Earlier this summer I was in Barnes & Noble, haunting the Arts & Entertainment section. I was looking for a good book to read on the history of punk music, what I found instead was a really good primer for rap music. Shea Serrano, a former columnist on the now-defunct Grantland website, has crafted a nice introduction to the genre. Far from being definitive, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed provides a nice introduction to a rap novice (such as myself). Like the rather lengthy title suggests, the book is broken up into chapters by year starting in 1979 and ending in 2014, each chapter focuses on the most important song of said year. Serrano opens each chapter simply with a “What This Song Is About” and “Why It’s Important” section before proceeding to wax philosophically about the merits of that years song. This longer, essay portion of each chapter is followed up with a colorful infographic or illustration that ties somehow into the subject matter of the song featured. These are all really amusing, though I didn’t get to enjoy them as fully as I’d would have liked because I bought the Kindle version of the book and most of them didn’t display properly on my iPad.
The Rap Year Book chronicles the maturation of the the genre and illustrates not only the massive creative talent behind the music, but also maps out the various genres and sub-genres that contributed to the birth of rap. Despite being a thoughtful, articulate explanation of why each song is most important song of a particular year, this book is divisive as hell. Anytime one tries to pick “the best of the year” in any subject, there’s going to be some hard choices made. Refreshingly, at the end of every chapter there is a “Rebuttal” section where another writer gives a brief explanation of why an entirely different song from that year is actually the best song. Some of these short mini-essays could have been fleshed out themselves into interesting chapters. I found this to be a ballsy move on Serrano’s part and helps to illustrate just how the author doesn’t 100% fully believe that his picks are the only correct picks for song of the year.
In case your’e wondering, here are Serrano’s picks/chapters of the book:
1979 “Rapper’s Delight” The Sugarhill Gang
1980 “The Breaks” Kurtis Blow
1981 “Jazzy Sensation” Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy Five
1982 “The Message” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
1983 “Sucker M.C.’s” Run-DMC
1984 “Friends” Whodini
1985 “La Di Da Di” Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick
1986 “6 in the Mornin’” Ice-T
1987 “Paid in Full” Eric B. and Rakim
1988 “Straight Outta Compton” N.W.A
1989 “Fight the Power” Public Enemy
1990 “Bonita Applebum” A Tribe Called Quest
1991 “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” Geto Boys
1992 “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” Dr. Dre, featuring Snoop Dogg
1993 “C.R.E.A.M.” Wu-Tang Clan
1994 “Juicy” The Notorious B.I.G.
1995 “Dear Mama” Tupac
1996 “California Love” Tupac, featuring Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman
1997 “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” Puff Daddy, featuring Mase
1998 “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” DMX
1999 “My Name Is” Eminem
2000 “Big Pimpin’” Jay Z, featuring UGK
2001 “Takeover” vs. “Ether” Jay Z vs. Nas
2002 “Grindin’” The Clipse
2003 “In Da Club” 50 Cent
2004 “Still Tippin’” Mike Jones, featuring Slim Thug and Paul Wall
2005 “Gold Digger” Kanye West, featuring Jamie Foxx
2006 “Hustlin’” Rick Ross
2007 “International Players Anthem” UGK, featuring Outkast
2008 “A Milli” Lil Wayne
2009 “Best I Ever Had” Drake
2010 “Monster” Kanye West, featuring Rick Ross, Jay Z, Bon Iver, and Nicki Minaj
2011 “Niggas in Paris” Jay Z and Kanye West
2012 “Same Love” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
2013 “Control” Big Sean, featuring Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica
2014 “Lifestyle” Rich Gang, featuring Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan
Obviously the first chapter, 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, is an important chapter because it kicks off both the book and the genre itself. Other standout chapters (in my humble opinion) are 1989’s “Fight the Power,” 1990’s “Bonita Applebum” (cited here as the “first true rap love song”), and 2006’s “Hustlin.” I really enjoyed the chapter on Rick Ross’ “Hustlin” because I liked finding out what a complete and utter bullshit artist Ross is. The evolution of rap songwriting from brutally autobiographical to the fanciful bullshit stylings of Rick Ross is a fascinating transformation. I also really appreciate how well-represented Kanye West during the 00’s.
There’s a Spotify playlist available that features the songs mentioned in the book and it’s just as essential. Overall, I think the careful thought and intelligent analysis of The Rap Year Book make this a must-read for anyone even remotely interested it the both rap music and modern black art. Even if you don’t agree with all of the choices for song of the year, there is so much good analysis of lyrics, artist backstory, historical context, and in-depth interpretation this is one year book you’ll actually want to revisit.