamic can be a frustrating paradox. The perpetual cognizance of the white gaze is something many of us are actively attempting to extract ourselves from. Some have been more successful than others. But in the art and media and literary worlds, white men remain the primary gatekeepers, and something as seemingly insignificant as a barely perceptible semantic choice when reviewing our work can affect everything from grant applications and fellowship recommendations to contract renewals and book deals.
Anyway, Thursday afternoon, Black Thought dropped the best freestyle I’ve ever heard. I’ve been trying, since last night, very hard to qualify that statement. To find a reason not to give something I’d just heard the “best ever” distinction.
I thought about Loaded Lux’s appearance on Funk Flex earlier this year and how that had me singing appropriate hosannas. I thought about the iconic Big L vs. Jay-Z freestyle from 1995, the dozens of Eminem and Canibus freestyles I devoured in college and the famous Dipset cypher on Rap City where Cam burned the entire studio down (and counted money while doing it). But finding a way not to call this the best would be a self-conscious attempt at some sort of performative critical sobriety.
He went for 10 minutes straight. In one take. While being recorded on film. And managed, in those 10 minutes, to weave so many different literary devices in his verse that I lost count. There was analogy and allegory. Alliteration and assonance. Metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia, humor, sarcasm, satire and drama. He switched, effortlessly, from first to second to third person.
He constructed complex rhyme schemes on top of one another, sometimes even switching cadence and breath pattern to articulate and distinguish multiple rhyme structures within the same line. He cited trap niggas and Nikola Tesla. Nat Turner and Henrietta Lacks. It was witty and powerful and spiritual and inspirational. And it fucking banged. It was 19 degrees in Pittsburgh last night, and I listened to this in my car with the windows down. Because I had to.
It was also an unambiguous articulation of the beautiful mind Black Thought possesses: a brain with enough power not only to construct such a tour de force, but to fucking memorize it. His freestyle clocked in at a little over 2,000 words. I can’t even begin to fathom how that sort of retentiveness is possible. There can’t be more than 100 people on earth with the synthesis of IQ and worldliness and technical proficiency and command of language necessary to do what he just did.
In the line where he cites Tesla, he also cites Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare and Voltaire—all white men commonly recognized as geniuses (“I’m at a level of intelligence you can’t define/Einstein, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tesla/Recording artist slash psychology professor”). I’d imagine that, for those aforementioned arbiters of creative genius, this line reads as an especially ridiculous stretch of hyperbole. Because of course a black rapper from Philadelphia couldn’t possibly possess that level of intellect.
I also believe Black Thought was wrong to compare himself to them. Because he was selling himself short.