The history of rap music, told against the backdrop of race relations in post–civil rights America.
The story of this powerfully influential and yet surprisingly little-understood American musical genre has been told several times in the past few years; there would seem little need for yet one more account. Journalist Reeves’s first book more than makes the case for its necessity, however, even if the going is rocky at times. Couched in the lively prose of a cultural reporter, his thesis is that generations with little direct connection to the civil-rights or black-power eras find in rap culture “the popular voice of America’s black, brown, and white underclass. (Those huddled masses yearning to breathe free and, one day, [be] rich enough to drive off in a Bentley.)” To illustrate this idea, Reeves takes readers through a muscular narrative of rap music that gets more done by leapfrogging from one milestone to the next, avoiding the risk of spreading itself thin by attempting to be definitive. Each chapter places a particular artist or group in the context of what was happening simultaneously in racial politics, whether it was the assault on black teenagers at Howard Beach that inspired Run-D.M.C. or the Million Man March with Tupac Shakur. This format forces Reeves to make some rather abrupt transitions, segueing from a vibrant take on the factors that contributed to the rise and fall of a particular rap icon to a racially tinged news development that doesn’t always relate. He has clearly done more research on the music side; his chapter on the psychology of Public Enemy is especially on-target. His attempt to suss out what exactly rap means in the modern black community is incisive and hopeful without succumbing to the hyperbolic claims common to music journalists.
Energetic music analysis that’s both celebratory and unusually honest.