The opening line of a poem is like a first date: if it isn’t any good, then people are unlikely to hang around for the second. I’ve been thinking a lot about opening lines recently, and their importance in setting the tone for the rest of the work. The literary establishment doesn’t often refer to rappers as poets, but starting a verse with aplomb is an artform all of its own.
I can say this from wearily personal experience. When writing a poem, I would say that I spend the bulk of my time working out how to begin it. It’s a little like making an incision at the beginning of the most delicate of operations – with each poem, you are attempting to make the reader or the listener sense the world around them in a slightly new way (well, I am at least). If that first line is right, then everything else flows naturally from there.
That’s a difficult enough task without music; when you are working with a beat, the entire enterprise becomes more complex. This is why, at some level, I revere artists like Lauryn Hill and Method Man, whose opening lines at their very best are spectacular statements of intent. Witness Lauryn Hill coming in on “Lost Ones” – “It’s funny how money changes situations”. It’s clear from the outset that she is coming for conquest, a warrior not to be denied. And then you have Method Man, who so often stole the show on other people’s tracks that he should have been arrested for burglary. On “Shadowboxin’”, he enters in typically formidable fashion: “I breaks it down to the bone gristle; ill-speaking, Scud-missile-heatseeking, Johnny Blazin’”. (Of course, he didn’t steal this particular show from GZA, but that is only a mark of his fellow artist’s genius.)
Yes: the opening line is everything. This was my introduction to the Wu-Tang, and began a twenty-year-odd fandom which continues to this day (of course, I am listening to them even as I type this). Hip-hop fans will each have their favourites – yesterday, when I asked on Twitter, I heard plenty of shouts for Busta Rhymes on “Scenario”, and DOOM on, well, everything – but I will always be grateful to Method Man, as both a fan and a poet, for teaching me the value of the intro.