In Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop (2009), Adam Bradley set out to establish the literary merits of rap music, arguing that rappers are some of the most vibrant and talented poets we have today. Book of Rhymes was by no means the first work to acknowledge rap as poetry; anthologies such as Ishmael Reed’s From Totems to Hip Hop, Riverside’s Call and Response, and The Norton Anthology of African American Literature had already presented rap lyrics in distinctly literary contexts. However, it was likely the first book-length study of the tropes and formal techniques employed in rap lyrics and the first extended justification for understanding rap within a poetic, rather than largely musical, tradition. With Yale’s release of The Anthology of Rap in 2010, Bradley and co-editor Andrew DuBois have built upon Bradley’s Book of Rhymes to produce another first: as they note in the opening lines of their introduction, their book “is the first anthology of lyrics representing rap’s recorded history from the late 1970s to the present. It tells the story of rap as lyric poetry” (xxix). For this reason alone, Henry Louis Gates suggests, The Anthology of Rap is a groundbreaking collection that “masterfully assembles part of a new vanguard of American poetry” (xxvi).
Scaling upwards of 900 pages, The Anthology of Rap compiles the lyrics to nearly 300 songs from a wide variety of artists over rap’s thirty-year history. The lyrics are grouped into four historical periods: The Old School (1978–1984), The Golden Age (1985–1992), The Mainstream (1993–1999), and The New Millennium (2000–2010). At the beginning of each section, the editors provide insightful descriptions of the most salient lyrical changes and innovations during the period in question; before the lyrics of each new artist, they provide a brief biography. At the end of the whole, there is an oddly placed “Lyrics for Further Study” section with songs from rappers whose work is not represented within the main segments of the book. These artists (including heavyweights Missy Elliott, EPMD, and Naughty By Nature) do not receive biographies even though their critical acclaim and influence outshine some [End Page 719] of the artists (e.g., Eyedea & Abilities, Devin the Dude, and Bahamadia) who are deemed worthy of biographies earlier in the anthology. Since the historical sections of the book cover the entirety of rap’s recorded history, it is unclear why any of these “further” artists—particularly those of Elliott and company’s caliber—were not folded into them.
Perhaps the most difficult part of assembling an anthology is the seemingly straightforward business of deciding what to include. All things considered, the editors handle this well, making sure to embrace rappers across time periods and balancing commercially successful performers with equally talented, but less well known, underground acts. This is, after all, an anthology meant to illustrate rappers’ lyrical prowess, and as fans of hip hop are well aware, the most skilled MCs are not necessarily those who have the largest fan base, or contracts with major record labels. In addition, Bradley and DuBois do an admirable job of representing female contributions—particularly important within hip hop scholarship, which sometimes presents rap in exclusively masculine terms—without exaggerating, and thereby distorting, their influence in an unquestionably male-dominated genre. And they achieve all of this balance even while navigating the labyrinthine process of securing lyrical permissions to songs that often have multiple stakeholders. The thirty-eight-page “Credits” section reveals just how much time and effort went into acquiring these lyrics—yet as the absence of work by giants such as Outkast attests, the process of getting permissions is sometimes too onerous, even for a press with the power and prestige of the Yale brand.
The editors also deserve credit for their attempt to provide clean transcriptions of the lyrics, which rap’s dense and changing slang, coded references, intentional mispronunciations, and sometimes blazing-fast delivery defy at every turn. Indeed, aside from compiling such a wide range of...