NY Mag’s Sam Anderson Admits: Rap Is Better With Music

“I realized it is basically insane to make any kind of judgment about rap without hearing it.”

So says New York magazine book critic Sam Anderson, after NPR questioned the wisdom of reviewing a lyrical anthology of rap without having ever heard the actual songs.

Anderson, speaking with NPR’s Frannie Kelley, said he read all the raps in his own internal voice, all at the same tempo. “And then I’d read some of my favorite passages aloud to my wife, and she would laugh at me because it sounded ridiculous.”

Lil Wayne, whose lyrics “never seem to add up” for Anderson on paper, came alive when he heards the songs.

Lil Wayne blew my mind when I listened to him last night. He might be the ultimate case of the chasm between written and oral. Even more so than Biggie, possibly. His pitch shifts pretty radically – one word will be breathy and slow, then he’ll launch into a quick little squeak of a syllable. I think it’s impossible to replicate, in print, that sense of play with how words sound, the way syllables relate.

In the end, Anderson is glad he didn’t try and learn about rap through the music. “Honestly, if I hadn’t read and loved Big L’s “Ebonics” before I listened to it, I’m not sure I would have recognized it as someone engaging in incredibly smart and playful lexicography. Because to me, as an ignorant outsider, it just “sounds” like a more-or-less generic rap song.” It’s the kind of self-awareness that would make Juan Williams proud.

The biggest surprise for Anderson, aside from Lil’ Wayne? O.D.B., of course! “His pronunciation of “zoo” is one of the cooler things I’ve ever heard: a “z” with the smallest possible nondescript little vowel syllable attached to it. There is no way on earth to communicate the musicality of the refrain that ends that song in print.”

bpopper [at] observer.com

@benpopper NY Mag’s Sam Anderson Admits: Rap Is Better With Music