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What’s the “Right” Way to Write About Hip-Hop?

What does “good writing” really mean when it comes to covering rap music?
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I recently started reading Kirk Walker Graves’ 33⅓ book about Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

For those unfamiliar, it’s a fascinatingly in-depth analysis of Kanye as “our era’s most dynamic artist” and what many people consider his magnum opus. But it’s also one of the most challenging things I’ve read about music (or anything, really). I’ll literally pull up my browsing history now and list all the words I’ve had to look up: “redoubtable,” “saturnine,” “opprobrium,” “histrionics,” “multivalent,” “transmogrifying,” “sine qua non.” And that’s just the first four pages.

Granted, 33⅓ is a series for the most scholarly of music nerds (the series’ original publisher, Continuum, focused on philosophy, linguistics and theology, among other academic fields). Like Kanye, I, too, am a college dropout (“Semesters, it took two like Rob Base / To let me figure out this wasn’t my place”). But as someone who considers themselves a capable writer and somewhat intelligent person, I’m not afraid to admit the book left me feeling a little…dumb—which got me thinking about what “good writing” really means.

As a writer, is it more important to strive for perfection in your craft or to connect with your reader? Linguistic acrobatics and SAT words are impressive on a purely technical level, and they give the impression that you know what you’re talking about. But at what point does your lexical flair leave a furrowed brow on the reader’s face? Who are you writing for: yourself and other writers? Or your audience?

When it comes to covering rap music, this question of “what is good writing?” becomes even more complicated. Hip-hop was born in the streets of the Bronx, not on the college campus of Berkeley, so what’s the “right” way to write about rap? Should the writing reflect the language spoken by the fans, the debates in the barbershops, the conversations between artists? If a rapper like, say, Chief Keef makes music purely with the intent of destroying your car speakers and scaring the shit out of everyone you drive past, does it require an essay-long analysis? Does it not sound kinda silly using highbrow language when we talk about Finally Rich?

“Yo, this shit is glistening, bruh. You really tapped into your id on this joint.”

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At the same time, hip-hop—at its best—is the most intellectual, introspective, and awe-inspiring art form in music, so of course, it deserves to be dissected to death, just like any other genre. “This shit slap!” doesn’t quite cut it for albums like To Pimp a Butterfly, Ready to Die, or indeed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Otherwise, rap album reviews would sound like those street reaction videos where people who know nothing about music attempt to look smart by complimenting the “vibe” or “zone.”

That’s the job of a writer—to articulate that which the artist can’t (or doesn’t choose to do so in their music). But where’s the sweet spot between talking to the audience without talking at them? “Good writing” really means mastering this balancing act.

Growing up, when I started getting heavy into rap magazines—your XXLs, your Mass Appeals, your Complexs—three of my favorite writers were—and still are—Noah Callahan-Bever, Timmhotep Aku and kris ex. The reason I loved reading these guys’ work wasn’t that they’d overwhelm you with ornate writing (they were no slouches with the pen, though. And yes, I acknowledge the irony of me using "ornate" instead of just "fancy"). Quite the opposite: it was how they’d bring the story to life in such a sharp and straight-talking way. They’d immerse you in the piece, not send you scurrying for a dictionary.

I think we can extend this idea from those who write about raps to those who actually write raps. Like journalists, the best artists (in a musical sense, not strictly a lyrical one) are those who can balance intricate and entertaining language with emotional resonance, to create art that’s powerful but also palatable, and to touch your soul without going over your head. You know, like Kanye West.

As impressive as someone like Canibus is from a purely technical standpoint, his music just doesn’t hit me the same way Kanye’s does. Kirk Walker Graves’ 33⅓ book takes music criticism to dizzying levels, but what I love most about MBDTF isn’t necessarily the “egotistical excess,” or "glutted bloodshot narcissism"; it's the raw emotion that brings you right into the moment... before punching you square in the gut: “And I hang up and I start to blame myself / Somebody help…”

I guess you could say being a “good writer” means being more like Kanye West.



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