How One Slam Poet Is Becoming the Smartest Rapper of His Generation


Rap is poetry — even Jay Z says so. That's why it's unsurprising that 27-year-old slam poet Watsky might be the next big rapper of our generation.

It began in high school, when a teenage San Franciscan named George Virden Watsky began getting in trouble a lot for speaking out in class. In ninth grade, his English teacher suggested he channel his frequent interjections into a local program, Youth Speaks. That's where Watsky tried his hand and his lisping voice at poetry. A decade later, he's one of the most promising young rappers on the scene.

By 2011, he'd already fallen in love with slam poetry and shifted his focus to rap. When his fun and light-hearted "Pale Kid Raps Fast" video (now renamed) appeared on YouTube, though, he didn't have much ambition for it. Yet something about his anarchic glee and devilishly fast rapping got those who did watch it to share. Then it went viral and amassed more than 20 million hits on YouTube. Ellen DeGeneres saw it, and she featured Watsky on her show soon after. It seemed like he was a gimmick — a kid without a career ahead of him. But against the odds, he kept releasing other fast rap videos and winning more fans with battles like "Dr. Seuss vs. Shakespeare" and mixtape releases like "IDGAF."

Watsky held on where other viral fads fade. That's because Watsky is a poet first and foremost — just a poet with a flow like Twista. In "S for Lisp," one of several spoken-word performances posted on his YouTube channel, he spits and sprints through careful consonance, redefining the stereotypes associated with his own lisp. He gives quick but quirky observations; he thought he'd been speaking normally for two decades until he found out his "stuff sounds like a stanza of Severus Snape's toughest parseltongue is pronounced by Daffy Duck." The performance culminates in a slowly delivered conclusion: "If you suppose your speech is normal, then your impediment is listening." Like Jay, Watsky knows real listening is a profound activity. Snap judgments are misleading.

Snap judgments for Watsky run deeper than his lisp, though. He said it best with the name of his first hit video: He's a pale white kid who likes slam poetry. He isn't your average rapper. But he is aware that he's now joining a rap world different from the past. "White rap is in its third phase, with the first being Vanilla Ice, who made it a novelty, and the second being Eminem, whose tough life story was similar to other African-American rappers," Watsky said in an interview with USA Today. "People like me and Macklemore are telling our own stories for an audience that may not have a context for the founding fathers of rap." Like the best poets and rappers, Watsky takes that responsibility seriously and delivers honestly and vulnerably.

On June 10, Watsky released "Whoa Whoa Whoa," the single off his new album. It already has more than 1 million views, which is not bad for a song that blends slam poetry's use of silence with dick jokes about Miley Cyrus. It's fitting because the best rap demands poetic intent. Watsky says so himself: "In 1860, Walt Whitman described his carefree attitude towards life in his famous poem, 'Leaves of Grass,' by writing, 'I cock my hat as I please.' And in 2012, Justin Bieber said, 'Swag, swag, swag on you.'" It's a new age, but it's the same swagger as ever.