Shifty Literary Lift: “The Anthology of Rap” Review
I’ve often lamented about my initial draw to hip-hop culture.
When I tell people that I could listen to an entire album of acappellas without missing much, I get scolded. There are plenty of pairs of rap camps, but the lyrically driven and the beat driven are some of the most chiseled.
Well, this post will really set my beat-devoted brethren overboard.
I can now say that I feel like I could read a collection of raps without feeling a hip-hop audio-emptiness.
Don’t get me wrong, tearing through as many of the 867 pages of rap poetic glory stuffed inside the recently released “Anthology of Rap,” wasn’t the first time I’d read rap lyrics. Those credits go to the ancient pantheon of hip-hop quotes (and misquotes) of the Original Hip Hop Lyrics Archive — (it should also be noted that, to my knowledge, this is the initial rap dive into online acronyms and HHDX, AHH, 2DBZ & SOHH all followed suit). But it was the first time I’d been presented with a collection of written raps that had been deftly compiled enough to do the genre justice in one, transportable tome.
Sure it confines to a length limit, a domestic limit (U.S. rappers only) and various mutations of copyright fuckery (yes, some labels actually gave the nay-no to have their artists lyrics put on a pedestal), but it’s about as good as I’d expect an anthology of raps to get. As editors Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois ensure us from the onset, “the lyrics included have been meticulously vetted, sometimes by the artists themselves.”
“The Anthology of Rap” frames it’s contents practically. Regardless of your hip-hop IQ, or perhaps in spite of it, DuBois and Bradley put phrases and time periods in a clean perspective. The big names are there but even rockers of hip-hop cabezas will find under the radar raps from underrepresented rappers. There’s even a gang of female MCs you’ve probably never heard of — Bahamadia, The Lady of Rage & Lady B.
At its best, the editors inclusions do due diligence in ignoring a gang of binaries that tend to divide hip-hop masses (underground/mainstream, conscious/club, backpacker/crackpacker). From the intro, the anthology argues its case by presenting more than a few underemphasized truisms about rap culture:
“It calls attention to the fact that rap is often intended to confuse and even to affront many members of the listening public.”
“Rap is more than the sum of its offenses; it is a testament to human creativity at work.”
“Rap inherently resists such categorization; it denies our best efforts to define it and fix it under our critical gaze.”
In some ways, the goal of this anthology is why so many of my fellow lyric enthusiasts wig out about certain lines or stanzas in a song that the beat brigade might cringe at, “The goal of this anthology is to ensure that these lyrical jewels are not overlooked but instead are allowed to shine.” Finally, a place to unearth lyrical gems for we brave miners of rap — stuck in the shaft of instrumentals for far too long.
1978-1984 Old School —when BDP and Bambaataa were the spoken-word curators of what was becoming “the nesting ground for a new kind of poetry.”
1985-1992 The Golden Age — where MCs Too Short & A Tribe Called Quest “began employing an array of techniques like internal rhyme and chain rhyme.” Overall, these words helped establish the genre as more than fad.
1993-1999 Rap Goes Mainstream — focusing on the West vs. East substance and style battle, West Coast Gangsta vs East Coast flash. Where artists like Digable Planets, DMX and Hieroglyphics continued, “shaping American culture even as hip-hop was still shaping itself.”
2000-2010 New Millennium Rap — here “like jazz and rock and roll before it, hip-hop has gone from musical upstart to mainstream success only to face an identity crisis.”
Alphabetically, we have Atomsphere followed by Beanie Sigel and Ludacris followed by MIA, as “rap puzzles out its post-pop identity,” that it is still reconfiguring today.
It also includes a “Lyrics for Further Study” section which includes a freestyle from Crooked I, Binary Star, and even Drake (“Say What’s Real” only, don’t fret).
Even the credit section is interesting to crawl through. They break down writers of certain songs, rappers real names (Jay Jenkins=Young Jeezy). I doubt I’d ever have known Erick Sermon helped write Ludacris’ “Hip Hop Quoteables,” and not just because that song left my radar long ago.
Is this the real Hip-Hop bible? Maybe not, but it might be the Vedas of Hip-Hop lyricism.
“The anthology emphasizes ‘poetry over performance’ Not a collection of lyrics from raps greatest hits but rather a collection of raps best poetry.” As the editors put it,”Its publication is by no means the last word on raps poetry but rather is the inauguration of a dialogue about what matters in rap lyrics.”
Chuck D introduces an interesting notion during his afterword, about rap entering a “boom bap” period where the “breakdown of interpretations may be more entertaining than a lot of the new music being made today.”
In its most infant function “The Anthology of Rap,” as Common puts it in the other afterword, “For anyone with the curiosity to see beyond the stereotype, this book offers a view of rap in full, from the root to the fruit.”
If hip-hop has been “bought, sold, followed, loved, hated, praised and blamed,” throughout its history as Chuck D points out in the afterword, than its poetics, not its musical arrangements, are the primary suspects.
Now if only someone could build an iPad app for it, with the option to smack a stream of the track while reading.
TL;DR version (summary steez jacked from Kelly Sutton) : “The Anthology of Rap” isn’t just the first real rap textbook, it is also an eraser, once and for all, of the limitations the genres lyrics have traditionally been corralled into.
It’s well worth the $35 for any real rap cat, MC in training or poetry fiend. Find the book here, from Yale University Press — http://www.anthologyofrap.com/
Update 11/22: I didn’t get the chance to read through every lyric in the anthology, but thankfully someone did. Apparently there are a gang of errors in the recording of the lyrics accurately. Until these errors are fixed in an updated version, I suggest my shifty folks to avoid purchasing this one.
Who wants a book full of misquotes?