Book Reviews

Daniel Levin Becker. What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2022. 312p. Trade Paper. $22.95. (ISBN 978-0-87286-876-2).

Book cover for What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language

What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language is a studied, well-researched, critical, and loving exploration of the wit, humor, nuance, intelligence, meaning-making, truth telling, occasional hyperbolic absurdity, and craft of the MC and, in turn, Hip Hop culture. Becker approaches the topic with the care, competence, and appreciation of a lifelong Hip Hop aficionado and, as a result, What’s Good is a remarkable achievement that deserves a place in any Hip Hop studies collection, just as it enjoys a spot on Virginia Tech Digging in the Crates: Hip Hop Studies’ True School Studios’ already crammed bookshelf.

Each of the nearly fifty concise chapters begins with a single line, couplet, or verse that serves as a jumping off point for a broader—and often extraordinarily wide-ranging—exploration. Topics range from the (former cultural faux pas?) biting, the evolution of slang, writing versus freestyling, values, criticism, irony, intelligences, and more. The chapters often prominently feature Becker’s lived personal experiences. Despite the occasional detour, the ingenuity of the MC—and not merely the experiences of the studied backpack Hip Hop fan—appreciatively remains at the forefront of this work.

The breadth of the referenced verses-as-text is both impressive and necessary. Becker thankfully does not simply focus on one era or region of Hip Hop culture and music. Instead, he features work from global megastars like Drake, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Chance the Rapper, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Beyonce, and (her husband) Jay-Z; legends like MC Lyte, Slick Rick, the late Shock G and (his former backup dancer) 2Pac, the late Biz Markie, Rakim, Nas, Ghostface Killah, LL Cool J, and Big Daddy Kane; and lesser-known underground luminaries including Chicago’s Vakill, Pennsylvania’s Count Bass D, Philadelphia’s Bahamadia, the late Big L, and the late MF Doom. Unlike many similar texts, What’s Good does not show a preference for so-called Golden Era sources but instead engages with work that was released as long ago as 1979 and as recently as the last several years. Interestingly, Becker often puts MCs’ work from widely different eras in direct conversation with each other to great results. As a consequence of this approach, What’s Good is a uniquely enjoyable, entertaining, energetic, and thought-provoking analysis of the ever-evolving art of MCing.

As someone who learns aside college students in a variety of contexts with Hip Hop at the center, What’s Good’s regional, topical, and temporal breadth and depth is especially appreciated. Becker’s refreshing coverage of the art of MC would make it a solid supplementary addition to many Hip Hop Studies syllabi. It would also prove helpful for teaching librarians looking to incorporate Hip Hop into their praxis. Without question, What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language is recommended for both certified Stretch & Bobbito Radio Show tape traders and those among us who are newer to appreciating the arguably greatest cultural force of the last half century. —Craig Arthur, Virginia Tech

Copyright Craig Arthur

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