Book Review: “What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language” — Finding Multitudes of Meaning
By Adam Ellsworth
To always be listening more and to therefore always be listening differently is of course the very nature of fandom, and to call What’s Good the work of a fan is not a putdown.
What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language by Daniel Levin Becker. City Lights Publishers, 312 pp.
Early in the pandemic I listened to A Tribe Called Quest’s 1993 album Midnight Marauders for the first time. It’s embarrassing that it took a global catastrophe for me to finally find the time for such an undeniable classic, but that’s not the point of this story. The point is that even though I’d never heard the album or any of its songs before, I instantly recognized the third track, “Award Tour.” From the first lines, I knew the song. Or, I sort of knew the song anyway. I certainly knew something like it. If you’re unfamiliar with the opening lyrics, I’ll help you out:
Now if like me you’re a little too young to have experienced Tribe in their prime, but you’re old enough to remember when Kanye West could actually backup his braggadocio, perhaps you’re hearing this in your head:
That’s from “The Glory,” off of Kanye’s 2007 album Graduation. Midnight Marauders and Graduation are both third albums by their respective artists, and while that might be a coincidence it also might not be. I tend to believe that such things, however minor, don’t happen by accident. Regardless, even if the third record connection is nothing, the similarity of the lines is obviously not, and when I joined the dots for the first time two or so years ago it blew my mind and filled me with joy.
The craziest part of all this is that while I of course understand, in a rational sort of way, that Kanye is riffing on A Tribe Called Quest, even to this day I think of it as the other way around. Because in my world, Ye did it first. My world is silly, and historically inaccurate, but I’m not writing a Wikipedia entry here, I’m just telling it like I hear it. (As long as I’m “telling it like I hear it,” I should note that there’s a second Tribe-indebted line to that above quoted Kanye lyric that I’ve decided not to include because it contains a homophobic slur. Just because West, in my world, did it first, doesn’t mean he did it better.)
Daniel Levin Becker had a similar experience, well before I did, though for him it was hearing Slug in the 2000 song “God Loves Ugly,” paraphrasing Ice Cube’s 1990 track “Once Upon a Time in the Projects.” Levin Becker and I are from the same generation, so naturally he heard Slug first, and he always will even though he knows better.
“This phenomenon — that weightless moment where you discover that this or that thing comes from an unsuspected source, or that it comes from any source at all — fascinates the hell out of me,” he writes in his new book What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language.
The sentence is from a chapter called “Elective Chronology,” which is a perfect descriptor for the sensation we have each felt. Yes, we understand and acknowledge the facts. We take pride, delight even, in knowing where a lyric derives from, in understanding who is signifying on who. But we’re not going to let any of this spoil our fun. We hear these lines how we hear them, timelines be damned.
“Elective Chronology” is only five pages long, which is typical for What’s Good. The book is filled with quick hits, on topics ranging from rhyme, to slant rhyme, to irony, to tilapia (I swear I’m being serious), to paraprosdokian, which (it turns out) is a real thing. There’s a run of chapters “on” subjects starting with the “B-Word,” followed by the “N-Word,” followed by “White People,” followed by “Second Person.” The volume then transitions sharply to the question “Is Rap Poetry?,” which seems like it should have an obvious answer, until you realize that Levin Becker has thought about all of this far more than you have, and his response is so much more interesting than the boring one in your head.
It’s a shame really that Levin Becker had to write any of this down in a format so final as print, because it feels like on any one of the themes he explores, he might hear a new song — or an old song new to him — tomorrow, and he’ll suddenly have something more to say on the matter. More of the same, perhaps, or maybe a completely new take on things, but either way something different from what he typed out and sent to the printers.
To always be listening more and to therefore always be listening differently is of course the very nature of fandom, and to call What’s Good the work of a fan is not a putdown. A book filled with such love and thoughtfulness and fun has to come from a fan; who but a genuine devotee would use his introductory chapter to provide a deep reading of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club?” “In Da Club!” A banger, for sure, but not a song that typically gets the same treatment or respect as say, “Award Tour.” Unless of course you’re thinking like Levin Becker. Then perhaps you too would come to the conclusion that “rap lyrics, even ones from such a potentially trivial source as ‘In Da Club,’ contain multitudes of meaning, and also of nonsense, of possibility, of exquisite care and carelessness and carefreeness, sometimes all at once.”
Silly? Probably. Ridiculous? Sometimes. Fun? Always. The true fans know.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has an MS in journalism from Boston University and a BA in literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.