Begin Again, Begin Again
First Impressions of The Rap Year Book
I don’t know where to begin.
Every time I write about music, no-one reads it.
And every time I write about music, I write with a lot of ‘I’s’ and there’s a direct correlation between the number of ‘I’s’ in the posts I write and their (lack of) popularity.
What’s odd about that is how much I like writing about music, and how much it means to me.
I think it’s a genetic quirk, like someone being extremely fast, or strong, or tall — where my emotional response to music is maybe irrationally high.
Like, I could just be standing at my desk at work, and I’ll hear something, and I’ll just clench my face from the joy of how good it feels to hear it.
It happened this week, I was standing at my desk, and I remember feeling that scrunch-face-good, hearing ‘Fade Away’ by Susan Sundfor.
Or, on Sunday morning, we were sitting in the gardens of a cafe that was closed, and they’d left their speakers on, and a Wilco song came on that I hadn’t heard before.
Towards the end of the song, a guitar solo started that just unleashed itself and as it was doing that, I hurriedly downloaded Shazam, and Shazam’d it.
It was ‘Impossible Germany’.
I won’t ever forget that. I’ll always hear the ‘Impossible Germany’ solo and be sitting in the sunshine of that closed garden, waiting for Oscar to calm down, stop crying and fall asleep.
When you hear people talk about addiction, or the way that drugs make them feel, the best way I can understand it is to think about how I feel about music.
“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
— Bob Marley
You can fairly use those words, obsession and addiction, for me when it comes to music. I classify it as a personal anomaly that is fortunate not to have negative ramifications.
What makes it stranger is that I don’t play music, don’t have an aptitude for it, don’t have a good singing voice, don’t read it or understand it technically.
And I don’t have the disposition to see it live. Music festivals to me are a punishment. I know what great live music can feel like, but I can’t sustain the energy to see it more than on special occasions.
So my entire, expansive musical life is limited to recorded music on my headphones at my desk or on the speakers at home.
On my really rich list are a bunch of things — courtside NBA seats, my own indoor basketball court, owning the most expensive Volvo I can buy — but the one I think about the most is having my own sound-proof room with a view of the ocean and all that’s in the room is a chair, floor to ceiling glass walls and two perfect speakers.
And I just sit in that room and play my music really loudly and that’s all that room is for.
Today, I was listening back to ‘Watch The Throne’ and I actually imagined a future version of myself in that room listening to that album in full.
‘Watch The Throne’, by the way, is under-rated. At the time, we just all assumed Jay-Z and Kanye together would make a masterpiece, and when they did, instead of awe, or joy, we just felt relief.
We expected a masterpiece. We got one. Next.
But this is a masterful record.
Listen to how they both rap over the top of the Otis Redding vocal sample. The sample doesn’t sit just in the bridge or the chorus, it’s actually in the verse and they’re rhyming against it.
This album was all I listened to the first time I went to Tokyo. Summertime, staying a few blocks from the Hachiko statue in Shibuya.
I remember it so well.
For this year’s NBA Finals, we’d all congregate at my friend Ashwin’s house, and in the ad-breaks, inevitably, our heads would drop into Twitter to layer context into what we were seeing on TV.
My friend Matt from New York put together a Twitter list of NBA writers he liked and shared me on it. Ad-break after ad-break, the same person would make me laugh out loud — Shea Serrano.
The easiest way to explain Serrano is just to narrow his output down to something simple, like how he feels about Steph Curry.
Bear with me. This is just a sampling of May-June of this year.
So you can see how funny/great this stuff is. I’m so bought into this, I’ll buy anything you’re selling when this is your life POV.
Which gets me to my point.
I pre-ordered Sherrano’s ‘The Rap Yearbook’ and it arrived today.
I’ve only read five chapters so far —’My Name Is’, ‘Monster’, ‘Best I Ever Had’, ‘Ni***s in Paris’, and ‘A-Milli’.
This book is so good.
Aside — This song is playing in my headphones right now:
And it just made me do this scrunch-face-good:
So I’ve read five chapters, and I’ve learned so much.
Every few lines makes me scurry off to some corner of the internet to uncover some new gem. Like this passage, which Serrano uses to help explain the power of Jay-Z-Kanye’s ode to luxury-life in Paris, but is also just hands-down one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen written:
“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro… two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
Like this Nicki a-capella from before she was famous, showing the transcendent talent that emerged for the first and best time on her ‘Monster’ verse:
Like Jay-Z’s lyricism:
“Psycho: I’m liable to go Michael,
take your pick
Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6.”
Like Jay-Z’s cultural significance:
“Jay-Z’s ability to stand before his audience without pretending to be any less skilled or less wealthy than he actually is, and to present his wealth and privilege as having been fully earned, while also identifying with the streets he grew up on, makes him the most important popular artist in America today.”
Like Sherrano’s description of Lil’ Wayne’s ‘A-Milli’:
“A-Milli had the density of a neutron star; it pulled everything toward it, and then into it.”
It is so hard to describe music, because most often you are describing a subjective feeling.
“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”
― Victor Hugo
When you describe it exactly right, and the person reading feels what you feel, you make some kind of connection through the music and the writing that is as inexplicable and real as the music itself.
“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”
― Aldous Huxley
Serrano talks about Lil’ Wayne’s cultural ‘moment’ in 2008, when soon-to-be President Obama said to a youth group in Georgia:
“Maybe you are the next Lil Wayne, but probably not, in which case you need to stay in school.”
Serrano puts Wayne’s moment in context by claiming it to be superior to Jennifer Aniston’s Season 4–6 stretch of Friends when she had that haircut, Manu Ginobili’s 2003–2005 run of two NBA titles and an Olympic Gold Medal, and Omar Epps cinematic run from 1992–1995.
Aside — If there’s no Bill Simmons, there’s no Shea Serrano, and not just because he also writes for Grantland.
This kind of serious musical analysis juxtaposed with irreverent cultural touchpoints is what makes ‘The Rap Year Book’ so good.
And line after line of things you’ve thought but never said, like:
“Do you even know how much easier your life is when you have nice hair?”
In the same vein as ‘Watch The Throne’ in Tokyo, I listened all the way through ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’, really late one night at the W Hotel in Austin.
I remember just watching the headlights stream in over the S 1st bridge, and ‘Wednesday Night Interlude’ coming on.
Sherrano digs up an old Drake quote, from 2011:
“I think Kanye deserves a lot of credit and Andre 3000 deserves a lot of credit for the shift in what you have to be to be a rapper, and what your music has to sound like.
Those guys made it OK for melody to be introduced. They made it OK to not necessarily be the most street dude.
For me, I started to believe more in myself when I saw those two guys. I thought, ‘I’m good at rapping, so if they just respect the talent and don’t crucify you for what your past is or who you are, then I should be OK.”
I don’t know why this quote gets me so hard.
Whether it’s just the unexpected vulnerability, or the surprising earnestness.
Growing up we were rich with experiences but mostly behind on consumer goods. No TV until I got to high school. Only one good outfit for gold-coin-donation-free-dress-days (mine was a Charlotte Hornets T-Shirt and pair of plaid OMM shorts).
No way was I getting the $30 Stussy hat. Mine was a practical, red, rugged $12 Canterbury one. Functionally the same. Symbolically a world apart.
That consumer reticence extended to magazines. There was no budget for magazines growing up.
And that meant I’d take magazines out from the library.
There was a stretch through early high-school, where I went through the entire Rolling Stone archive at the Noosa Library, getting them out 3-at-a-time, which was the maximum you were allowed at that point.
I’d read the album reviews, and make mental notes of the albums they referenced.
Not just the 3.5 stars for ‘The Unfinished Spanish Galleon of Finley Lake’.
But the in-review reference to MC-5.
Who was MC-5? And why did they keep coming up in all these descriptions?
On Saturday mornings, while my Dad shopped for fruit and vegetables at the Eumundi Markets, I’d stand at the second-hand CD stall and pore over the music, trying to find the albums of the bands I’d read about that week.
I was trying to connect the dots.
There was this music, that made feel so high, and these reviews, that mentioned music that sounded like it would make me feel that way again, and the tension that would built up between those two emotions until I could hear it myself.
Joy Division, Jimi Hendrix, Green Day. The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays, Joni Mitchell.
Pet Sounds, Rumours, Bridge Over Troubled Water. Exile On Main St, Blood On The Tracks, Astral Weeks.
I spent many hours imagining these albums before I ever heard them.
It made the discovery all the richer.
Music feels like an addiction to me.
I have such an innate sense of it.
I can listen to 3 spots in a track, for 3 seconds at a time, and know if I’m going to like it. I can know if it’s my kind of song.
I’m the world’s greatest A&R guy, so long as I’m the audience of one.
I was jamming out to uber-country star Luke Bryan today.
Country or not, it’s just popular music. Broadly appealing music. Pleasing music.
Listen to ‘FourFiveSeconds’:
You could have Bryan doing Rihanna’s song, and Rihanna doing Bryan’s — no-one would notice. You change the facade, but the foundations would stay the same. You’d feel the same things.
You can be anyone, and put on Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Run Away With Me’, and feel it. Feel it as something.
You can shut it down too. Refuse to admit you like it.
But only you’ll know the truth.
Music is the highest thing for me.
The internet, and Spotify, and YouTube, and Grantland and modern, subjective journalism was made for an addict like me.
Made for listening to Future, and Fetty Wap, and Springsteen, and Elvis, and Tame Impala, and Oscar Key Sung.
Made for Rembert’s Scotus 5–4 Songs of the Week.
Made for Shea Serrano.
Made for Jason Isbell covering the Lykke Li song that was even better as a remix in a party scene from the best movie of the past five years (that was based on a comic book).
Made for ‘The Rap Year Book’.
And made for that moment, when you thought you’d heard everything, thought you’d have found it if it was out there, only to discover a whole micro-genre called vaporwave that completely passed you by. Until now.
And you inhale and it all begins again.