Over a series of short chapters, each centered on a different lyric, Daniel Levin Becker considers how rap's use of language operates and evolves at levels ranging from the local (slang, rhyme) to the analytical (quotation, transcription) to the philosophical (morality, criticism, irony), celebrating the pleasures and perils of any attempt to decipher its meaning-making technologies.
... an often hilarious, surprisingly moving and always joyful paean to rap’s relationship to words ... The 'notes' in the subtitle is correct: This is not a thesis, an argument or a history. Like Shea Serrano’s best-selling rap compendiums, What’s Good welcomes you on almost any page you turn to, but builds sneaky resonances for those reading straight through. Levin Becker borrows more than a few tricks from the artists he’s studying, and he’s also clearly learned more than a little from the hip-hop writer Dave Tompkins, whose dizzying involutions and verbal acrobatics come closest to the anarchic feel of rap music ... His refreshingly catholic taste is one reason Levin Becker is able to tug at threads some writers miss. There’s a generous helping of early-1980s party hip-hop, for example, which is usually skimmed over in any overview as a sort of prehistory ... As with any study of a vernacular art, things occasionally get goofy ... But more often than not, he’s playful, brainy fun on the glorious violence that rappers visit upon sound, sense and syntax. Even the most rudimentary language games and simplistic punch lines yield insights ... He’s also piercingly smart about his place as a white observer in a Black art form ... Levin Becker is able to recognize himself in the language without tying himself in knots or turning the focus away from the artists he discusses ... What shines through, after nearly 300 occasionally dizzying pages, is the purity and intensity of Levin Becker’s devotion.
Levin Becker has an infectious, Whitmanesque enthusiasm for rap’s demotic versifying but sometimes lapses into mannered critical theory...Still, his writing crackles when his shrewd insights collide with punchy evocations of hip-hop’s vigor and style ... Music aficionados and hip-hop lovers will savor every bit.
Levin Becker delivers stunningly deep readings of 50 Cent’s In Da Club and takes odd swipes at Jay-Z’s occasional nods to rhymes from other rappers, and he discusses the use of the N-word and hip-hop’s preoccupation with drug dealing as a metaphor or plot point. Whether or not you agree with the author’s feelings on those issues, or even the success of the book itself, will likely depend on your point of view and interest in the minutiae of lyrics and song construction—not to mention asides on nearly every page. Levin Levin Becker is candid about how his life differs from those of many rappers ... overstuff his chapters with examples to back his points. He often offers five when one will do, slowing down the narrative and cluttering the argument ... Levin Becker’s knowledge and passion are unquestionable, but he tries too hard to argue why hip-hop should be taken seriously when it can easily speak for itself ... Unnecessarily dense analysis whose appeal will be limited to die-hard hip-hop fans.