In the opening moments of the iconic track, “N.Y. State of Mind,” Nas almost mumbles, “I don’t know how to start this shit.”
It’s appropriate, almost poetic, that this line kept running through my head as I thought about how to approach this review because Daniel Levin Becker’s What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language is all about lines and lyrics – how they’re created, how deep they go, how they get stuck in our heads, and, awkwardly, what they mean within the larger societal context.
It makes sense that Becker was an early contributing editor to (Rap) Genius, because this book, at least the first two-thirds, is like the greatest hits compilation of that site.
A combination of a robust research project, heartfelt memoir, grammar lesson, love letter to rap lyricism, and confusing societal commentary, What’s Good sits in the middle of the Venn diagram between nerdom and fandom that so many of us have occupied for decades, long before Genius ever existed. The majority of the book focuses on wordplay, slang, double- and triple-entendres, and coded language, peeling apart memorable and impactful raps to see how they were put together and how they can be broken down.
Each chapter is only a few pages and uses a line or couplet as a jumping off point to analyze what that rhyme is doing – Nicki Minaj’s “I got bars/Sentencing” is the opening to the chapter on so-called “Hashtag Rap.”
While Jay-Z, Jeezy, Drake, and especially Lil Wayne are all mentioned, Becker digs deep into the crates and uses artists and songs most casual fans have never heard of to illustrate his points (Jurassic 5, Atmosphere, Typical Cats, and others receive multiple citations). Becker’s personal relationship to these artists and rhymes inform much of the project, more than that of an objective observer, so naturally it focuses on what he likes.
It’s meticulously researched and I was impressed with the breadth of songs and sources, but no one person can know everything about everything within the half-century of hip-hop. Becker admits to coming to the culture a bit later (he mentions how he learned of Rakim only years after his peak and has a chapter devoted to rhymes that were recycles of previous songs but that he heard first, creating a weird reverse echo effect) and there are some moments when the gap in his hip-hop scholarship is apparent.
For example, he rhetorically questions why Nas, in the song “Queens Get the Money,” takes Rakim’s legendary “twenty-one MCs” line from “My Melody” and adds twenty-nine to it to make it an even fifty before mentioning 8 Mile, The Chronic, and Get Rich or Die Tryin’. He ultimately leaves it unanswered. The truth, for anyone paying attention at the time, was that Nas and 50 Cent were engaged in a war of words (50 Cent’s “Piggy Bank” was answered by Nas’s “Don’t Body Ya Self”) so bumping the number up to fifty and mentioning his debut as well as the work of his mentors was a clear shot at Curtis Jackson (who also referenced “My Melody” in “Hate It or Love It” so there are levels to this). There are some other moments like this that I found bothersome as a superfan, to the point that I was scribbling furiously in the margins, arguing with the text.
The book falters when Becker goes from analyzing to editorializing or outright judging. Four consecutive chapters are focused on social topics: values; the b-word; the n-word; and white people. He brings far more of an opinionated, almost pearl-clutching approach than simply the breakdown of lyrics. I’m not sure where the question of morality fits within a realm as nihilistic and unapologetic as some facets of hip-hop, particularly when questioning the ethicality and rectitude of Clipse rhymes.
When he writes, “I’m not trying to sound sanctimonious here,” methinks he doth protest too much. Later, when he adds, “I can stomach things now in rap that I couldn’t have ten and twenty years ago,” it feel less like a fan and more like an academic slowly removing his index fingers from his ears.
I’m tempted to call it a bathroom book, but that sounds like an insult. Trust me: it’s not. It’s far from a perfect book, but it’s a perfect book for that location: you can pick it up at any point, flip to any page, and immediately become engrossed (and learn something) within just a few pages. There are gems scattered throughout the book, like shells on a beach, and so many topics are covered.
If you’ve ever been listening to a song and googled the lyrics to see if the artist meant “carrots” or “carats,” this is the book for you. When done correctly, rap lyrics have all of the elements of great writing and storytelling, so it’s only natural to have a book that inspects and decodes it letter by letter.
I just wish it had been more analytical and less dogmatic.
What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language is available everywhere.
I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Christopher Pierznik is a longtime hip-hop scholar and the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.