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Rappers, Signified

Owen Duff

Mark Costello & David Foster Wallace
Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present
2013 (1st ed. Back Bay Books, 1990)
176 pp.



Here is a certain stereotyped account of the average lifespan of a given pop act. A given pop act comes into being and is excellent, transgressive and marginal for a period of twenty to thirty months. Then it is discovered. It flourishes briefly. Then the critics have their way with it: the act succumbs to the flattery of its published exponents, suffocates in their discourse and, utterly enfeebled, becomes worthy of them. Think, for example, of the sabotage-by-praise of Tracy Chapman in the 1990s, or of Kanye West now. One might even go so far as to attribute Kendrick Lamar’s critical success to his insulation from the reviewing community; one instance, perhaps, in which faith and religion save. Indeed, the hazards of the artist/critic relationship are particularly marked in rap. The genre is, by its own account, a full contact sport, competitive to the bone and in some sense more dependent on critics and reviewers than other kinds of music. Hip-hop’s requirement of judges and referees is so great it will often search them out in contexts foreign to its own; this may in part explain the strange prestige in rap of a WASP’s nest such as Pitchfork. To be sure, this prestige is not taken for granted. That the white hip-hop critic’s opinion is irrelevant and even poisonous to rap is a kind of sub-theme of J. Cole’s later work. He drew a line in 2016 between “street” and “Pitchfork rappers”, and has drawn nothing but the ire of the latter ever since. Cole’s albums are, indeed, frequently trashed on that website, and his case may be exemplary of a more general antagonism between rap and rap criticism, one in which the division between artist and critic looks suspiciously like a racial divide, and the critic’s “authority” like privilege.

A suspicion of this kind, regarding the relation of critic to artist generally, particularly in the context of rap criticism, informs much of Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present, David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello’s 1990 book on ’80s hip-hop. Just as rap, in spite of itself, needs critics, rap critics, in a more straightforward and at the same time ambiguous sense, need rap. It is the ambiguous sense of this need that interests Costello and Wallace. They doubt, over the course of seventeen essays, not only their own motivations for writing about rap, but the substance and quality of their interest in the genre. The work is in some sense an apology for a category of music neither critic is entirely proud to enjoy.

Perhaps rap critics need rap merely as an occasion to write? Wallace admits this as a possibility within the first forty pages of the book (rap is for him “fertile land”), and indeed Signifying Rappers, as a work of prose, is a kind of exercise in the mixture of vulgarity and wit at which Wallace excelled (and which is now, incidentally, something of an in-house style at Pitchfork). His written style might be called conversational. It is intensely sincere, and frequently surprising; he is often discovering some unforeseen complexity or parallel, as when, for example, he suggests that the appeal rap holds for white audiences is equivalent to that of a horror-film because both, in a sense, are designed to inspire fear. Costello, for his part, is more measured, favouring the slow reveal: his chapters proceed by a gradual dilation of context that culminates in an irony or paradox, as, for instance, when he shows via an Aerosmith sample how Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk this Way” is a sort of incestuous reunion of rap and blues.

There are countless reversals and inversions of this kind in Signifying Rappers, from both Costello and Wallace. Rap, as Costello observes in the introduction, has an “easy postmodernity”, in part because of its use of samples and in part because of the self-referential nature of its lyrics. The theme of sampling, for instance, opens naturally onto questions of origin and purity; the self-referentiality of the lyrics, meanwhile (much rap lyricism, from the ’70s and ’80s at least, is writing that seems to do little more than assert its own value as writing, e.g. “my verse is excellent, better than yours”) is useful for discussions of constative and performative language. Signifying Rappers, then, is part account and part document of a certain kind of white appreciation of hip-hop, one that could be classified as academic, and consisting largely in the application of literary theory to the texts of what Wallace terms “serious rap”. The ambiguous side of Costello and Wallace’s need for rap is perhaps, frequently but not exclusively, the need to practice and expound theory.

But what is more, Wallace and Costello are arguing that rap itself constitutes a kind of poststructuralism. This is a striking claim, and problematic in at least one instance. Wallace refers at several points to the “’80s loop reversal” that rap has mastered, which seems to be, roughly, the deconstructive technique of reversing the hierarchy or order of a set of terms. He gives the example that rock and roll lyrics often misuse the formulae of love poetry in order to express crude or vulgar ideas. “Baby here is my love”, for instance, really means “Baby, here is my dick”. Rap’s “loop reversal”, by contrast, is to make the particular stand for the abstract. When Chuck D raps “I show you my gun / My Uzi weighs a ton”, he is referring to the force of his message, not the firepower of his weapon. The lyric, then, is self-referential, and reverses the order of the formula encountered in the rock and roll song. Wallace later claims that rap in the ’80s performed the same “reversal” on Reaganomics, by making explicit, through its wonted self-reference, the vanity and greed implicit in that administration’s financial policy. The victims of Reaganomics in this way also exemplified and exposed its worst principles, and Wallace styles this outcome as a deliberate critique on hip-hop’s part of supply-side economics. At the same time, however, he suggests that there may have been something in the culture of hip-hop, a manner of “openness” and “lack of inhibition” with respect to “sexuality, drugs, religion [and] self-esteem” which meant that things could not have turned out otherwise. So he appears to want it both ways: rap as ironic, postmodern reflexivity, and rap as expression of a more original or intuitive relation to certain human desires. Perhaps it can be both, but the allowance for a natural “openness” does seem incompatible with the kind of self-reflexivity that Wallace elsewhere imputes to rap. The conclusion may be simply that an accurate reading of a text is always possible but a possible reading not always accurate.

In addition to poststructural application, Wallace and Costello identify rap as better suited than other forms of pop music to effect political change, or, at least to articulate certain truths about American culture. This is perhaps the other half of the critics’ ambiguous need: rap is, for them, the clearest reflection of a set of realities, a “peculiarly modern American despair”, that other popular art either cannot or will not face. It is fair to wonder, then, what Costello and Wallace would make of contemporary rap, that tearful, medicated scion of boom-bap, so much more reflexive, albeit perhaps more mundanely, than its forebears, and so much less political. Indeed, contemporary rap might be considered a partial inheritor of the genre of melancholy that Wallace put to words a decade ago in Infinite Jest. All pop music, rap in particular, ends up worthy of its critics.


Owen Duff is reading for an M.Phil in Modern Languages at Balliol College, Oxford.