Jay-Z, Patti Smith, and other widely anthologized lyricists deserving of a Nobel prize in literature

Future Nobel laureate?
Future Nobel laureate?
Image: Reuters/Benoit Tessier
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Great writing isn’t only to be found in books. The Nobel committee recognized as much today (Oct. 13) by awarding American songwriter Bob Dylan its prize for literature, for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” He becomes the first musician in the prize’s 115-year history to win the category.

While some would contend that Dylan is uniquely deserving of a Nobel among musicians, the award does potentially expand the parameters of who should be considered. Dylan is by all means an exceptional lyricist, but he’s not alone in creating “new poetic expressions” in song. Here are a few of the other musicians who have been widely recognized for the quality of their lyrics, and arguably worthy of the Nobel in literature. It’s not an exhaustive list of great lyricists—it includes only English-language writers, for instance—and sticks to just those who are still alive, according to prize rules.

Leonard Cohen

Before he was well-known as a musician, Cohen was a poet. Prior to releasing his debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, in 1967, the Canadian songwriter had already earned some literary acclaim for his several poetry collections and novels. His music maintained the literary qualities of that work. On the song “Suzanne” from that first album, for example, he sings:

And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him 
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them

But among the lyrics on the many albums he’s released since, his best known by far come from the song “Hallelujah,” which has been recorded hundreds of times by various musicians, including Jeff Buckley and John Cale. It took Cohen five years of penning dozens of verses to come to the final product. It’s no wonder Nobel winner Bob Dylan himself was a fan of the song, which begins:

Well I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this:
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Patti Smith

Smith is often called “punk’s poet laureate,” and like Cohen, she wrote verse for itself before setting it to music. In the early 1970s, she was involved in the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, a popular forum in New York’s poetry scene, and enlisted friend Lenny Kaye to play guitar for her first reading there. “I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll,” she later wrote in her critically acclaimed memoir, Just Kids. The poem she read was “Oath,” which begins:

Christ died for somebody’s sins but not mine

It was later to become the basis of the opening line on her 1975 debut album, Horses, whose lyrics were infused with the influence of French Symbolist Arthur Rimbaud. That sort of inspiration always made her writing distinctly different from that of writers such as Dylan and Cohen. It was often less about telling a story and more about capturing an emotion, as she did in the song “Dancing Barefoot,” described by Rolling Stone as a “mystical ode to sexual rapture”:

She is benediction
She is addicted to thee
She is the root connection
She is connecting with he

Here I go and I don’t know why
I flow so ceaselessly
Could it be he’s taking over me


If one of Bob Dylan’s great contributions to literature has been creating “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” then it would be impossible not to consider rappers and their enduring influence on music. One standout is New Yorker Rakim. He’s consistently ranked among the greatest MCs of all time, and some argue he is simply the greatest for his innovative, monotone delivery, and the use of complex internal rhymes he pioneered from the time of his 1987 debut with Eric B., Paid in Full. In the song of the same title he raps:

I need money, I used to be a stick-up kid
So I think of all the devious things I did
I used to roll up, this is a hold up
Ain’t nothing funny
Stop smiling, be still, don’t nothing move
But the money
But now I learned to earn cause I’m righteous
I feel great so maybe I might
Just search for a 9 to 5
If I strive then maybe I’ll stay alive

Adam Bradley, one of the editors of The Anthology of Rap, which explored rap as a literary form, has said that song is one he’s long been “particularly obsessed” with. Rakim has a talent unprecedented in rap for expressing different points of view and conveying abstract concepts. ”The street-conscious tightrope he walked in his lyrics—criminal, intellectual, everyman, god, all at the same time,” wrote Billboard in its list of the 10 best rappers of all time, “set a blueprint that rappers from Nas to Kendrick Lamar still follow today.” His 1992 song ”Don’t Sweat the Technique” looks particularly prescient when considering his legacy:

They never grow old, techniques become antiques
Better than something brand new ‘cause it’s real
And in a while the style’ll have much more value


Jay-Z, another contender for rap’s best ever, made his own strong case for considering rap’s literary value in his 2010 book, Decoded, which looked back on his life and lyrics. “If Jay-Z isn’t the greatest MC of all time (as MTV ranked him in 2006), then he is certainly in the discussion,” begins The Anthology of Rap‘s entry on him. For 20 years, from the time of his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, he’s been one of the best lyricists working in music. His bars are full of compositional complexity, including intricate rhythms and clever lines that play with language. One of his best-known phrases, for example, is:

I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.

Many of his songs deal with a life of crime, or accumulating wealth, but Jay-Z has frequently managed to explore these subjects critically. In his 2009 song, “History,” he reflects:

I swear I met success, we lived together shortly
A success is like lust, she’s good for the touch
She’s good for the moment but she’s never enough

Joni Mitchell

The Canadian singer doesn’t consider herself a poet in the vein of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Instead, she calls herself a “painter who writes songs.” But for more than 40 years, her lyrics, which were compiled in the 2013 book, Gathered Light: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell’s Songs, have gathered fans and deep praise. Though she has frequently dealt with topics including injustice and war, her writing is often intensely personal, earning her the label of a ”confessional” folk singer. She also has a gift for vivid imagery, as in the famous lines of her 1970 song “Big Yellow Taxi”:

They took all the trees
Put ’em in a tree museum 
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Some of her most famous work has been described as “poem-songs,” filled with “achingly beautiful” lyrics, as in the poetic 1971 composition “Little Green”:

Just a little green
Like the color when the spring is born
There’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow
Just a little green
Like the nights when the Northern lights perform
There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes
And sometimes there’ll be sorrow

Paul Simon

Between his solo career and his days as part of the hit folk duo Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Simon has written some of the most memorable pop songs there are, not just for their melodies but for their lyrical quality. He has proved adept at creating emotionally evocative images with his words over and over in his more than 40-year career. In the 1966 song “Hazy Shade of Winter,” for instance, by Simon & Garfunkel, he sings:

Seasons change with the scenery
Weaving time in a tapestry
Won’t you stop and remember me
At any convenient time?
Funny how my memory skips while looking over manuscripts
Of unpublished rhyme
Drinking my vodka and lime
I look around
Leaves are brown, now
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter

As the New Yorker pointed out earlier this year, “Some musicians excel at giving a good groove room to breathe. Simon is often at his best when he is wordiest.” Simon’s music is loaded with melody and rhythm, but his words often carry it. The song “Graceland,” from the 1986 album of that name, is one example:

She comes back to tell me she’s gone
As if I didn’t know that
As if I didn’t know my own bed
As if I’d never noticed
The way she brushed her hair from her forehead
And she said losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

These aren’t the only people whose music has literary value. Linton Kwesi Johnson, who was born in Jamaica and made his home in the UK, is a dub musician and poet who doesn’t draw clear distinctions between the two. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton is an astounding work of history told in rhyme—rap rather than verse in this case.

Will any of these people ever win the Nobel for literature? They’re long shots, to say the least, and no matter what, the writing needs to hold up without the music. But as the Nobel committee demonstrated, work doesn’t necessarily have to be written, rather than sung, to be considered.