Ok, rounding things out, here’s the 3rd review/polemic in the 3-part series I’ve been running here (see parts 1 and 2). This one’s the most recently published, hardly a year old! (That’s not bad for lag, as these things go.) On the surface, it’s a review of 2010’s Anthology of Rap (Yale); but again, while offering specific commentary on the text in question, I also take the opportunity to weigh in on some trends in music scholarship — in particular, with regard to ye olde juncture of writing-about-music.
First off, let me note that I think Kalefa Sanneh already had the last word on this basically, so my own “review” is pitched more directly at music scholars. For other sharp responses following the book’s publication, check out Sam Han’s own anti-logocentric critique and the comedy of errors examined by Paul Devlin at Slate.
My own take appeared last June in the Journal of Popular Music Studies‘ newly launched “Amplifier” section — a venue for short pieces that break from the traditional mold in published music scholarship. Yes, my own piece is relatively traditional as a book review, but, I’m also happy to report that it’s a far shorter piece than the other two reviews I’ve ran here in recent weeks. So this time I’ll let you get to the kicker — another good one, IMO — all on your own.
JPMS 23(2): 190–194 / June 2011
This journal aims to encourage “writerly” approaches to our various encounters with popular music. And sensibly so. After all, despite some recent and relatively modest multimedia enhancements, this is a space primarily for words.
A writerly tack embraces the peculiar challenges of bridging what Charles Seeger referred to as the “musicological juncture,” or the inevitable slippages more folksily described as “dancing about architecture”: in other words, the problems inherent to translating sonic material and embodied experience into written text. As the quip about dancing implies, many seem to think that such a project dooms itself to reducing, recoding, and reifying its subject. But if such outcomes are, in their way, unavoidable, better to acknowledge the mediation and embrace the medium. To press our words to rise to the occasion, and dance. Or more modestly, we think there is space for such discourse, and we want this space to offer some.
Against this ideal, the recent publication of The Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press, 2010), edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, offers a timely reminder of what can get lost in the translation from popular music—with all the p-word entails, from commerce to contexts—to words on a page. Admittedly, the enterprise of representing rap music as lyrics abstracted from recorded performances or any particular encounter with them—indeed, as poetry—goes well beyond questions of “writerly” approaches. But it also presents a sort of limit case. In an effort to perform a kind of alchemy on hip-hop’s texts, the anthology highlights, by their very absence, how crucial dimensions of popular music as actually encountered demand a special sort of textual recognition.
From the so-called “grain” of the voice to the inextricable entrainment of a lyric’s sonic shape and setting to the meanings these things take on in different times and places, the texts (in the broadest sense) of popular music beckon for language that registers as it grapples with questions of form and force, interpretation and affect. It may be unsurprising that a collection edited by two professors of English, seeking to read rap as an “estimable body of contemporary poetry” (xxxiii), would downplay the genre’s sonic dimensions. But in justifying their project, the authors go so far as to assert that rap’s poetics can be examined with no reference to matters of sound.
The Anthology of Rap exhibits a pervasive and often bald logocentrism even as it bears subtle and consistent witness to rap as a fundamentally musical phenomenon. In his foreword, Henry Louis Gates concludes that “the words are finally the best reason for the beat” (xxvi). He marshals this rhetorical flourish to affirm the larger goal of the anthology: positioning rap, as Gates puts it, in the “new vanguard of American poetry” (xxvi). Gates’s primary strategy here is to ennoble rap by linking its rhymes to the African-American oral traditions—the dozens, signifyin(g)—that Gates built his own career around recuperating and recoding. But, tellingly, in order to draw us into the narrative, Gates highlights a number of crucial, performative qualities that resist easy render to the page. Recalling what arrested him as a young man watching his father recite Stagolee stanzas, Gates calls our attention to “all that a virtuosic performer possessed: an excellent memory, a mastery of pace and timing, the capacity to inflect and gesture, the ability to summon the identities of different characters simply through the nuance of their voices” (xxii). Clearly, all of these aspects—many of which we might include in the realm of the musical—are indispensible aspects of a performance’s poetics, and yet the anthology, its editors, and Gates himself all ask us, implicitly and explicitly, to set them aside.
A bias toward the words of rap, and against its music, rears its head throughout the editors’ introduction, whether they’re casually referring to rap’s “fundamental literary and artistic nature” (xxix)—see what they did there?—or asserting, with no support other than their own authority, that lyrics constitute “the most enduring part” (xxxiv) of hip-hop songs and that, moreover, lyrics “generally retain much of their resonance and meaning when isolated from their music” (xxxv). O rly? Sounds scientific enough, I suppose. Adding insult to injury, the editors have the audacity to employ “the music” synecdochically: “The parody of rap as doggerel does not touch truly on much of the music” (xxii). In its way, of course, such a slip registers the music’s refusal to recede from our imaginative engagements with hip-hop.
For all this rationalization, the collection suffers from a central and ultimately unacknowledged paradox. “This anthology treats rap as a literary form,” write the editors, “albeit one primarily experienced as music” (xxxv). There’s a lot riding on that “albeit”—a lot that never truly gets addressed. Instead, sleight of hand is meant to suffice: “Far from denying rap’s value as music,” they defend, “readers stand to gain a renewed appreciation for rap’s music by considering the poetry of its lyrics” (xxxv).
What this means is profoundly unclear, especially as the previous page finds the editors willingly enlisting unwieldy Eurocentric critiques of rap as “unmusical”—a surprising and needless concession: “The very qualities that leave rap open to criticism as music—heavy reliance on 4/4 beats, limited use of melody and harmony—are precisely what make it such an effective vehicle for poetry” (xxxiv). Would a hip-hop waltz be better? Perhaps something in 7/8 time? Is a “limited use of melody and harmony” really an accurate or fair description of the staggering variety of rap’s tonalities and omnivorous musical borrowings? The editors’ eagerness to throw rap’s music under the bus raises flags, to say the least. Indeed, this is one place where the book’s inherent conservatism betrays itself: Bradley and DuBois seek to admit hip-hop’s spectacular vernacular into the hallowed halls where people teach poetry. To do so, they embrace, rather than subvert, the elitist politics of canon. But a paramount part of hip-hop’s poetics—and a central reason for the genre’s resiliency and appeal—is a refusal to measure up to old models (aka, “all that jazz”). Following an imperative to flip the script, hip-hop artists, producers, and entrepreneurs have consistently opened doors—whether aesthetic or commercial—on their own terms, smashing canons in the process.
Moreover, while rap is doubtless a verbose genre at heart, even a casual survey of listening habits reveals that devotees and even casual listeners attend to a great deal more than rap’s lyrics, sometimes ignoring lexical content altogether to focus on the beats or flows, on the timbres and textures and rhythms of a recording, all of which crucially contribute to a song’s poetics. The editors’ subordination of musical wholes to an abstracted logos is not only misguided, it’s irresponsible, playing back into the hands of rap’s rarefied critics rather than elucidating hip-hop’s poetics on their own terms.
It is especially ironic to find prose neglecting, if not dismissing, the musical dimensions of a musical genre in a book that carries a clear agenda of validation. Legitimacy has been a hobgoblin haunting much of the academic literature on hip-hop. Such a stance may have made sense at a certain time, when hip-hop was roundly attacked in public media even as it made its commercial ascent, and it may yet make sense in certain contexts (English and music departments come to mind). But it’s a revealing and distracting preoccupation, saying more about the academic contexts in which young scholars seek sanction to teach hip-hop in their classes than, say, the wider world, where hip-hop pervades popular culture. Rap conquered the world some time ago, and as it happens, universities are demonstrably eager to offer and promote large-enrollment courses centered on the genre. Tricia Rose called her groundbreaking book Black Noise for a reason—and began chapter 3 with the revealing tale of encountering some racist, and familiar, opposition from the chairman of Brown’s music department: “Well, you must be writing on rap’s social impact and political lyrics, because there is nothing to the music” (62). But she wrote that book—and had that conversation—nearly twenty years ago. Hip-hop has moved on, and so should we.
At a launch event in Cambridge last November, Bradley asserted that the anthology “can help sustain a culture that already sustains itself.” This seems disingenuous, or at best, wrong. As Rose herself told me as an aspiring hip-hop scholar some ten years ago, hip-hop needs no help from academics. If anything, the academy could use some help from hip-hop. And while we might read the anthology as an attempt to stage such an intervention, we might better see it as a telling symptom of the ways that elite institutions such as universities and university presses inform the shape of our own cultural production. Looking for a silver lining, at the same event Jamaica Kincaid praised the anthology as a “sanctifying” project—an interesting choice given the etymological linkage between canonization and sainthood. As Kincaid elaborated, however, what she meant by this was that this rather humanities-style elevation of rap’s lyrics to the level of poetry works as a humanizing gesture—for “the people and the situation,” as she put it, though she also said she didn’t want to “freight the thing.”
Obviously, it’s plenty fraught already. Still, I’d like to be a good relativist of sorts. It’s a wide world after all. And I don’t mean, in turn, to disrespect or dismiss a valid listening position on the part of the anthologizers: that one important set of meanings of popular music do stem from abstractions and analyses of song texts. Clearly, to the editors’ ears, and in their minds, the beats stand in the background, or, ironically, as the ground itself, “the perfect sonic climate for poetically sophisticated lyrics to flourish” (xxxv). But respecting the editors’ right to read rap as they will, and understanding their approach in relation to the political economy of scholarly production and academic promotion, does not mean that one cannot also remain a strong advocate for popular music scholarship that cares more about the power of music and the power relations shot through our various engagements with it, than in further consolidating power and prestige for certain kinds of academic labor.
The longstanding attempt to legitimize hip-hop for our colleagues and patrons distracts from more meaningful research, the sort of work that takes hip-hop’s artistic (or, if you must, “literary”) merits for granted, and then proceeds to ask other questions about how its poetics function (and, necessarily, how they’re anchored in sonic and social experience). If such work could also aspire to be writerly, to dance on the page in a manner commensurate with its subject, perhaps one of hip-hop’s “golden age” ideals—rap as “edutainment”—could finally find some real footing in the academy. Until we make that space for ourselves, we’re doomed to reproduce a certain wackness.