Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Anthology of Rap | Book Review/Discussion

The Anthology of Rap
• Edited by Adam Bradley & Andrew DuBois
• Foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
• Afterwords by Chuck D & Common

• Yale University Press; November 9, 2010

Full disclosure: I served on The Anthology of Rap's advisory board, amongst a selection of well-respected journalists and fellow hip hop heads. I was honored to be included in this group. My duty was to suggest tracks for recommendation and inclusion into the anthology. A number of my picks were approved, including songs by artists such as Jadakiss, Brother Ali, Edan and more. When I was first asked to participate in the makeup of the book's (table of) content, a great deal of the work had already been completed. I tried to fill in the blanks with a few more tracks I thought might be worthy additions.

When I was younger, I bemoaned having to spend upwards of $90 on various literary anthologies. At the end of each school year though, I often refrained from selling them to the next year's students. In some instances, I simply couldn't pawn them off because they'd been rendered "outdated." But for the most part, I held on to these massive books in the hopes of revisiting those classics from time to time. I've often flipped through random pages to read a poem or short story. This is how I value an anthology in the personal sense (i.e. as part of a home library), and The Anthology of Rap is a unique addition to my collection. Lifting the oft-dismissed lyrics of rap poetry towards a stage of academic survey is worthy of praise. The Anthology of Rap is, quite simply, the first of its kind.

The project itself is rather ambitious: seeing a book of its nature on future "required reading" lists would be a sight to behold. When on paper, rap poetry takes on a new level of seriousness and import. I was struck by this notion just last year when I read The RZA's The Tao of Wu, which featured the transcribed lyrics for "Sunshower" - much of which I hadn't picked up on as a listener, initially. Upon reading The RZA's distinct and insightful wordplay, I needed to hear that song again. As The Anthology of Rap's introduction states, "readers stand to gain a renewed appreciation for rap's music by considering the poetry of its lyrics." Indeed, this practice helped me to value the artist's lyricism to a higher degree, and bolstered the listening experience altogether. With a wide roster of featured artists, The Anthology of Rap can do the very same. Alternatively, many readers will undoubtedly discover great music by reading the emcees' lyrics. Such was the case for New York Magazine critic Sam Anderson, who described himself as a "hip-hop illiterate." This anthology is something different to each reader, and can be put to a number of various uses.

It's worth mentioning that though the anthology's editors worked diligently on preserving accuracy in the lyrics - assisted by the artists themselves in some instances - "flawless transcriptions are nearly impossible to achieve." With that being said, hip hop heads and perfectionists alike will have a legitimate cause for criticism. Notably, Slate writer Paul Devlin penned a critique highlighting a selection of inaccuracies found in The Anthology of Rap. Nitpicking might be a word to describe Devlin's article, but I beg to differ - as does The Anthology itself. As stated early on in the book, "undoubtedly small errors remain in even the most scrupulous efforts, ours included." It'd be a shame though if criticism over minor - albeit noteworthy - lyrical flaws overshadowed the work that went into the anthology's lyrical transcription - a cumbersome goal, given rap lyrics' rugged, word-heavy qualities. One particular area in which the editors' work is immediately noticeable is over the deliberation concerning line breaks, marking an attempt to structuralize verses into an on-paper format that reads much like traditional poetry. Various poetic forms such as enjambment, caesurae and internal and end rhymes are taken into account.

Additionally, there remains a pair of valid (though paradoxical, as I'll soon discuss) criticisms of the anthology. As one might point out, there are a number of songs which are seemingly omitted from the anthology. I should know, as several of the tracks I suggested for inclusion were nowhere to be found in the final copy. There are plenty of reasons for these omissions, the most foreboding of which being, quite bluntly, copyright laws. The book states: "Some readers may bemoan the absence of certain classic songs, songs that logically should belong in this anthology. In such cases, there is a good chance that ... [this had] something to do with the practical matter of being denied the proper permissions." The criticism over missing songs lies in sharp contrast with any complaints I've read over the anthology's lack of footnotes. As it stands, The Anthology of Rap features lyrics from hundreds of songs, amounting to a total of over 800 pages. Imagine if this book supplied footnotes as well. Two scenarios arise: either the book would exceed a span of two or three (or more!) thousand pages OR a significant number of songs would need to be left on the proverbial cutting room floor in order to accommodate both lyrics and footnotes. Either of these two options would be laughably indefensible. Given these choices, The Anthology of Rap finds a workable balance between the two. (Regarding footnotes, the book recommends checking out Rap Genius - a website which specializes in analyzing references and "read between the lines"-like content found in rap lyrics.)

Rapper Common writes that "this book offers a view of rap in full, from the root to the fruit." Indeed, this uniquely African American oral tradition - from the Dozens to H. Rap Brown, all the way to its present day practice - is traced from the roots in The Anthology of Rap. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s foreword in particular serves as an appropriate compendium discussing rap's roots, citing his father - born in 1913 - as his initial introduction to "signifying." Gates applauds the anthology for "masterfully [assembling] part of a new vanguard of American poetry." Chuck D writes that The Anthology of Rap is "a landmark text." Common calls it "something of great value and great power - if we learn how to use it." Cornel West deems it "an instant classic." I'm calling it the beginning of rap's claim to legitimacy in the realm of academia - a long time coming, too.