Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Great Big Book of Rap Lyrics

Hitting bookstores today is The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois from Yale University Press. I hope I won't be accused of over-simplifying when I state that this is a great big ol' book of rap lyrics. Like dictionary big. And it's pretty much nothing but transcribed songs, plain and simple. I mean, there is an introduction, a forward and two "afterwords." Plus the book is divided into chapters, designating eras in hip-hop. Those have little introductory paragraphs. And artists have brief bios for the uninitiated. But you're basically just looking at 700+ of typed-out rap songs. So, is that a good or a bad thing? Well, let's see.

My first thought when I got this is probably what you're all thinking: aren't all of these song lyrics, and bajillions more, already easily available on the internet? Yes, of course. Ten years ago, this project probably would've had much greater commercial prospects, but I'm guessing many of you guys will be thinking it's just plain crazy to plop down $35 (the book's cover price) for a small sampling of what's already available online for free. And... you'd have an excellent point.

But before we dismiss it entirely, let's move on to the second thought that hit me when I received this book: most online lyric transcriptions are riddled with down-right embarrassing errors. Having transcribed a few songs for The OHHLA myself, there's often that one line you can't quite make out, maybe due to a reference you don't get or phrases you're not familiar with, and you're left just trying to sound it out... So, I wondered, did this book just google these songs and lazily cut and paste those transcriptions, ridiculous goofs and all?

I'm happy to report the answer to that seems to to be no. I've flipped through this volume again and again, looking to stumble upon something laughably stupid, and the only errors I could find are debatable and nitpicky. As an example, according to The Anthology, Slick Rick's "I Shouldn't Have Done It" starts out with the lyric:

"Well, I'ma tell you a story and I come out bluntly,
Want a ugly child? Hey, nobody would want me."

But I'm pretty sure he's actually saying:

"Well, I'ma tell you a story and I come out bluntly,
Born an ugly child. Hey, nobody would want me."

But compare that to OHHLA's:

"Well I'ma tell you a story and I come out bluntly
Wanna ugly shot, hey nobody will want me"

Now, that's just clearly wrong. So The Anthology has stepped the game up considerably from the usual transcriptions found online, which goes a good way towards making this a more valuable resource. Even this example song has more errors on OHHLA, which are not carried over to The Anthology (the book and I agree that "I love the wedlock, what up, not going to front/ See the problem that arouses, why on earth did she want me?" should instead read, "I loved her a lot, word up, not going to front, see?/ The problem that arose* is why on earth did she want me?"). And both The Anthology and I concur that the OHHLA is the best of the online sources,** so The Anthology has the best transcriptions you're going to find anywhere.

But of course, where The Anthology is lacking is the natural limitation of the book format. Despite the size of the thing, this book still only includes three Slick Rick songs, whereas OHHLA has about 80. They do an admirable job trying to capture nearly every period of hip-hop (disco era, gangsta, east coast, west coast, underground, pop, the complex and the embarrassingly simple, etc), but in the end, some omissions and choices are a bit suspect. At a guess, for instance, I assume they only included Blackalicious's "Alphabet Aerobics" because they were unaware it was just a simple retread of KMC Kru's "Alphabet Rhyme;" and if they'd been familiar with both, would have included the latter instead.

But my point isn't in playing the "they should've picked this song instead of that song" game. It's just that - because their selection is forced to be so limited (not their fault; it's the nature of the medium) - this book will only serve as a handy reference in those rare instances where the authors just so happened to have coincidentally chosen to include the one song you're interested in looking up. The odds are overwhelming that whatever song you're curious about at any given time won't be in here.

However, if you read the introduction, the authors seem to expect you to not so much use this as a tool to pick through and reference lyrics, but as something to read from cover to cover, more like a book of poetry/ educational tool. As a book of poetry... I think people will (and should) just prefer to listen to the actual songs. And as an educational tool... well, a collection of lyrics with no analysis or commentary is a bit dry, to say the least. Especially 700+ pages worth.

So, bottom line, this seems more like an interesting, and probably exhaustive, exercise on the editors' part than anything most heads will care to concern themselves with. I guess they intend to foist this over mostly on students who will be required to pick this up for a course (it is, after all, from a University press). But it IS neat to have a decidedly more accurate take on these songs than are available elsewhere.

So whether to recommend it to you guys? I'm actually a bit torn. I'm happily hanging onto mine now that I've got it; but I can't say it's worth the hefty cover price. If you're living a "money is no object" lifestyle, then certainly pick this up. It's a fun addition to your collection. Otherwise, though, I'd say hold off unless you come across it super cheap in a discount bin someday. And students, if a professor assigns you this book, just drop by The Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive and save yourself the expense. The education system is milking you for enough cash as it is.

*Actually, The Anthology says "arise," which I think is wrong, too... I suspect they stumbled on Rick's accent there. But the point is: they're a lot closer than the other available sources, and give you a truer representation of the substance of the song.

**No shots intended at Flash at all in pointing out these errors. It's a great and invaluable site I'm proud to have contributed to, at least a tiny bit.

Update 11/5/10: Uh-oh... Have a look in the comments. It looks like actually the answer was yes, they did just lazily cut & paste OHHLA's transcriptions. There's a rather damning article posted about this book on Slate that not only spots some more errors (to be expected)... but the problem is that those errors are all duplicates of OHHLA errors. For example, both OHHLA and The Anthology write this line from Ghostface Killah's "Daytona 5000:" "voice be metal like Von Harper." The actual line is "voice be mellow like Vaughan Harper."

Now, the problem isn't that The Anthology made a transcription mistake... or that the editors didn't research Vaughan Harper's name. The problem is that The Anthology reproduced the same, bizarre alternate word and spelling choices printed on OHHLA's website. And it's not just this Ghostface quote, their other errors also seem to be carry-overs from OHHLA.

What does that mean? Apparently, instead of doing their own research or transcriptions, they just copied OHHLA's work and made some alterations. That's sorta like, yaknow... plagiarism.

Every transcriber is credited on OHHLA for the work they submitted on the actual page of the transcription. But I don't see those credits carried over anywhere in the book. ...I'm glad I don't work in Yale's legal department right now.

Now, on the positive side: they clearly did do some error-correcting. So like I said in my initial write-up, the book's transcripts are more accurate than OHHLA's. But, yeah. Disappointing revelation there.


  1. There is a lot of talk that there are loads of mistakes in this book, this Slate article goes through a few of them -

    Also, the mistakes that have been left in are the same mistakes from OHHLA, so they didn't do their own original transcriptions, just tried to correct some of OHHLA's and printed it up

  2. Ooh. Ouch. That's not a good look. Thanks for the link - I'm gonna have to add an update to this post.

  3. In this rapid-information-at-your- fingertips era having a simple book with lyrics is just not enough.
    Now if they'd done something creative like approach the subject a la Ego Trip stylee then I'd be fiending for a copy.
    The amount of lyrics out there just begging for a humourous spin or a funny dig is something someone should contemplate.

  4. There is a NEW Slate article, with responses from the editors -

    This is one is perhaps even more damning than the first!