William Buckholz, a technical writer and Choose-Your-Own-Adventure enthusiast from Ohio, has just published a book called Understand Rap. Buckholz undertakes to translate, into language accessible to “you and your grandma,” a comprehensive swath of the referential, elliptical or bizarre terminology abounding in rap lyrics. To do so, he poaches one line at a time from a handful of songs and “deciphers” everything: street lingo (indo, triple beam, stunting); mainstream slang (rims, ice, cornrows); common idioms (bankroll, grub, wife-beater); common nouns (soap, umbrella, socks). Stack my bread, from a song by the Houston rapper Paul Wall, is rewritten as “pile up the money I make as if it were slices of food made by mixing water with ground flour.”
There are a few obvious problems with what Buckholz has done here. For one, the humor in his meticulously definitional approach does not sustain 179 pages—but my beef is not with his sense of humor. Understand Rap is also prey to a handful of inaccuracies, misattributions and rookie mistakes—he misses the connection between can’t stop ’til I see my name on a blimp, from Mase’s verse in “Mo Money Mo Problems,” and an iconic scene from Scarface, the single most frequently referenced movie in the rap canon—but my beef is not with these failures either. More troubling is the book’s scarcity of genuine insight or depth: time and again Buckholz misses the opportunity to serve as more than a glossary for those who have never spoken with an American youth or seen one on television. In substituting dictionary definitions for bread and cheese and cake, he neglects to explore the vastly more interesting fact that these are all terms for money, or to shed any light on why they are—or, for that matter, why beef is not.
The real trouble, however, is not that Buckholz fails to explain what is most potentially illuminating; it’s that he explains what doesn’t need to be explained at all. Like the website from which Understand Rap takes its name and premise, he goes a step too far with his self-styled public service for the unhip, stripping the lines he selects of their own rhetorical coherence. In all but a few cases, he sets aside the poetry of rap lyrics in favor of contextless utterances so stilted and inarticulate that one would generally learn more by using the lyrics to make sense of the exegeses. My grandma knows what bread is, in both senses of the word, and to pretend she doesn’t is to wedge an additional layer of foreignness between her and the language of rap, a language just as elegant and eloquent as the one she speaks.
Then again, perhaps I’m simply jealous that Buckholz got there first. I am, for one thing, a sporadically contributing editor of Rap Genius, a website started by some college acquaintances with a mission little different from that of Understand Rap: to decipher. Rap Genius (né Rap Exegesis) is, to my mind, more responsible in many ways—it explicates entire songs, not disembodied one-liners; it is collectively edited and studiously cross-referenced; its writers often examine rhyme structures and rhetorical devices, pinpoint memes recurring in the wider canon, compile and compare slang terms for the same referent, and so on. Nonetheless, it is no less prone to or deserving of criticism for engaging one form by translating it into another, for appreciating hip-hop “in, for lack of a better term, the whitest language possible.”
Of course talking about rap in language removed from its syntax and slang—in Standard Written English, say—is different from parroting its content in the kind of fuddy-duddy nerdspeak Buckholz passes off as humor (“Years ago, females I would not consider as life partners but possibly as temporary romantic acquaintances showed me respect by counting the dozens of thin metal pieces they saw radiating outward from the center of the smaller-diameter gold wheels that were on my car”). But how important is that difference, set against the entrenched perception that rap is a proprietarily black form? Not all rappers are black, but some hairs aren’t worth the trouble of splitting: rap, in the sense that Buckholz and I are both using it, is shorthand for a vernacular packaged and consumed as antithetical to “the whitest language possible,” and to the cultural identity that comes with it. As far as our ability to actively appreciate it goes, this leaves us both in something of a black hole. No pun intended.
As much as I resent the poor execution of Understand Rap, I do not suspect Buckholz—who, in a twist ending, uses the acknowledgments to thank his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ—of having motives that are impure or polemical or, in any of the word’s insidious shadings, white. Still, I have a lot invested in his enterprise, and I won’t easily forgive him for flouting the chances he was afforded: to illuminate the obscure parts of the rap canon, to help establish a conversation where appreciating it means neither appropriating it nor effacing our own cultural identities, to prove that my grandma and I can listen to and talk about it without being ironists or tourists or thieves. To do this, his “translations” would have to fill in rather than entrench the gap between black and non-black, between how we talk and how they do. What rap needs more than a glossary is a case for its intellectual importance as something neither alien nor off-limits to unhip white people, something whose rewards can be approached and discussed on whatever terms, and in whatever language, best suit us.
One of the first songs I annotated for Rap Genius was “Exhibit A,” the 2008 breakout single by the Brooklyn-via-New-Orleans rapper Jay Electronica. The terms and references in it that call for paraphrase or explanation can be counted on two hands at most—who Ramo is (a character in the 1984 graffiti film Beat Street), what a whip is (a car), what gripping grains means (driving cars with wood-grain steering wheels), what Bally Animals and Rugbys are (early- Nineties urban fashion brands), and who Clarence 13X Smith was (founder of the Five Percent Nation, a high-concept sect of the Nation of Islam popular among East Coast rappers)—but the song begs to be interpreted, analyzed, read. It begins:
I spit that Wonderama shit: me and my conglomerates
Shall remain anonymous, caught up in the finest shit
Get that type of media coverage Obama get
Spit that Kurt Vonnegut
That blow your brain, Kurt Cobain, that Nirvana shit
Who gon’ bring the game back?
Who gon’ spit that Ramo on the train tracks?
That gold rope, that five-finger ring rap, running with my same pack
You can find the Christ where the lepers and the lames at
Mostly, my notes amount to invitations for further examination and deeper appreciation: consider the range of character imagery, how the same voice flits from decadent gangster to fresh-faced politician, to cranky white visionary to fictional graffiti writer, to figurative messiah to literal messiah. Consider the suggestively imperfect intertextuality of the first two lines, lifted nearly wholesale from Jay-Z’s first single, “Dead Presidents,” and in which Electronica’s I spit replaces Z’s while others spit. Consider the subtlety of the internal rhymes, and how a sufficiently self-assured oral delivery can make perfect echoes out of words that look as discordant on the page as conglomerates and finest shit do.
My point in commentating on a song like this is to suggest that it is multiply rewarding to interpretive scrutiny. It’s a close reading, basically, the analytical English paper nobody ever let me write in college—not that it ever occurred to me to ask. In the discussion I am not a translator but a liberated modern reader: admiring the text by trumpeting whatever meanings I can find or fabricate in it, concerning myself less with how accurately or faithfully I have rendered the author’s intent than with how persuasively I can demonstrate the power of the work itself.
That lit-crit license only gets me so far into the canon, though, and sooner or later I inevitably find myself contending with the received wisdom—received from both the conservative fearmongering of Bill O’Reilly and Dan Quayle and the anti-establishment fulminations of Public Enemy and Brand Nubian—that, demographically, I do not belong here. Rap’s pedigree is traditionally one that speaks to and for people who have little patience for exegeses of rhyme schemes or intertextuality, who are not afforded the luxury of going to college and writing analytical English papers. Hip-hop culture preaches the virtues of keeping it real over the virtues of interpretive scrutiny, and makes no particular room for those of us who keep it real by scrutinizing. Real rap, authentic rap, is understood to be for people with more important things to worry about.
Rap Genius and Understand Rap, along with a handful of like-minded recent initiatives culminating in Yale’s 920-page, Cornel West-approved, Skip Gates-prefaced Anthology of Rap, would seem to constitute a bold step in the direction of overcoming this squeamishness, of starting an extramural conversation about rap as—to quote one of the editors of the Anthology—“the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world.” To be sure, it’s worth a little sheepishness and tongue-clucking just to be able to savor the thrill of rap lyrics laid bare as language manipulated in inspired, wonderfully insubordinate ways. But that thrill doesn’t make me any less aware that the voices I admire are speaking an English that I don’t speak—and couldn’t speak, at least without either stealing or playacting.
If I remember my high school English correctly, the American dream is all about self-invention. We have flawed legends and warped creation myths and tales of martyrs felled in retrospectively needless rivalries, all of which play into the way we individually and collectively define ourselves. Rap, which for what it’s worth is likely the last place in America where the American dream still exists, has all of these—but its Plymouth Rock is “Planet Rock” and its Jay Gatsby is Tony Montana in Scarface. Rap trades in self-styled identities the way America does, and if anything does it a little more honestly: accusations about inauthenticity hold little sway here, because it’s acknowledged that rappers are characters, masters of ceremonies to an ongoing spectacle.1
Many rappers have sustained spectacles more epic than that of Jay Electronica—Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s thirteen kids and nearly as many arrests come to mind, as does 2Pac’s mid-prison self-rechristening as Makaveli—but few have capitalized so efficiently on the fluidity of rap’s mythology. Electronica first made waves in 2007 with Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge), a nine-minute, multi-part piece in which he waxes philosophical over austere, drum-free snippets from a film score by Jon Brion. It’s an impressive gesture, at once pretentious and unaccommodating (rap songs have beats for good reason) and repeatedly jaw-dropping. His rhymes are dizzying, elastic, unexpected; his best verses have a force of rhetorical self-evidence whereby his mispronunciations sound imperative, syllables bend to the momentum of his husky voice, and words that are obvious rhythmic placeholders seem like crucial new slang. On the final verse of “Exhibit C,” probably the best pop song of 2009, he lurches into a multilingual, pan-theological boast; on the radio-rip version that circulated on the internet before the track’s official release, the DJ actually rewinds it on air to hear it again:
They call me Jay Electronica
Fuck that, call me Jay Elec-Hanukkah, Jay Elec-yarmulke
Jay Elect-Ramadan Muhammad asalaamica
Rasoul Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala through your monitor
My Uzi still weigh a ton, check the barometer
I’m hotter than the motherfucking sun, check the thermometer
But Electronica’s popularity, which culminated in his recent signing to Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label, is predicated just as much upon his mysterious persona—one best described as an absence of fixed persona. In his rhymes he can be prophetic, thuggish (nigga, fuck your blog); playful, boastful (I started dropping jewelry / Her eyes went googly / She went home and Googled me); romantic, confessional (At nighttime all I do is pray and cry, homey / ’Cause every time I call home somebody dyin’ on me); political (And every time I look around somebody lyin’ on me / Mr. Cheney, Mr. Ridge, steady spyin’ on me); autobiographical; or simply clever for the sheer exercise of it (Jay Electrolysis, probing the globe like a geologist / Putting all of you pussies on display like gynecologists).
As a character, though, he is equally difficult to pin down. Off record, he perpetuates his sense of mystery in an aloofly industrious kind of way: until now he has released almost none of his music through conventional channels—a guest verse here, a track leaked on MySpace there. While we wait for his long- promised first full-length album, Act II: Patents of Nobility, to materialize, fans dutifully compile his output on unofficial mixtapes. (The best of these so far is Victory, mixed by DJ Dub and Furious Styles.) The advantage of putting out his music in this piecemeal way is that it has started to seem almost natural that, from song to song and moment to moment, Jay Electronica is never quite the same person. Plenty of rappers have multiple voices, but his have never felt like departures from or variations on a central one. In radio interviews he is polite and enthusiastic and down-to-earth; in his press photos he is in Nepal, being hoisted in the air among monks.
I came late to rap. I was in high school, studious and unhip, probably weathering one of the first in an ongoing series of statistically uninteresting identity crises.2
Before then I had never imagined it had anything to say to me; it’s regrettably likely that I assumed all of it glorified, as Buckholz puts it, “drug use, violence, crime, or sexual promiscuity.” When I did start to listen, it was to what I now think of as rap’s friendlier offshoots: indie rap, underground rap, backpack rap, conscious rap, emo rap. I weaned my ear on the communitarian positivity of Jurassic 5, the confessional melodrama of Atmosphere, the Bulfinch-toting verse of Aesop Rock. The first thing that truly excited me was the use of simile. I’m coming after you like the letter V. I’m the motherfucking king like Oedipus.
This was simple, teenage-friendly rap with abstract and digestible morality—music I could process without asking any tough questions of myself. Besides the seductive freedom of a new set of cultural cues, though, it allowed me to learn things: its history, its characters, its correspondences and echoes. The intellectual tools were the same ones I had always enjoyed using, on anything from astronomy to baseball to Shakespeare’s plays, but here I was taking them to a sphere with a certain rebellion around it, a thrilling whiff of grass from the other side of the fence.3
This is not to say that more familiar forms of narrative ever stopped stimulating my imagination, but rap reached me as much through its foreignness—the kind Buckholz megaphones to the tune of 179 pages—as through its accessibility. Making a place for myself in a form to which I have no apparent cultural claim was simply a more appealing intellectual exercise than conjuring the beat poet in his North Beach garret, the hipster troubadour in a Brooklyn loft, Wallace Stevens walking to the insurance office in Connecticut. In most media made by and peddled to my demographic I know exactly what is at stake, which gives me as much interpretive authority as I ascribe to the author. With rap songs about life on the streets—or rap songs that reference rap songs about life on the streets—I was less at ease, less sure I understood them and thus less sure of myself. I was more genuinely curious as to what they had to say to and about me.
Eventually, out of a desire for further authenticity or further challenge, I started dipping into the corpus from which Buckholz and Rap Genius and the Yale editors mostly draw their quarry: rap that resists prefixes except to specify the place it comes from, where the beats are harder (or, creepily, flimsier) and the hooks are more insistent and run-ins with the cops deal with drug trafficking and murder rather than smoking weed and tagging subway platforms. I began to find myself listening to stories whose morality I couldn’t parse but whose language knocked my socks off, whose tales of kingpin calculus and street betrayal enthralled my inner English major even while they would have appalled an earlier me. I learned things about the production, distribution and marketing of cocaine without knowing what a cocaine high felt like. I accumulated an extensive familiarity with brand-name clothes and cars and guns I had no interest in ever owning.
I suppose this trajectory was necessary. Had I started with the ruthless gangland drama of Mobb Deep or the cokelord frigidity of Raekwon and Clipse, I might never have been at ease with rap’s conventions and terminology and grammar, never come to appreciate lyrical and sonic inventiveness in a song whose underlying message boils down to bone-chilling nihilism. (Open the Frigidaire, it’s 25 to life in here / So much white you might think your holy Christ is near.) And so I suppose, in turn, you could make the case that rap has gradually affected my morals: that the more at ease I felt with it as a genre telegraphing a lifestyle, the more hardened I became to some of the most objectionable and frightening things about it—the way decades of study in typography might prompt one to admire the layout of a Nazi propaganda pamphlet.
I don’t really buy that argument though, any more than I buy that high rates of juvenile nicotine addiction are the fault of the artist who drew Joe Camel. If I’ve chosen to focus on the performance while turning a blind eye to the performer, my fascination never blurred the line between the desire to be a rap listener and the desire to be a rap character. I reinvented myself as someone who likes Scarface, which in reality I find overlong and often tedious, not as Tony Montana. I shouldn’t have to stop admiring the multivalent potential in a lyric like Cam’ron’s coke like a caterpillar / I make butter fly4 just because it will always amount to an artful boast about doing something despicable. I just need to keep an eye on the line between what I get out of rap as a reader and what rappers are putting in as authors.
Here’s the catch, though: the line that allows me to enjoy this kind of rap without having to buy into its morality—which often does glorify drug use and violence and crime and sexual promiscuity—is the same line that relegates rap to someone else’s culture. This is why trying to talk about rap in familiar terms is as unsatisfying as treating it as a foreign language: because it feels like eavesdropping on a dialogue between people I don’t and wouldn’t want to identify with. Because every gesture that recognizes the incongruity of my listening in, whether scholarly like my exegeses or strictly satirical like Buckholz’s, only helps insist on a gap that cannot or should not be bridged. Because no matter how we choose to draw the line, we won’t be on the right side.
In retrospect, it’s easy to read Jay Electronica’s arguably too-experimental debut piece, Act 1, as a sort of mission statement about his designs for rap. In the first part of the suite, “Eternal Sunshine,” four quatrains in less than two minutes of air time, he moves swiftly from touchstone to touchstone, beginning with universals and etching out a portrait of a rapper determined to make himself known without adulterating his word or bowing to the temptations of success:
She say she never fell in love with a Superman: Christian, Muslim, Protestant, Lutheran
I told her that being immortal is the portal to the true nature of growth, the Christ like Buddha man
That’s why I never spit the traditional garbage of a knife fight, bright lights, white ice to the fans
The radio is just a stereo like a house ain’t a home and a chair is just a chair—ask Luther Van
Go to work, go to church, let your dreams die: bow tie, Final Call and a bean pie Yarmulke for Hanukkah, wish list for Christmas, this is the gist of the life that we
lead—why? So you can fit in with the closed-minded in the sit-ins and get clotheslined in the iddend?
I could care less about a plaque and a Biddenz, or get punk’d on TV by my friddends
Don’t get a nigga wrong; I get tempted by the rewards that all come along with making nigga songs
But what does it mean if I’m a Muslim and you a Jew and because of that alone we don’t get along?
And when you talk like this and try to walk like this the radio stations’ll never put a nigga on
Just Mims, just 50, just Wayne, just Jeezy and the Franchise Boys and Jimmy Jones
Fuck that, fuck rap: this God-hop—kingdom music for the hard rocks I’ma spit it ’til TRL get it and Hot 97 hit a nigga with a bomb drop Ask Flex, ask Slay, ask Whoo Kid; Just Blaze said Jay is the new kid I took Eternal Sunshine and I looped it: no drums, no hook, just new shit
As with “Exhibit A,” there is little to translate as such: “a chair is just a chair” is a line from the Luther Vandross dusty “A House Is Not A Home”; The Final Call, a newspaper founded by Louis Farrakhan, is a hallmark of the Nation of Islam, just like bow ties and bean pies. The names clustered toward the end all belong to rap mainstays: those from Mims to Jim Jones are rappers; Funkmaster Flex (who plays bomb-drop sounds on his show on Hot 97), Kay Slay and Whoo Kid are radio DJs; Just Blaze is the talented producer who, along with the neo-soul singer Erykah Badu, helped start Jay’s career.
And as with “Exhibit A,” again, there is much to admire. Mark the shifting internal stresses (fit in, sit-in, iddend), brought in line with an offhand use of ebonic infixes that doesn’t become fully intelligible until the last in the series, when you realize that friddends means “friends,” just like “Benz” and “end” before it. Observe the elegant recklessness of articulation that makes Superman rhyme with Lutheran, and the cannily circular shorthand of Luther Van three lines later. Notice how the seven percussive syllables fuck that fuck rap this God-hop are perfectly clear, and that the grammatical “this is God-hop” would somehow make the whole thing less persuasive, less forceful.
Rhetorical ingenuity aside, this piece is remarkable for its uncharacteristic clarity and purpose. Here Jay is not only as a lifelong listener of rap, but also as one with an earnest commentary on its past, and no uncertain ambitions for its future. Here he is aiming to tear down its shallowness and materialism (white ice), its over-reliance on stories about violence (knife fights) and boasts about fame (bright lights), while trying to save what the intellectually inclined might call its redeeming value. (“Back when Only Built 4 Cuban Linx came out, Raekwon and Ghostface, the whole album was drugs, chains, chicks,” he explains in an interlude on Victory to no one in particular. “But the poetry of it.”)
Rap as an art form and as an industry has surpassed its by-us-for-us origins, and Jay knows his listeners are as likely to be overeducated whites as they are to be poor urban blacks. In Act 1, he tries to make sense of this irony, starting in the third stanza: What does it mean if I’m a Muslim and you a Jew and because of that alone we don’t get along? It feels funny taking this at face value, but what indeed? Is the discourse of race and identity politics bound to keep us isolated in our respective demographics, and what does it say about hip-hop—one of the most affirming, exhilarating and candid art forms of the last century—if it can’t help us find a way out of that stalemate? The promise of Jay Electronica is that his practice seems bound up in these questions, that the stakes of his career include the possibility of understanding rap as a place where we do get along: Muslim and Jew, black and white, rich and poor, author and reader. That may sound utopian, but then so does he much of the time.
If Jay Electronica’s work is ultimately exhaustible—if it will eventually cease to reward meditation and analysis and repeated playback through headphones and car stereos—it remains an excellent starting point for a conversation about rap as a medium that, in its harnessing of the mechanics of self-invention, might debunk the myth of a prohibitive incompatibility between our language and their language. Jay’s importance as a rapper, perhaps, is that he renders a project like Buckholz’s irrelevant, powerless. His work is untranslatable, in the best sense; an exemplar of rap in all its unpriggish inventiveness, its refined recklessness, its fearlessness to neologize and tamper and alienate and be misunderstood. It is a model of how great rap, like any other great art, calls not for authoritative explanation but for the committed consideration of someone willing to hold it still, find a way in, and open it from inside for the rest of us, no matter who we are or want to be.