Baraka's career spanned nearly 50 years, and his themes range from black liberation to white racism. Some poems that are always associated with his name are "The Music: Reflection on Jazz and Blues", "The Book of Monk", and "New Music, New Poetry", works that draw on topics from the worlds of society, music, and literature. Baraka's poetry and writing have attracted both extreme praise and condemnation. Within the African-American community, some compare Baraka to James Baldwin and recognize him as one of the most respected and most widely published black writers of his generation. Others have said his work is an expression of violence, misogyny, homophobia and racism. Regardless of viewpoint, Baraka's plays, poetry, and essays have been defining texts for African-American culture.
Baraka's brief tenure as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (2002–03) involved controversy over a public reading of his poem "Somebody Blew Up America?", accusations of anti-semitism, and some negative attention from critics, and politicians.