The last few years have been good for hip hop nerds, bringing along with the usual mixtapes and albums an unexpected load of books. It began with Jay-Z’s deluxe coffee-table memoir Decoded. Then there was My Infamous Life by Albert Johnson, otherwise known as Prodigy of Mobb Deep, and an autobiography by Common. Ice-T has added to the pile, and Fifty Cent has released a young adult story about bullying. (He’s against it.) Nas is apparently at work on something, as well as Lil Wayne, Cee-Lo, and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. It may seem predictable that rappers would sooner or later capitalize on our memoir-happy times—can’t knock the hustle now—but the amount of ink being spilled suggests that more is at play.
Also relevant here is Yale’s The Anthology of Rap. For the unfamiliar, the book is just what it sounds like: a hefty collection of rap lyrics. It’s the first of its kind, so it’s been enjoyable and salutary to see the literary world come to terms with it. Hip hop has long been written about, of course, but it’s not everyday you see it treated in the New York Review of Books, or hear people, Sam Anderson in this case, praising the “lush Keatsian soundplay” of Jay-Z. That said, responses to the book have been mixed. The editorial writing is informative and the contents are, for the most part, inclusive. There may be nothing by Redman, and The Pharcyde are relegated to the perfunctory “Lyrics for Further Study” section, but why quibble? After all, here’s Ultramagnetic MCs, Freestyle Fellowship, and Devin the Dude. The lyrics themselves, however, often so memorable in their natural element, can look lifeless or painfully silly on the page. And though hip hop has been an object of academic study for years now, institutionalization seems to jar with its spirit.
Whatever you make of it, the anthology was going to happen, and is a sign that hip hop is reaching a place of wider legitimacy. The recent spate of autobiographical activity is related to that, though it also just testifies to the fact that a certain generation is getting on. Consider some of the recent rapper-authors: Prodigy was born in 1974, Common in 1972, Jay-Z and the RZA of the Wu-tang Clan in 1969. All were adolescents in the eighties, during the great social transformations wrought by crack, and all went on to contribute to one of hip hop’s most competitive and beloved micro-periods, the mid to late nineties. It’s likely that the books stem partly from an underlying nostalgia for this time, when rap—gangster or conscious, mainstream or independent—seemed less splintered than it is now, more part of a single vibrant conversation. (And also that a group of 30 and 40 year olds, much like their readers, are nostalgic for their twenties.) Hence, the recent Tribe documentary, Nas’s live performances of the now 18-year-old Illmatic, all those cars driving around still playing “Juicy.” The lives went directly into lyrics, full of immediacy, but the music itself was an experience, and took longer to absorb. Should we be surprised that the results are generally quite strong?
Jay-Z’s Decoded is easily the most ambitious book of the crop. Not only does it set out to document Shawn Carter’s childhood in Brooklyn, his youth selling drugs, and his eventual success as a rapper-CEO-multimillionaire and husband of Beyoncé, it’s also a consideration of the concept of rap and an argument that in the right hands it can be poetry. To do all that, and still other things besides, the text includes essayistic sections on the aesthetics of rap and large-print, annotated lyrics from the rapper’s long catalogue.
To Jay-Z, rap doesn’t just happen to talk about hustling: the two roles naturally converge. Both emphasize adrenaline, language, liberty from societal constraints, and a high-stakes psychological education in sizing up people and situations. And of course there are the spoils. Few other emcees present selling drugs as such a high-flown adventure, worthy of endless, detailed elaboration. Given the ubiquity of the subject throughout the genre, this is saying something. It’s always been evident in his best lyrics: “Hope you don’t think users are the only abusers, niggas, getting high within the game/ if you do then how can you explain, I’m ten years removed and still the vibe is in my veins.” But Jay-Z is explicit about this in prose, examining his time dealing and everywhere linking it to the lines of his songs.
It was a surprise to discover, reading Decoded’s annotated lyrics, that there was much more to certain tracks than I’d thought. Jay-Z distinguishes his narrators with quick strokes (“I wake up hit my shoe box, I snatch a few rocks”), rendering them in a few words bosses, upstarts, or desperate mid-level operators in a drought. The use of slang is likewise deceptively subtle, with word choices made to fit the theme at hand. Who knew the connotations that separate, for example, “hammers,” “tool,” and “heat” were so finely weighed? Reading the lyrics reveals the shifting motivations of characters in the more narrative-driven songs, as well as hidden bursts of extended wordplay—little verbal motifs that riff on shirts, shapes, or chess—that are charming in their arbitrariness.
In Decoded, Jay-Z reveals himself as an unlikely hip-hop statesman. He likes acts both old and new and from all over the country. This catholic view helps him make the case that rap is rooted in tradition. But is the tradition chiefly a poetic one? “Rap is poetry,” Jay-Z says, “and a good MC is a good poet.” Clearly the music is a monster of living vernacular, and has plenty in common with poetry—besides rhythm and rhyme, there’s a love of phrase, simile, and metaphor. But rap is also preeminently oral, sharing qualities with acting, storytelling, and the high arts of bullshitting and invective. It makes more sense to locate its roots elsewhere, in street corner talk, toasting, and other musical genres. The music critic Kelefa Sanneh, reviewing Decoded in the New Yorker, captured the problem nicely: “Sure, he’s a poet—and, while we’re at it, a singer and percussionist, too. But why should any of these titles be more impressive than ‘rapper’?” In other words, why the need for literary prestige? After all, rappers enjoy collaborations, gatherings on boats, and the right to squash foes real and imaginary and pun all day without reprisal. And let’s not forget the heart of it, the exaltation of sailing endlessly on a rhythmic current of speech. If Jay-Z wants to be thought a poet, many actual poets would probably jump at the chance to switch places.
One of rap’s central paradoxes concerns the tension between “realness”—the idea that everything a rapper says about him or herself is true and authentic—and the patently performative nature of the music. Jay-Z is surprisingly open about “Jay-Z” being a character: “Rappers refer to themselves a lot . . . The rapper’s character is essentially a conceit, a first person literary creation.” After reading Decoded, it’s easy to be impressed by how much of his own life Jay-Z has included in the part. If his persona is so grounded in his experience, though, can the difference between the two meaningfully exist for listeners—or at least for those who aren’t also readers of his memoir? Jay-Z, the writer, sympathetically depicts the no-way-out circumstances that lead some young African-American men to crime. Jay-Z, the rapper, does that as well, but he also glories in the baser side of the experiences he depicts, and knows where the payout lies. For every introspective song like “Regrets,” Jay-Z has written ten like “Money, Cash, Hoes.” Like so much crime rap, the angles he privileges are those of the dealers trying to get rich. Addicts, communities, and victims of stray shots? They’re usually footnotes. In Decoded, when Jay-Z refers to a few lines in “Coming of Age Part II” to support the claim that the protagonists are unloved misfits, I wanted to call his bluff, as one does whenever a gangster rapper releases one rote, “sensitive” track on an album otherwise wholly devoted to happy bloodshed. Don’t get me wrong: Decoded is often illuminating, and a pleasure to read, but certain parts come off as wanting to have it both ways.
If you don’t fully buy the rap-is-acting bit and hate the violence that characterizes so much hip hop, or if you are disturbed when it sounds uncannily authentic, don’t listen to Mobb Deep. By now the Queensbridge duo has several albums, the most admired of which are Hell on Earth and The Infamous. The rappers Prodigy and Havoc (who is also the producer of their albums) deal with familiar trappings—crack, project benches, and gats—with an appalling immediacy and single-mindedness. None of Jay-Z’s debonair gangster wit here; in their early twenties, Mobb Deep already sounded posthumous. Even stripped of the unsettling calm of the delivery, the opening lines of “Right Back At You” show a detachment that is strikingly different from that of most thug or gangster rappers, who tend to cling greedily to the role of victor: “Now run for your life, or you wanna get your heat, whatever, we could die together/ as long as I send your maggot-ass to the essence, I don’t give a fuck about my presence.” Another warning is just one simple line, but no less haunting: “If I don’t know your face, then don’t come close to me”—a sentiment more typically heard in plague times.
In 2006, Prodigy was busted carrying a loaded handgun. In prison, he worked with Laura Checkoway on My Infamous Life (all the books reviewed are co-authored). Like more than one rap album, the cover is awful—think blockbuster bio, only with more jewelry—but you can’t tear yourself away from the contents. Prodigy comes from an accomplished family: his mother was in The Crystals, his grandfather is in the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, and his great-great-great grandfather founded Morehouse College. Nevertheless, he took to trouble early. He has vivid stories about growing up, hair-raising ones about his days in the streets, and precious little to say about rapping. As he puts it in a song, “This rap artist used to be a/ stickup artist.” Given his experiences even at the time of Mobb Deep’s success, it’s amazing he survived, let alone made music.
There are myriad brawls in My Infamous Life, and long stretches where it seems like our hero is retrieving a gun from his car engine every few pages. Prodigy and Havoc’s very entrée into the music industry is emblematic. As teenagers, the pair approached Q-Tip outside the Def Jam offices. After being led inside and granted a promising impromptu interview, Havoc accidently shot an employee in the stomach, and the two were chased out of the building by Ali Shaheed Muhammed of A Tribe Called Quest. The most unlikely part of the story is not that this took place, but that the pair then went on to become as successful as they are today. Q-Tip even produced a track on The Infamous!
Much of this book’s appeal is in its candor. How many in hip hop will admit that they used to wet the bed, or that Nas once called them wack and “Rat Boy”? In passing, this hardest of rappers also states what few in the genre will: that gay people are OK. My Infamous Life sags a bit in its later chapters, where Mobb Deep hooks up with Fifty Cent’s G Unit label, and there are a few holes, but rap aficionados will still want to devour it in a sitting or two, at most. This is partly because Prodigy names names (including Jay-Z’s) when relating intense and compromising anecdotes about his peers. As in his raps, he behaves as though he has nothing to fear or lose.
People who enjoy some rap but don’t care for its relentless machismo and negativity often listen to Common. His shows are rife with, in his own lamenting words, “coffee shop chicks and white dudes.”
Common may now be known as an actor, celebrity, and visitor to the White House, but before all that he was known as the creator of a series of underground records that (so far) have arguably peaked with Like Water for Chocolate in 2000. Like KRS-One and The Native Tongues before him, Common has expanded the possibilities in hip hop considerably over the years, rapping about love, abortion, and political prisoners, which is not to say that he lacks wit, a macho side, or pure rhyme hunger. He is perhaps most satisfying as a critic of rap’s commercial knuckleheads: “Don’t give a fuck where you chart/ certain shit I can’t honor/ it ain’t that you sellin’, it’s your karma.” Common was part of the Soulquarians, a collective that included, among others, The Roots, D’angelo, Black Star, Jay Dee, Erykah Badu, James Poyser, and jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove. In general, the rap world makes much of the mid-‘90s New York renaissance that centered on Biggie, Nas, Jay-Z, Mobb Deep, and Wu-Tang; rather less, individual successes aside, about the force that was the Soulquarians, whose best music will likely last as long as anyone listens to hip hop and soul, and I mean old soul. I was happy to read that Common still has Voodoo in heavy rotation.
Common’s background differs markedly from the others’. He grew up in a mostly stable household—although his family lived on Chicago’s South Side, and he may have been briefly kidnapped by his father as an 8-month-old, he got good grades and went to college. Though Common sometimes has presented himself as a dreamer, his lyrics are pithy. As a result, his memoir’s wavering treatment of many aspects of his life—for, against, then for again—is surprising. On the other hand, he allows his mother to comment on his narration throughout, a move one gleefully hopes will catch on elsewhere. (Common: “That hustler’s spirit is one of my birthrights.” Mom: “He’s one of the hardest workers I know. But a hustler? I don’t know.”) He splices these recollections with heartfelt letters to important spirits in his life—family, friends, rappers, Assata Shakur, the ghost of Emmett Till—that may be read as either inspiring or long-winded. In any case, he has many extraordinary stories to tell. How many people have served as a ball boy for Michael Jordan, feuded with Ice Cube, loved Erykah Badu, and been complimented on their raps by the President?
As for hip hop, there are some good details, but others that are elided. When Common says that house music helped shape the hip hop that came out of Chicago, for example, fans may want him to elaborate. Likewise, how were the Rawkus days, and his appearance on Stakes Is High? Common does discuss his close friendships with Kanye West (Common to Kanye: “Not many will be able to say that they are as gifted as you are. I know you appreciate those gifts; you tell us about them all the time!”) and, movingly, Jay Dee, the revered producer from Detroit, whom Common watched die young of a rare blood disease. “Jay Dee commanded respect. I’ve witnessed Pharrel Williams get down on his knees and bow down to Jay. Kanye came by the house on a Mother’s Day when Jay Dee was in here making beats. Jay Dee gave Kanye a 45 with some drum breaks, and Kanye cherished that joint like he’d received a gift from one of the prophets. . . . His private legacy? A warm, quiet, and good-hearted friend.”
“Bobby Fischer lost when he became the pieces. When he’d lose he’d go to his room and cry, he really took things hard. He couldn’t separate what happened on the board from what happened to himself. And some people think that it drove him crazy. I don’t think he was crazy. I think he was eccentric. But I think he lost a crucial part of perspective that you need in the game and in life.”
“Around 1991, things were bad for us in New York. My album as Prince Rakeem wasn’t paying my bills. GZA’s record for Cold Chillin’ didn’t do well either. We needed money, one of my friends got killed, some people were trying to kill me, and all of us were scrambling.”
“Practice wit and deflection every day. You never know when you’ll need it.”
These lines are from The Tao of Wu, a wisdom-volume by the RZA, architect of The Wu Tang Clan. The book includes an introduction by a Shaolin monk, koans, lyrics, and analyses of numerology, chess moves, kung fu movies, and religious passages. Interwoven throughout is the story of a suitably myth-sized life. Growing up, RZA once shared a room with nineteen others in a two-bedroom apartment; he says that as a teenager, he eluded a mob with the help of Allah, who turned him invisible; and when he was acquitted of attempted murder on grounds of self-defense, the jury, in tears, embraced him. A postmodern sage with street cred, the RZA approaches his life with a seemingly zig-zag logic. In hindsight, it’s clear he could not not have appeared in Ghost Dog.
In the early ‘90s RZA produced Wu Tang’s debut album, the heroically grimy Enter the 36 Chambers, in three Staten Island apartments. Later, in just one year spent in the basement of a new house, he recorded all the music for classic albums by Clan members Raekwon, GZA, and Old Dirty Bastard. Since he kept his own special system, with compressors for each rapper’s voice, the nine members would sound different if they recorded elsewhere. The place flooded before Iron Man, RZA says, explaining that Ghostface ultimately recorded this album in a studio and that his voice isn’t the same. As well as the virtues of being a despot of the engineering process, RZA talks about his initial vision for the Wu-Tang, and how their isolation on Staten Island contributed to their individuality within the New York hip hop scene. He also has some interesting views about rap in general, like this: “If the music sounds violent . . . that gives the listener a chance to get his violence out into the air. But if you have a violent lyric on a smoothed-out beat, that violence goes straight into your mind.”
“People talk about hip hop like it’s some giant living in the hillside,” Mos Def remarked in the intro to his superlative 1999 album Black On Both Sides. It remains a welcome point, and one I sometimes wish more critics of the music could hear. If there are general reasons for optimism in this wave of books, it’s in their confirmation that the genre is a world of distinct personalities and complex moral assumptions, an uncensored outlet for some profound experiences, and gets artistically roomier according to the individuals who take it up. And, as Jay-Z notes in the afterword to his new paperback, they may well get some kids into reading.
But while one can understand someone like Jay-Z’s bid for greater recognition with regard to hip hop’s art, the commercial success of the music and the sheer amount of people who do love and listen to it closely may finally render such anxieties moot. The better opportunity represented by these books is not about prestige. Though rap is usually absurdly boastful, as writers, the emcees here aren’t full of ego. On the contrary, they all stress the hard work, as well as other kinds of struggle – with fickle industry, family (all had absentee fathers), the barriers of racism and poverty – the many kinds of getting by, in other words, that have always been one of rap’s rich underlying themes. The chance is not to incorporate such things into the pat sociological narratives with which we’re all familiar. Rather, by discussing the contexts, personal, and otherwise, in which the music is made, hip hop itself might be brought a little closer to Earth, given a more neutral space for reflection, and return the more interesting for it. The written word can be an agent of surprise even for those already saturated in language, and may help free rappers a little of the masks their medium so often demands of them.