Listening To Rap For The First Time, With A Book Critic

Big Daddy Kane; credit: Catherine McGann / Getty Images i i

hide captionBig Daddy Kane — Anderson's favorite in print — in New York City in 1988.

Catherine McGann/Getty Images
Big Daddy Kane; credit: Catherine McGann / Getty Images

Big Daddy Kane — Anderson's favorite in print — in New York City in 1988.

Catherine McGann/Getty Images

Next week Yale University Press will publish a book called The Anthology of Rap [All Things Considered will air an interview with one of the editors, Adam Bradley, on Sunday]. Its pages contain the lyrics to more than 300 rap songs written and recorded between 1978 and this year — but they don't contain any of the music. No voices. No melodies. No bass lines. Just text.

Sam Anderson, New York Magazine's book critic, reviewed the Anthology — all 788 pages — but he did so without ever having heard more than a couple of the songs. Turns out he loved the songs on paper — he writes that he is "evangelically excited" about the book and its emphasis on rap as "lyric poetry."

Anderson described his introduction to the form as immersion in "pure rap": "just the verbal magic, triple-distilled, free from the superfluity of hooks, beats, sales, bling, clothes, videos, hairstyles, and even the voices of the rappers themselves."

By the end of the review, he was ready to nominate Big Daddy Kane as "the greatest rapper of all time — at least on paper." He closes with a promise to start listening.

We really wanted to be there when he did.

So we sent Anderson an email along with a handful of YouTube links — demonstrations not only of great rap lyricism, but also illustrations of the gulf between written word and flow. The next day, we chatted online about what he heard.

Our question was simple: Once he heard the songs he'd read, would Anderson think differently about them? Would he still think that lyrics are the essence of rap, that the act of rapping is less important? Would he still say the greatest rapper of all time is Big Daddy Kane? Would he still say Lil Wayne's lyrics "never seem to add up" or Wu-Tang "left me cold"?

"The moment I started listening to the songs you sent," he says, "I realized it is basically insane to make any kind of judgment about rap without hearing it."

(Warning: We're talking about rap lyrics as they're performed, so this post and the videos contain language that some readers may find offensive.)

Dead Prez - "Hip Hop"
"If you a fighter, rider, biter, flame igniter, crowd exciter
Or you wanna just get high, then just say it. But if you
A liar-liar, pants on fire, wolf-cry, agent with a wire
I gon' know it when I play it."

YouTube

FK: OK, give me the play by play as you listen now.

SA: I guess the major thing — and this goes for basically every song — is that my brain is already "won over" long before we get to any lyrics by the beat & that really fat bass groove. OK, the verse just started and I love this song.

FK: Do you have the lyrics in front of you?

SA: Just opened them up. Reading them "cold" (without music), I underlined a handful of things that I liked. e.g., "these record labels slang out tapes like dope" — nice equation between drug dealers and record labels (kind of a mini-theme in the book).

FK: The way stic.man phrases "You would rather have a Lexus or justice, a dream or some substance," ... On paper, it's a list. When he raps it, each idea is emphasized separately.

SA: Yeah, exactly. He really slows down there, after some rapid-fire lines.

FK: When you were reading all these lyrics, did you ever imagine what they would sound like spoken?

SA: It's funny: I mostly imagined them in my internal "textual" voice — the voice I tend to use for all reading. Which is probably a ghost version of my own.

FK: So all the same tempo I'm guessing.

SA: Yeah, basically the same. And then I'd read some of my favorite passages aloud to my wife, and she would laugh at me because it sounded ridiculous.

Lil Wayne - "Dr. Carter"
"Arthritis in my hand from writing
But I'm a doctor they don't understand my writing
So I stopped writing now I'm like lightning
And you ain't Vince Young so don't clash with the Titan
Fast and exciting my passion is frightening
Now let me put some more vocab in your I.V."

YouTube

SA: Lil Wayne blew my mind when I listened to him last night. He might be the ultimate case of the chasm between written and oral. Even more so than Biggie, possibly.

SA: "Dr. Carter" struck me on the page as a kind of novel concept that didn't really impress me beyond that. But LISTENING to it ...

FK: What really got you? How he inhabits characters? The syncopation?

SA: The personality in that voice, just in that little back and forth with the "nurse" in the intro at the start of the song. It's something hard to quantify — but it's the same thing that makes you love and trust a performer onstage. We have to fall back on vague terms like "magnetism."

SA: There's this quality in Lil Wayne's voice — it sounds like he's hardly trying. He's put out to even have to be speaking on record, but he's so incredible he's going to go at half-speed and still destroy the track.

SA: Just in that opening, his "Hey sweetie" (which does nothing on the page) is so full of grain and humanity. These are terribly vague words, but it's what he's got. It really made me think about how much of a performance rap is.

FK: Just as much as singing. In some ways, he's creating melody with his breaths, with his words, and you can't see that in print.

SA: Yep. His pitch shifts pretty radically — one word will be breathy and slow, then he'll launch into a quick little squeak of a syllable. I think it's impossible to replicate, in print, that sense of play with how words sound, the way syllables relate. (Right around 50 seconds in he squeaks the 1st syllable of "capture" in such a charming way, after a string of really short, clipped, grunty syllables.)

Big L - "Ebonics"
"If your girl is fine, she's a dime, a suit is a vine
Jewelry is shine, if you in love, that mean you blind
Genuine is real, a face card is a hundred dollar bill
A very hard, long stare is a grill"

YouTube

SA: Honestly, if I hadn't read and loved Big L's "Ebonics" before I listened to it, I'm not sure I would have recognized it as someone engaging in incredibly smart and playful lexicography. Because to me, as an ignorant outsider, it just "sounds" like a more-or-less generic rap song.

FK: I wonder, does hearing words like the n-word and the b-word bother you more than reading them?

SA: Hm ... honestly, they've never bothered me all that much. They seem so deeply embedded in rap culture that (at least in that context) they've lost much of the pejorative power they used to have. I did kind of like that the anthology spelled it "nigga" though, because it's not the word itself — it's this stylized, less fraught version. It's often more like a rhythmic "fill" than an actual word.

SA: So tell me this: do you think it's valuable to read rap lyrics on paper, or do you think it sacrifices too much of what makes rap rap?

FK: I think it's valuable. I think sometimes rappers' accents and slang make their words hard to understand, and I want to know exactly what they're saying. Rap fans have been helping each other out with that for forever.

Nas, feat. AZ - "Life's A B——"
"I woke up early on my born day, I'm twenty years of blessing
The essence of adolescent leaves my body, now I'm fresh in
My physical frame is celebrated 'cause I made it
One quarter through life, some godly-like thing created
Got rhymes 365 days annual, plus some"

YouTube

FK: You didn't like Nas when you read his lyrics. What did you think after hearing him?

SA: I heard a lot more of the "echo-y" stuff than I'd seen on the page (echo-y stuff = assonance, consonance, rhyme). I think the rappers who impressed me most on the page were the ones whose "literary" effects were easiest to pick up with the eye. But then you listen and realize that rappers create all of those effects out loud in really unusual ways — bending and stretching words, unnaturally stressing words, shouting certain syllables and deadening others.

Ol' Dirty Bastard - "Brooklyn Zoo"
"Energy buildin', takin all types of medicines*
Your ass thought you were better than
Ason, I keep plaents in orbit
While I be comin with deeper and more s—-
Enough to make ya break and shake ya ass
'Cause I create rhymes good as a Tastykake mix"

YouTube

SA: Aside from Lil Wayne (the biggest revelation there), I'd say O.D.B. [was the biggest surprise for me.] "Brooklyn Zoo" did not interest me at all in the anthology. In fact, that's what I wrote in the margin next to it: "just not interested in / excited by this". Which was frustrating, because Wu-Tang was one of the groups I was most excited to read — I have friends who adore them.

SA: It starts with "YeAH! ... ah-ha-ha-HA-HA-HA!" and then some more — essentially, it starts with a man SHOUTING. Which sets this whole tone of — what? Is it intimidation? Urgency? Just the in-your-face presence of a loud human? That's a very different place to start relating to a persona than "I'm a one-man army, Ason." And of course you have well-produced music starting up too. So you're getting excited. On the page you're asked to go from 0-60 immediately — none of the emotional prep of music and shouting.

SA: "as YOU can GO, beLOW zeRO" — he's creating iambs out of words that don't naturally fall into that pattern: i.e., he stresses 'zero' on the second syllable instead of the first, where the stress naturally falls.

SA: His pronunciation of "zoo" is one of the cooler things I've ever heard: a "z" with the smallest possible nondescript little vowel syllable attached to it. There is no way on earth to communicate the musicality of the refrain that ends that song in print.

FK: One thing that gets lost when only reading rap lyrics is the singing/rapping along.

SA: You mean the listener rapping along?

FK: Rap along out loud — and it'll be all the more impressive that someone has managed to wrap their tongue around a lyric, or keep going without taking a breath. Rapping is HARD.

Big Daddy Kane - "Ain't No Half Steppin"
"I speak clearly so you can understand
Put words together like Letterman
Now that's dictation, proceeding to my innovation
Not like the other MCs that are an imitation
Or an animation, a cartoon to me"

YouTube

FK: What do you think about Big Daddy Kane, your favorite on paper, after hearing him?

SA: Well, he was surprisingly "old school" sounding. Which means the beat seemed very ... regular, and his rapping seemed fairly regular over that — certainly not the crazy rhythmic modulation of Lil Wayne or someone modern. But I still loved him out loud. I'm curious: Is he generally considered one of the all-time tippy-top greats?

FK: Yes. He's the godfather of modern rap. There's a direct link between him and Biggie. Although I'm not sure he could stand up to someone very technically skilled and imaginative working today. Each generation builds on the past, you know?

SA: I loved his delivery of that stretch starting with: "The best, oh yes, I guess suggest the rest should fess ..." — the way his voice accelerates.

Kanye West feat. Rick Ross, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj and Bon Iver - "Monster"
"And I'm all up all up all up in the bank with the funny face
And if I'm fake I ain't notice cause my money ain't
Let me get this straight, wait, I'm the rookie?
But my features and my shows ten times your pay?
50 k for a verse, no album out
Yeah my money's so tall that my Barbies gotta climb it
Hotter than a Middle Eastern climate"

YouTube

FK: I'm really curious what you think about Nikki Minaj, who didn't make it into the book.

SA: Again: shocking how much modern rap depends on play with voice — from growls to squeaks to her kind of "innocent girl" voice. They're practically actors.

FK: So maybe that makes the anthology more useful / interesting for the old school, but ends up being even less of the whole story for the newer stuff?

SA: Maybe it's most useful for the period the book calls "the golden age" (1985-1992), where you start to have amazing lyrical complexity (like Big Daddy Kane) that's not so dependent on the voice stuff. Big Daddy Kane sounds excellent out loud, but not radically different from what I imagined reading him. Whereas Lil Wayne and O.D.B. were 100% different out loud than in my mind.

SA: I'm really glad I read this anthology but the moment I started listening to the songs you sent, I realized it is basically insane to make any kind of judgment about rap without hearing it — or at least post-1992 rap.

FK: I think lyrics are the best way into rap for people who want to give it serious consideration and didn't listen a lot when they were young and impressionable.

SA: Worked for me.

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