Poetic's Recorded Battle with Cancer: Four of the Hardest Verses of All Time

July 15, 2022 marked the 21-year anniversary of the death of Anthony Ian "Poetic" Berkeley. Before passing, he wrote and recorded no less than four verses about his battle with cancer. Two were done as features. One of those, from Last Emperor's "One Life," is fairly well known and has been rightly recognized for Poetic's vivid depiction of the night he was hospitalized from what would turn out to be colon cancer, his diagnosis the next day, and subsequent fight to survive. However, this is actually the second of the two features to be released. 

The first dropped two years earlier, in 2001 (possibly before Poetic passed, but don't quote me on that). This verse appears on the song, "Angel Cries," by Canadian rapper Steve "Liquid" Hawley from his album, Better Days. Poetic actually co-produced much of this project — the photo accompanying this post shows him mixing it — which is an interesting story unto itself that I hope to delve into at some point in another post. But for now, let's run these back to back.

Paralyzed on the bathroom floor by pain
Last month I endured but now I can't ignore
Feels like railroad spikes being stuck in my liver
Am I dying? Eyes crying, body starting to shiver
Crawl upstairs from the basement calling my sister
"Dawn, help me, I ain't feeling to healthy"
Stomach walls burning, head spinning and turning
Waiting for the EMS three-ten in the morning
Rush me to emergency screaming like a newborn
The pain's too strong maybe my soul's trying to move on
He hooked me to the I.V., put me through some x-rays
Gave me Demerol to kill the pain, that was the next phase
Early the next day in the hospital room
Moms and pops in the room, three or four docs in the room
"Test results suggest your colon and your liver 
is so cancerous you got three months left"
Me and death is playing chess ever since then
My strength is the Most High, my fam and close friends
The Last Emp and Set Free blessed me with a verse
Staying healthy comes first, look at me, things could be worse

Hey yo, I'm standing on the Earth surface looking up
Reviewing my purpose in a world so corrupt
I look to the heavenly force with ebony thoughts
Cancer distorting, my whole chemistry's off
I'm mentally caught in the highs and lows
Of despising those guessing when my eyes'll close
Laying in the hospital room, feeling the gloom
They'll be wheeling me off to the O.R. soon
My family and friends all gather up in the lobby 
They probably praying for me when surgeons open my body
My niece gave me a kiss with a tear in her eyes
I hate it when the angel cries

Listening to and looking at the two verses side-by-side, at first it almost seems as if they could have both been from the same song. Upon closer review, though, the verses differ significantly in time-setting and tone. Whereas "One Life" has Poetic recounting his diagnosis and determination to fight on, "Angel Cries" takes place entirely within that fight. A devastating counterpoint to the almost uplifting ending of Poetic's posthumously released "One Life" verse, the "Angel Cries" verse illustrates his mental, physical and spiritual struggle with certain death. It's a significantly shorter verse, only 12 bars to the 20 on "One Life," and with each rhyme more concise as if reflecting his limited time left.

The poignant beauty of these verses is their unsparingly honest detail of someone so alive transitioning from the world of the living. Lyrics don't get much sadder than this, but that they could be written at all is about as powerful of a reminder of the enduring strength of art and human potential as one may ever encounter. The "hardness" of these verses is in Poetic's steely resolve, h/His will to survive two and a half years after the doctors gave him three months.

Poetic's other two known cancer-related verses are harder in the more traditional sense, that is, heavier-handed, bloody knuckled with no punches pulled. As such, they're also harder to listen to than "One Life" and "Angel Cries." On "Burn Baby Burn," from Gravediggaz' Nightmare in A-Minor (also from 2001), Poetic aka Grym Reaper positions death as the central character in his final horror story.

From the first day that I burst through the skin
Of a virgin, I was cursed by sin
A mammal of the sea, pop's name John Samuel Berkeley 
Out of his nuts came me
True indeed I had soul even as a tadpole
Grabbed hold of an egg just to have a mole
Grew up surrounded by darkness and blood
Swimming in the cut like Noah in the flood
Eh-eh-eh-ah drama, devils attacked me inside my momma
This caused trauma
While I was growing up she was throwing up, it got worse
That's how I met the doc and the nurse
They took an X-Ray, kept it to the next day 
To figure out the best way to possess me
Trapped in a pool of impurity 
Without security, nearly ruined me
No immunity to the curse yet
I saw the earth sweat as poppa prayed on the church step
In the place where they worship
As the nurse crept I got mad nervous

Pain builds my character, deranged cancer cells
Begin to damage my shell, tissues begin to swell
The human pin cushion, needles begin pushing
Through my melanin cover, blood begins gushing
Hunger pains fed through my veins
Trying to maintain body and brain under strain
Belly being drained from my nose through a catheter
To maintain my stamina game is high caliber
Flashback my dossier files, before the hospital
Flocks would pay their piles of cheddar to see me rock my style
Got lots of smiles from man, woman and child 
A Gravedigga here running wild like the Nile
Ghetto X-File: The Horrorcore Bringers
City morgue singers, new rap era beginners
Four years out of seven I remember touring
And this year I'm measuring my urine

Note how Poetic seamlessly adapts the tale of his fight with cancer to the tropes of the horrorcore style he pioneered. In a song dripping with all the gory details of a body-horror flick, Poetic saves the most grim detail for his last bar. It's a tragically ironic ending: Grym Reaper, a character spawned from the bloody politics of the music industry, works so hard to get his music heard that it kills him.


Anonymous said...

RIP Poetic

Anonymous said...

GRYM POETIC TONY TI, will forever be the one and only MC that never sold out and always put his heart and soul into every single verse he ever wrote and recorded, may he forever rest in peace inside depths of heaven, I’ll see you one day tony! Pooch - medatated minds >

Anonymous said...

The most amazing lyricist I ever met. Everything that came out of his mouth was sheer poetry. RIP Poetic. Never forgotten.

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