PositiveThe Atlantic... not really a history of Atlanta’s emergence as a hub of rap, and doesn’t try to be one. Readers hoping for a beat-by-beat account of how the city became the epicenter of 21st-century hip-hop—tracing the lineage from TLC and OutKast through Ludacris, Young Jeezy, T.I., and Gucci Mane, and culminating with Future and his contemporaries—will have to keep waiting ... The journeys of these thriving Atlanta executives and musicians, like those of successful hip-hop artists who started out on the streets of poor Black neighborhoods in other cities, are compelling ... Still, they are essentially variations on the rags-to-riches yarns that have drawn people to show business for as long as that business has existed. Far more revelatory—and more representative, though rarely written about—are odysseys like Marlo’s and Lil Reek’s ... Given that so much writing about influential pop music is, by definition, a winners’ history, Reek’s experience is especially instructive ... To read Rap Capital as Marlo and Reek veer downward is to have a sense of entering uncharted territory. More than once I felt the effects of the glaring power imbalance between the well-regarded, white New York Times reporter and the ever more desperate Marlo and Lil Reek, for whom a journalist’s attention offers hope but also means exposure of a painful sort; readers may find aspects of this dynamic uncomfortable. Yet Coscarelli brings empathetic detail to his coverage of those who continue to struggle, not just winners; he’s alert to a deeply entrenched pattern of young, frequently poor, overwhelmingly Black musicians being taken advantage of by an industry that has long seen those artists solely as fonts of talent and revenue, only to promptly turn away when one or both appear to run dry ... offers a look at a music world in a time of uncertainty, taking vivid note of new avenues for old forms of exploitation ... From a certain angle, Rap Capital tells a story that’s a lot older than rap, and maybe as old as capital.
Michael Stewart Foley
MixedThe Washington PostFoley is a well-regarded historian and does an excellent job of placing Cash’s life and career within the contexts of his time ... the book can be slippery. Its strongest cases for Cash’s political activity come in chapters about his commitment to prison reform and his outspokenness on Native American issues. But these aspects of Cash’s biography are already well known, and while Foley does give them a fuller sense of dimension and rootedness, there’s not much that’s particularly revelatory. Other chapters find Foley’s \'politics of empathy\' straining to square Cash’s contradictions ... More frustrating is a chapter on Cash’s relationship to the civil rights movement ... Foley’s arguments for Cash as an overlooked egalitarian in this arena can feel far-fetched ... Foley’s book is clearly born of a good-hearted impulse: In a contemporary political landscape marked by tribalism and polarization, an ideologically transcendent \'politics of empathy\' might offer a way out. It’s just not clear that Cash is its exemplar. Citizen Cash is likely to resonate most satisfyingly among Cash die-hards, who’ll thrill to hear why their hero is even nobler than they thought. But for a book that feels like an exhortation to turn our political gaze outward, it’s mostly preaching to the already converted.
PositiveThe Atlantic... an essayistic medley rather than a straight chronological history, with a generous helping of memoir included along the way. The autobiographical jags allow Sanneh to explore his own still-evolving relationship to music, and the various attachments and antipathies he’s picked up and discarded as he goes ... In focusing on how much our sense of musical allegiance is shaped in relation to other people—the theme at the core of Major Labels—Sanneh can be fuzzy about the balance between the collective loving and the collective hating that go into forging tastes and identities; former punk that he is, he doesn’t flinch from defending zealous insularity, even as he also celebrates spiky debate across dividing lines. And his fascination with the cultures and subcultures of different musical genres also prompts a thorny, not-unrelated question: Do musical genres actually refer to music, or do they refer to a set of preordained beliefs about how music should sound, who should make it, and who should listen to it? ... The memoirish bent of Sanneh’s book lends a retrospective quality to his project. He ends up placing a heavier emphasis on what musical genres were rather than what they are—a slant that may lead a younger reader, reared on Spotify instead of Sam Goody stores, to reasonably wonder whether Major Labels is telling a story that’s already over.
RaveSlate... remarkable ... an engrossing and often revelatory book, a capacious, ambitious, and wonderfully crafted synthesis of intellectual and cultural history ... is in some ways an old-fashioned book. It’s a sprawling biography of an era, a work that often feels more like an enormous mural than a linear narrative, a connective and allusive act of creative assemblage. Menand is a historian and a critic, and The Free World openly approaches the writing of cultural history as an act of critical interpretation itself, which it is ... is also at times a history of criticism. Some of the critics taken up here might seem dated on first glance, but by placing them in the context that shaped them, Menand manages to breathe new life into them ... As a critic himself, Menand boasts a sharp observational wit and a knack for a turn of phrase ... One of the pitfalls of writing a combined cultural and intellectual history is that there can be a tendency to privilege culture made by people who most readily self-present as intellectuals, and in the period Menand is chronicling, those people were overwhelmingly white men. To his credit, Menand is upfront about this and often works diligently to counteract it ... Still, The Free World at times feels a bit blindered when it strides past paths not taken ... Parts of the book also feel like tours through territory that’s already well-trod ... But to nitpick the omissions of a book like The Free World is to miss its point, and its length (more than 700 pages, plus endnotes) shouldn’t be confused with an aspiration to comprehensiveness. It’s a work of historical and intellectual curation that in its best moments has the elegance and evocative power of art itself.
RaveSlate... a sweeping, roundtable history, at which Duran Duran sit alongside the Judds, who sit alongside the Minutemen, who sit alongside Rubén Blades, who sits alongside Metallica … you get the picture. It’s also a carefully researched and remarkably ambitious work that immediately takes a place on the shelf of indispensable books about music in the 1980s ... In its best moments, which are frequent, Can’t Slow Down feels like a breakthrough in popular musical historiography. By deemphasizing the boundaries of genre, Matos has constructed a more honest and complete assessment of how pop music is made, circulated, and enjoyed—how it is lived, in other words ... this isn’t to suggest that Can’t Slow Down is a work of overly poptimistic, \'post-genre\' revisionism. If anything, a great deal of the book is about artists negotiating the challenges of market segmentation and radio formats during a time when those structures held tremendous power ... yet while Matos’ writing is infused with real love for much of the music he writes about, he is rightly skeptical of the industry triumphalism that often goes hand in hand with musical nostalgia.
PositiveSlateA hallmark of Perlstein’s work is his blending of political and cultural history, often a tricky balance ... As might be expected from its massive length, Reaganland occasionally sags, and like any kitchen-sink history, it inherently invites quibbles with points of emphasis and omission. Perlstein’s rapid-fire style of chronological narrative is riveting, like the world’s most exciting microfilm scroll, although it can occasionally blur the lines between correlation and causation. It’s not the best book in Perlstein’s series ... If anything, Perlstein deserves credit for his ability to wring two huge and immensely readable books out of such a relatively uncompelling person ... Perlstein’s epic achievement of history has finally come to an end, and I hope that someday Reaganland will, too
RaveSlateAnderson is a great basketball writer...and his material on Harden, Durant, and particularly Westbrook in Boom Town will surely enthrall hoops fans. But Boom Town will also thrill anyone who couldn’t care less about the NBA; at its core, it’s a curious reporter’s portrait of the cultural and civic life of a strange and great city. If you’re a non-Oklahoman, you’ll experience frequent shocks of recognition at the foibles of the modern urban experience; Anderson’s explorations, though, will have you opening your preferred travel app, idly pricing tickets to the Sooner State ... The cast of characters that Anderson has assembled in his book offers an embarrassment of riches, a testament to Anderson’s skills as both a reporter and a historical researcher ... The imaginations of sports and cities reinforce each other rather perfectly, a connection that Boom Town mines for all its possibilities.
Mike Reiss and Mathew Klickstein
MixedSlateIt’s the first book of its kind by a true Simpsons lifer and offers an informative, frequently hilarious, and occasionally frustrating glimpse into the long career of the world’s most famous four-fingered family ... Reiss’ book is stuffed with jokes, many of which are really funny: About two-thirds of the way through, there’s one at the expense of Moe, my favorite Simpsons character, that made me laugh out loud in public. But it never feels like Reiss fully settles on what sort of book he’s trying to write, a behind-the-scenes tour of an iconic show or a personal memoir of a life in comedy writing, with the latter often feeling a bit half-assed ... Springfield Confidential works best as fan service, and I don’t mean that as a dig. Reiss knows his audience, and it’s unlikely that many people will read this book who aren’t already Simpsons obsessives ... Reiss does briefly address the ongoing controversy over the voicing of Apu and does so defensively and poorly ... Mike Reiss wrote the goddamn Simpsons. It can be up to the rest of us to write the great books that the show deserves.
MixedSlateSam Graham-Felsen’s debut novel Green is one of the more charming recent additions to this pile, a heartfelt and unassumingly ambitious book that blends fiction, memoir, and social analysis to lovingly recreate the Hub of Graham-Felsen’s youth, while also directing a well-intentioned if somewhat shaky microscope onto the city’s notoriously shameful racial landscape ...By the book’s end I couldn’t shake the sense that Green is a novel about whiteness written for white people, which isn’t the worst thing in the world—after all, many novels by and for white people never interrogate that whiteness at all. But at a certain point, guiltily obsessing over one’s bystander complicity in the structures of white supremacy becomes just another way of thinking about yourself, and each time the novel seemed to approach a moment of real reckoning, it appeared to lose its nerve. Like a free throw shooter with the yips, the book aims its shots rather than simply taking them. Green is never able to disentangle its critique of the world it inhabits from its nostalgia for it; as such it both illuminates a particular brand of whiteness while also, less fortunately, exemplifying it.
RaveThe AtlanticIn the best full-length treatment of Mitchell yet published, Yaffe follows her from her childhood in postwar Saskatchewan all the way up to a Chick Corea concert last year, her first public appearance after suffering an aneurysm in 2015. Yaffe was granted extraordinary access to the famously standoffish Mitchell, as well as to many of her closest friends and collaborators, including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Joan Baez, David Crosby, Judy Collins, and the late Leonard Cohen. Making the most of his proximity, he pulls off the feat that has eluded so many of his predecessors: He forges an intimacy with Mitchell on her own, uncompromising terms by truly listening to her, as closely and as generously as she’s always deserved ... Yaffe’s greatest accomplishment in Reckless Daughter, stuffed though it is with insightful reporting, is to shed light not just on the artist but also on the art. Yaffe brings a sophisticated and exceptionally careful ear to music that demands nothing less.
RaveSlate...a book like this will always be timely—not merely because its concerns are shamefully perennial, but because it is a work of rare beauty and revelatory honesty ... Between the World and Me is a love letter written in a moral emergency, one that Coates exposes with the precision of an autopsy and the force of an exorcism. Taken as a whole the book is Coates’ attempt to sever America’s ongoing romance with its own unexamined platitudes of innocence and equality, a romance that, in the writer’s telling, 'persists by warring with the known world.'”
RaveSlateThe most significant story that pulses underneath the many taut yarns of Boys Among Men is one of labor. This was a decade in which elite college-age black male athletes—a population that, in terms of value versus compensation, ranks among the most unfairly treated labor pools in modern American society—found a loophole in the Byzantine rules designed to exploit them and worked it until the NBA sewed it closed ... Abrams is a fantastic storyteller, and Boys Among Men unfolds with a broadly chronological structure but with a natural sense for the well-timed digression.