Notes on Rap and Language
By Daniel Levin Becker
If you’re one of the several billion humans who have heard 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” this century, you may have spent a moment or two admiring the concision of the chorus chant “I’m into having sex, I ain’t into making love” — possibly while burning calories on an elliptical, or waiting for your vodka soda. But it is unlikely that you’ve thought about this line as hard, or for as long, as Daniel Levin Becker, who opens “What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language” with a meditation on the line’s philosophical implications.
A critic and translator — and one of just two Americans to be inducted into the French literary collective Oulipo — Levin Becker is also a helpless and lifelong rap fan who has logged many unpaid hours poring over the crowdsourced lyric-annotation website Genius (formerly Rap Genius), suggesting alternate meanings or correcting transcription errors. Levin Becker puts all of his accumulated knowledge to work in “What’s Good,” an often hilarious, surprisingly moving and always joyful paean to rap’s relationship to words.
The “notes” in the subtitle is correct: This is not a thesis, an argument or a history. Like Shea Serrano’s best-selling rap compendiums, “What’s Good” welcomes you on almost any page you turn to, but builds sneaky resonances for those reading straight through. Levin Becker borrows more than a few tricks from the artists he’s studying, and he’s also clearly learned more than a little from the hip-hop writer Dave Tompkins, whose dizzying involutions and verbal acrobatics come closest to the anarchic feel of rap music. Picture a Tompkins weaned on Action Bronson, Das Racist and Drake instead of Rammellzee and Afrika Bambaataa, and you’ve more or less got Levin Becker, who treats the language games of all rappers with equal seriousness.
His refreshingly catholic taste is one reason Levin Becker is able to tug at threads some writers miss. There’s a generous helping of early-1980s party hip-hop, for example, which is usually skimmed over in any overview as a sort of prehistory. A chapter about the early rap rivalry known as the Roxanne Wars, in which a bunch of otherwise unconnected rappers constructed the life of a fictional girl named Roxanne through a series of “answer songs,” is a high point. As Levin Becker notes, there were no real-life stakes involved; it was purely for the fun of it.
As with any study of a vernacular art, things occasionally get goofy. This is a book that will quote a brain-dead line like “wax you, no candle” as an example of “a whiplash paraprosdokian effect conjured by no more than a monosyllabic flick of the wrist.” But more often than not, he’s playful, brainy fun on the glorious violence that rappers visit upon sound, sense and syntax. Even the most rudimentary language games and simplistic punch lines yield insights. There’s an entire chapter, for instance, on the phenomenon of “hashtag rap,” in which a rapper connects two ideas with a brief pause instead of a “like” or an “as” (“Come and find me — Nemo”), as if the latter thought were a social media hashtag.
He’s also piercingly smart about his place as a white observer in a Black art form. Whiteness, as a lens, always carries hints of colonizing and predation, and Levin Becker acknowledges the warping effect that millions of listeners like him exert on the art. They — the suburbanite eavesdroppers, the culture consumers investing dollars — are characters in some of these songs (“No record till whitey pay me,” Pimp C brayed on Jay-Z’s 2000 megahit “Big Pimpin’”), and Levin Becker is able to recognize himself in the language without tying himself in knots or turning the focus away from the artists he discusses.
What shines through, after nearly 300 occasionally dizzying pages, is the purity and intensity of Levin Becker’s devotion. Hip-hop, Levin Becker claims, is “the thing that makes me most consistently proud to be American: our best export, the purest contribution we’ve made to the world in my lifetime.” No matter what kind of rap listener you are — whether you have multiple pet theories about the slang word “tilapia” or whether your encounters are limited to hearing “In Da Club” play in an Uber — “What’s Good” will stir you into believing Levin Becker when he concludes, near the end of the book, that rap language is “as close as I know, in its pluralism and diversity and inclusiveness, to an actual working model of the American democratic experiment.”