cover image What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language

What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language

Daniel Levin Becker. City Lights, $22.95 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-0-87286-876

“Rap music serves, consistently... as a delivery mechanism for the most exhilarating and crafty and inspiring use of language in contemporary American culture,” according to this sonorous literary meditation from music critic Becker (Many Subtle Channels). In this spirit, he devotes each chapter to a loose-limbed analysis of the literary meaning and devices of a rap lyric; Queen Latifah’s line “Who you callin’ a bitch?” for example, prompts a disquisition on the nuances of the “b-word” and misogyny in hip-hop. Among the subjects Becker riffs on are the use of the “rewind” trope, the aesthetics of cool, militant lyrics as revolutionary praxis, the multifarious meanings of the n-word, and the uneasy consciences of white rap aficionados. Becker has an infectious, Whitmanesque enthusiasm for rap’s demotic versifying—“an actual working model of the American democratic experiment”—but sometimes lapses into mannered critical theory (“I is a nest of quotation and posture and ventriloquism”). Still, his writing crackles when his shrewd insights collide with punchy evocations of hip-hop’s vigor and style: “to ask Ice-T or Ice Cube to tell stories from the point of view of a father rather than an oversexed urban superpredator... is to ask them to choose reality over realness in a landscape where reality doesn’t sell.” Music aficionados and hip-hop lovers will savor every bit. (Mar.)