Rhyme and reason: a lesson in rap history

Author Shea Serrano became a viral sensation in the weeks leading up to the release of his book “The Rap Year Book,” in mid-October. His wildly successful Twitter campaign, which eventually landed him on The New York Times Bestseller List, inspired profiles in GQ, LA Weekly, and Harvard Political Review, as well as a Wired article titled, “How One Man and His Twitter Army Stormed The Bestseller List.”

While the Wired article goes through several steps of how Serrano turned his book into an internet phenomenon — including Twitter giveaways, constant fan interaction, and a comedic feud with a bookseller — it really takes too narrow of a view. Serrano’s book took off over a couple of weeks before its release, but the real work was done in the years before. Serrano was able to create the opportunity to command a “Twitter army” by generating a following through hilarious, intelligent writing on Grantland, and a kind, endearing Twitter presence. Above all else though, Serrano succeeded by writing an outstanding book.

“The Rap Year Book” takes on a massively challenging subject matter, due not only to its complexity, but its immense size as well. Serrano looks to summarize and essentially chart the entire history of rap by pinpointing the single most important hip-hop song of each year since 1979. Serrano immediately shows that the subject matter is in good hands with the first chapter, dedicated to 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.” A discussion about the first rap song ever, or the lack thereof, is tackled with ease and wit, along with an extensive knowledge of rap history.

Serrano’s excellent work on Twitter and Grantland over recent years extends seamlessly into “The Rap Year Book.” His most distinguishable touch is his hysterical non-sequiturs — brilliant tangents that seem to come out of nowhere but always lead somewhere bountiful. The 1992 chapter, dedicated to Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin But A ‘G’ Thang,” starts with this: “Dr. Dre does not seem like that fun of a guy to hang out with, and that’s surprising considering that just about every other fake doctor seems like a real hoot to be around. There’s Dr. J and Dr. Dunkenstein, and those guys are great if you’re super into basketball. There’s Dr. Pepper, and he’s great if you’re super into sugary, carbonated, brown drinks.” He takes a long trip away from the point there, but it is an entertaining introduction to a chapter all about how Dr. Dre started the G-Funk era and made hip-hop fun again after the dominance of dark and threatening gangsta rap.

The book also thrives when the author inserts himself into the book. One of the book’s strongest chapters revolves around “La Di Da Di” by Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick and features a particularly captivating story about a young Shea finding a man’s wallet with a one-hundred dollar bill, running into the owner of the wallet at a gift store, and pretending he didn’t have the wallet only to find out the bill had a picture of Jesus where a dead president should be. Later on, he features an excellent story about a friend who taught him about race relations by making him fight a group of white guys.

The 2001 chapter serves as the most excellent in the book, as well as the most unique. It’s the only chapter addressing multiple songs, Jay Z’s “Takeover” and Nas’ “Ether.” The relationship between these two songs is one of the most fascinating in music history, and Serrano mines it fantastically. The chapter starts with exposition about who Jay Z and Nas were, as well as who they are now. It then shifts into the timeline of their beef, and concludes with seven questions and answers, eventually deciding on the superior song as well as the winner of their feud. It’s not surprising that this is the chapter’s strongest book given the strength of the source material. But the bigger benefit to the chapter is its length. It’s the longest chapter in the book, and it serves as an argument that the whole book should be longer. Serrano serves as a guide so knowledgable and charming, the trip really can’t go on long enough.

The book is also bolstered by rebuttals at the end of each chapter from some of the best writers on earth, including but not limited to Meaghan Garvey, Rembert Browne, Sean Fennessey, Jayson Greene, and Greg Howard. The best rebuttal comes in response to Serrano’s most surprising choice: “Same Love” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for 2012, where Jeff Rosenthal responds by insisting the real most important song of 2012 is Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance,” an assertion that is hard to argue with. The book is also made all the better by Arturo Torres’ gorgeous illustration.

Taking on the history of rap was a bold choice for an author with only one book under his belt. But the results suggest that Serrano would have been doing his readers a service by writing many books before and will continue to do us a service by writing many great ones in the future.