Notes on Rap and Language
By Daniel Levin Becker
If you’re one of the several billion people who have listened to 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” this century, you may have spent a minute or two marveling at the truncation of the “I want to make love, I no sex” — maybe while burning calories on an elliptical machine, or waiting to drink your vodka soda. But it’s unlikely you’ve thought about the line as much or as long as Daniel Levin Becker, who opens “What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language” with a contemplation of the line’s philosophical implications.
A critic and translator – and one of only two Americans inducted into the French literary collective Oulipo – Levin Becker is also a powerless rap fan and has recorded many hours of unpaid time grinding. Think lyrics annotation website has human resources. Genius (formerly Rap Genius), suggest alternative meanings or correct phonetic errors. Levin Becker put all of his accumulated knowledge to work on “What’s Good,” a performance that’s often fun, moving, and always cheerful in rap’s relationship with words.
The “notes” in the subtitle are correct: This is not a thesis, an argument, or a history. Like Shea Serrano’s best-selling rap recaps, “What’s Good” greets you on almost every page you look at, but creates a sneaky buzz for those who read it in person. Levin Becker borrows many tricks from the artists he’s learning from, and he’s also clearly learned a little more from hip-hop writer Dave Tompkins, whose dizzying infiltrations and verbal acrobatics speak closest to the anarchic feeling of rap music. Picture a Tompkins weaning Action Bronson, Das Racist and Drake instead of Rammellzee and Afrika Bambaataa, and more or less you’ve got Levin Becker, who treats the language games of all rappers with equal seriousness. .
His refreshing Catholic taste is one reason Levin Becker is able to capture themes that some writers overlook. There is, for example, a generous helping of hip-hop parties of the early 1980s, often skimmed in every overview as a sort of prehistory. A chapter on rap rivalry was originally called The Roxanne War, in which a series of unrelated rappers built the life of a fictional girl named Roxanne through a series of “revenge songs”. words”, is a high point. As Levin Becker notes, there are no real-life stakes involved; it’s purely for the fun of it.
As with any study of vernacular art, things get silly sometimes. Here is a book that will cite a brain-dead sentence like “wax you, don’t use candles” as an example of “the paraprosdokian whiplash effect elicited by no more than a monophonic snap of the wrist.” But more often than not, he’s playful, hilarious about the glorious violence that rappers visit based on sound, feel, and syntax. Even the most rudimentary language games and simple inflections yield insights. For example, there’s an entire chapter on the “rapping hashtags” phenomenon, in which a rapper connects two ideas with a brief pause instead of “like” or “like” (“Come and find me.” – Nemo”), as if thinking the latter was a hashtag on a social network.
He was also extremely smart about his position as a white observer in a Black art form. White, as a lens, has always carried signs of aggression and predation, and Levin Becker acknowledges the warping effect that millions of listeners like him have on this art. They — suburban eavesdroppers, dollar-savvy consumers — are the characters in some of these songs (“No records until whitey pays me”,’ Pimp C boasted in Jay-Z’s 2000 megahit song “Big Pimpin”” and Levin Becker was able to recognize himself in language without having to tie himself in knots or shift his focus away from artists he discusses.
What shines through the nearly 300 pages at times with breakneck speed, is the purity and intensity of Levin Becker’s devotion. Levin Becker states that hip-hop is “what makes me most proud as an American: our best export, the purest contribution we’ve made to the world in our lifetimes”. No matter what rap listener you are – whether you have a lot of interesting theories about the slang term “tilapia” or your limited experience when you hear “In Da Club” playing in an Uber – “What’s Good” will have you trusting Levin Becker in concluding, near the end of the book, that rap language is “as close as I know it, in its plurality, diversity, and inclusivity, with a realistic working model of experimentation. American democracy.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/01/books/review/daniel-levin-becker-whats-good.html A Celebration of Rap and Its Sharp Study of Lyricism