For one reason or another—dorkiness, Oregonianism, spiritual daintiness—I find myself, at age 33, functionally hip-hop illiterate. Aside from a feverish adolescent fling with my brother’s MC Hammer tape, I have spent almost zero percent of my life voluntarily listening to rap music. Part of this is genetic: As the child of folk-singing hippies, I have ear canals specially angled to detect and enjoy warbly guitar ballads. (Simon and Garfunkel reunite every day to play nine-hour private concerts in the coffeehouse of my mind.) I have never, to my knowledge, heard a song by 2Pac, Nas, Lil’ Kim, Lil Wayne, KRS-One, DMX, Kanye West, Cam’ron, 50 Cent, or the Wu-Tang Clan. Until last week, I thought Mobb Deep and Mos Def were the same thing. (It turns out they are very different.)
Normally I don’t mind being out of the pop-cultural loop—I’ve even learned, over the years, to wear my ignorance with a certain musty old-man pride. Given, however, that I am a professional studier of words, my hip-hop blind spot has come to seem indefensible: I am clueless about one of the culture’s most vital fronts of verbal artistry. It would be like an art critic who’s never seen a comic book, or a choreographer who’s never heard of Michael Jackson.
This is why I’m so evangelically excited about The Anthology of Rap, Yale University Press’s monumental new collection of rap lyrics. It feels like it was published, exclusively for me, by the vanity press of my own subconscious. It’s an English major’s hip-hop bible, an impossible fusion of street cred and book learning. The anthology spans the entire 30-year history of the genre, from Afrika Bambaataa to Young Jeezy. (Along the way, we meet characters such as E-40, the man who popularized the suffix -izzle, and Twista, onetime holder of the Guinness record for world’s fastest MC.) Its editors, Andrew DuBois and Adam Bradley, are English professors (scholars, respectively, of John Ashbery and Ralph Ellison), and the emphasis is therefore on rap as “lyric poetry.” This means the collection excludes some of the best-selling rappers of all time—Hammer, Vanilla Ice—in favor of lyrical masters. It is, in other words, 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.
Some might argue that reading a scholarly anthology, silently, with (say) Beethoven for Book Lovers playing in the background, is not the best way to introduce oneself to the eternal legends of rap. It’s true that encountering them this way tends to privilege the more “literary” MCs: the phrasemakers, the metaphor junkies, the architects of improbable rhymes. But this actually strikes me as perfectly just. Because that’s one of the great paradoxes of rap: The toughest, coolest, most dangerous-seeming MCs are, at heart, basically just enormous language dorks. They love puns and rhymes and slang and extended metaphors; they accuse enemies of plagiarism and brag endlessly about their own hard-core habits of revision. A book like this,then, is the ultimate homage.
The Anthology of Rap allows us, over the course of its more than 800 pages, to watch the long herky-jerky evolution of the genre. We begin with rap’s birth in the primordial soup of the Old School, a late-seventies swamp in which single-cell rap organisms floated around calling to each other in long strings of pre-lexical nonsense syllables. “Told you ’bout the ding-d’-d’-ding-d’-ding-dingy-ding,” rapped Ikey C, to which the Sugarhill Gang responded, “Baby-bubba to the boogedy-bang-bang the boogie,” to which Sequence retorted, “I said I hip-ma-jazz and a raz-ma-jazz,” at which point DJ Hollywood interjected, “Hip-hip-the-hop, the hop, the hop / Dippy-dippy dip-dip-dop.” Early rap was mainly an avant-garde way to get people to dance at parties; its lyrics were never intended to be transcribed and studied. Today they read like nursery rhymes, or the kind of verse John Keats once criticized as “rocking horse” poetry: simple couplets, religiously end-stopped. (“And the way she moved was like a graceful swan / And we can make love to the break of dawn.”) Reading 100 pages of it made my brain numb.
Finally, somewhere in the early eighties, rappers stood up and said (in the words of Kool Moe Dee), “Put that ba-diddy-ba bullshit on hold.” In 1986, Run-DMC made rap a mainstream phenomenon, and then the innovators moved in. Rakim, whose flow was so powerful it would earn him the nickname “God MC,” introduced rhymes within lines instead of just at the ends of them: “The melody that I’m stylin, smooth as a violin / Rough enough to break New York from Long Island.” Big Daddy Kane started playing with multisyllabic rhymes, pairing Tylenol with why you all and vasectomy with wreck with me. Suddenly rap sounded recognizably modern:
The wrath of Kane, takin over your circumference / Destroyin negativity and suckers that come with / The weak, the wack, the words, the poor / I thrash, bash, clash, mash, and then more / Blow up the scenery, I reign supremer, see / You need a savior to save ya, so lean on me
This was the radical shift; everything that followed basically extended those lines. Some rappers pushed the Rakim–Big Daddy Kane aesthetic to such decadent complexity that it basically stopped making sense. (Aesop Rock: “Martyrs talk funny causes in a harvesting Spartacus.”) Others, most famously the gangsta rappers, stripped things back to Old School simplicity, telling tales of gats and pigs and blunts in easy-to-follow couplets. (Ice-T: “Pigs searched our car, their day was made / Found a Uzi, .44, and a hand grenade.”) The best contemporary rappers, like Jay-Z, manage to blend these traditions: to make every syllable sweat with poetic effort, but in the service of a quick and clean narrative.
Reading The Anthology of Rap was the most fun I’ve had with a book in many months: It just kept pouring out new waves of creativity, personality, and intelligence. The table of contents, all by itself, is full of wit and drama: There are artists called Devin the Dude, Pharoahe Monch, and Brother D with Collective Effort; there are songs called “Alphabet Aerobics,” “Ten Crack Commandments,” “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” and “Incarcerated Scarfaces.” The book is, among other things, a Smithsonian of boasts and insults and brilliant one- liners; you could wander through it for days collecting perfect little treasures:
“I tutor the Torah, I’m in the core of the Qur’an.”—Chino XL
“By the powers vested in me, I digested MCs.”—Aceyalone
“I’d rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.”—Cam’ron
“I move ’caine like a cripple.”—The Clipse
“I’m flying on Pegasus, you flying on a pheasant.” —Lupe Fiasco
There’s street wisdom (De La Soul: “Neighborhoods are now ’hoods ’cause nobody’s neighbors”) and writing advice (Canibus: “The more pretentious, the more apprehensive the sentence”) and free- associative word strings that read like Beat poetry (Myka 9: “Airstrip stormy rain military ship landing a plane in Malaysia amnesia”). There’s a memorable gyno-dis, courtesy of the Lady of Rage: “I flow like the monthly, you can’t cramp my style / For those that try to punk me, here’s a Pamprin, child.”
Some rap, inevitably, doesn’t quite hold up on the page: The words, without the special gravity of their historical moment or the mojo of their delivering MC, just sit there awkwardly. A few of history’s greatest rappers—voices I had expected to love in print—left me disappointed. Lil Wayne, the self-proclaimed best rapper alive, has all kinds of weird swagger—as he puts it: “Swagger tighter than a yeast infection / Fly, go hard like geese erection”—but in print, his vivid fragments never seem to add up; I found myself more disoriented than excited. (“Weezy,” as he calls himself, famously says he never writes down his rhymes, so I’m guessing his material is unusually delivery-dependent.) Wu-Tang, surprisingly, also left me cold—much of their appeal seems to depend on their esoteric ghetto-karate lifestyle cult. Nas, apparently one of the lyrical geniuses of the nineties, somehow didn’t excite me at all. I’m afraid to admit this publicly, but even the Notorious B.I.G., while occasionally funny (“Oh my God, I’m droppin’ shit like a pigeon”), never blew my mind like I wanted him to. The chasm between his reputation and my experience might be the strongest indicator of how much is lost in the transition from oral to written rap.
And now to the ultimate question. Based exclusively on my reading of The Anthology of Rap, who is the best rap lyricist of all time? (Please note that this is a very different question than “who is the best rapper of all time?”) I fell in love with a long list of textual voices: Big L, Big Pun, Bun B, Kool Moe Dee, Mos Def, Brother Ali, the Clipse, Jean Grae, Kanye West, Young Jeezy, DMX, Slick Rick. But my shortlist for the best ever comes down to just six: Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, Eminem, Canibus, Chino XL, and Lupe Fiasco. These are the rappers who dazzled me most consistently with the density of their ideas and wordplay and imagery. I could make a strong case for any of them. If I had to choose just one, though, I’d go with Big Daddy Kane: He towers, for me, over rap’s other early innovators (Melle Mel, Rakim), he was still around to outrap 2Pac and Biggie in a freestyle in 1995, and his fingerprints are all over today’s best lyricists. I hereby nominate him as the greatest rapper of all time—at least on paper. And now I’m going to go see what he sounds like.
A History of Rap As Literature