Monday, February 21, 2011

The Terms of the Form

In an interesting piece that weighs criticisms of Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Chris Jackson makes what I found a useful point for framing my recent efforts to listen to and study rap music:

We all know that rap is narrative, with unreliable narrators, and that the point-of-view in any narrative is not necessarily the point of view of the writer, but then we occasionally choose to forget this; in those moments we make judgments on rap songs without making the effort to first understand them on the terms of the form.


aintstudyingyou said...

I'll have to read the whole piece, but I have an immediate question: who knows that all rap songs have unreliable narrators?

It seems to me that part of the baggage of (most) rap is its tie to authenticity. "Black America's CNN," as Chuck D once put it. In trying to complicate this notion in my teaching, I've found that most hip hop fans--regardless of class or color--are quite invested in hip hop as a location of realness -- or invested, at least, in the idea that hip hop deserving of serious attention (Marshall Mathers and not Slim Shady) is "real."

framiko said...

I didn't take Jackson to be saying that all rap songs have unreliable narrators. I understood him to be saying that the narrators of rap songs are not necessarily coterminous with their authors. So a rap song could be like a personal essay, or it could be like a dramatic monologue, or it could be like a short story. All of which could make claims to be "real"—in that they awaken us to some aspect of human experience—regardless of whether they are literally "true." And, most importantly, Jackson seemed to me to be warning against judging rap based on a belief that the lyrics were simple statements of fact or the artist's conviction. It'd be like confusing Bruce Springsteen with the speaker of "I'm on Fire."

aintstudyingyou said...

Agreed. Absolutely. But my sense is that Jackson is ignoring the primary response to hip-hop in favor of a minority response. My problem is with the "we" in his "we all know" -- not with the content of the knowledge, which you also state well.

It may be that West is one of few rappers to openly challenge the equation of lyricist with lyric. And that may account for the different type of critical success he has had. And the backlash against him by some in the hip hop community as 'gay'...

In response to Jackson's "we," I have found the equation of certain types of performers with authenticity is not easily sloughed off. I mean, I wish it were, because I'm bored by its denial of artistry, cunning, and guile. Why is Dylan, for example, cunning, where Aretha is all raw, honest emotion?

I'll be writing more on this soon, if you'd like to see my thinking about 1970s racialized musical genres and their relationship to the commercial. Specifically, I'm looking at Joni Mitchell's journey through folk, folk-rock, and jazz and its impact on her sales and critical reception.


framiko said...

Great question about the different understandings granted to Dylan versus Aretha. On the one hand, it's puzzling, given the long African American history of cunning and masking. I think of Twain's Jim, or Chesnutt's Uncle Julius, or any number of characters in Invisible Man. Or Duke Ellington. On the other hand, that long tradition depends on the white mainstream's susceptibility to being duped—or, to put it another way, its consistent underestimation of black sophistication. Ellington says in his autobiography that "underestimation" is the human shortcoming that irritates him most.

So I think you're right that Jackson's making a questionable assumption when he says "we" all know but occasionally choose to forget. I guess a lot of "us," far from choosing to forget, never knew in the first place.