It wasn’t too, too long ago that I offered some suggestions for anyone looking for books on hip-hop. The past couple of weeks have brought us two more, both looking to accomplish somewhat similar things with varying degrees of efficacy.
The Yale Anthology of Rap was released earlier this month with no small amount of celebration. Hip-hop has been examined academically for years as a historical or cultural phenomenon, but for the first time the poetry of rap, the compositional skill was getting the graduate treatment, like a hip-hop Norton Anthology: an 800-page doorstop of a book jammed with rap lyrics, organized by historical period with introductory essays providing contextual perspective and brief biographical notes on each lyricist, it should be a gift from the gods to everyone who bobs their heads to the booms and baps.
But it’s nooooottttt quite.
Oh, I had the book in my hands, friends. I walked in the store a man determined, the book was made for me. But I’m an older man now, readers, and while I’m still not as stingy with my funds as I should be, it takes a little more effort than it used to for me to part with it. And as I was flipping through the pages, perusing lyrics by Big Daddy Kane, Pharoah Monch and Mos Def, they all looked so….flat. Sure it was cool to see the songs I loved included, but if it was a song I didn’t know, I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for them seeing them presented in so sterile a fashion. But that would appear to be the least of the book’s problems.
Paul Devlin at Slate appears to have made flogging this book his autumnal mission, devoting three articles in as many weeks to transcription errors he found in the book. His original piece featured some legitimate criticisms, such as the Ghostface/Vaughan Harper reference in ‘Daytona 500’, but oddly enough my hearing of ‘Brooklyn Zoo’ by Ol’ Dirty Bastard agrees with what the anthology transcribes [‘girls be dropping babies’]. In discussing it with my Lady, I learned she always heard it as Devlin did [‘Cosby dropping babies,’ an admittedly more witty line]. So while I don’t doubt that there was some laziness in the transcription of the lyrics, a fact all but confirmed in Devlin’s follow-up piece, exposing that many errors in the book are identical to those found on the Online Hip-Hop Lyric Archive, a wiki-like database of fan-submitted lyrics, I do think there’s always a margin of error when relying as something as subjective as a person’s individual listening experience.
My biggest problem with the book, and what will ultimately keep me from buying it as it currently exists, is the lack of footnotes. Take the earlier Ghostface example. The line question says the artist’s ‘voice be mellow like Vaughan Harper.’ I might know that Vaughan Harper is a deep voiced radio personality from New York who spun R&B records in the 80s [and I only know that because Vaughan Harper hosted the VIBE FM station on Grand Theft Auto IV], but would the average reader? Transcription errors are one thing, but the lack of any explanatory footnotes is unforgivable. I understand the Herculean effort involved in providing explanation of all the slang and references involved in one rap song, let alone the hundreds included in the anthology, the project would balloon to three times the size. But to completely ignore any annotation and fly the book under an academic banner is irresponsible. While somewhat useful as an artifact, the book is all but useless as a tool. Should you really want to understand these songs, hit up Rap Genius instead.
What really makes this more heartbreaking is the fact that not two weeks after the Anthology came out and failed so spectacularly, another book came out that did it so right.
My interest in Jay-Z’s Decoded was already piqued when I first learned about it months ago. Who wouldn’t want to hear the actual stories alluded to in his songs for so many years. For a guy who’s never really shied from the press, he’s remained admirably (and stubbornly) reticent over the course of his career. Of course I’d want to see what he had to say about his childhood and adolescence, when he fell in love with Hip-Hop, to hear some of those hustler stories he’d been smoking over in his lyrics. What I didn’t expect was that he would do not only that, but explain himself through his songs.
Yes, Decoded is an autobiography, albeit a non-chronological one; more snapshots from his life than a straight retelling. It’s also collects over 30 songs, with footnotes and explanations written by the man himself.
It’s obvious to point out, this is what the Anthology of Rap should have been. To finally find out what that ‘finish your breakfast’ line in ‘Public Service Announcement’ was about would have been worth the price alone, but to hear him put a song like ‘Big Pimpin’ in its proper context, taking responsibility for some of its questionable sentiment without apologizing for it, it’s moments like that that make this book utterly essential for anyone who loves Hova, or Hip-Hop. Buy it now.
Hopefully the editors of the Anthology can take a lesson from Decoded and make the 2nd Edition a book more inline with their lofty ambitions.