The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song from Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed

Book review by
Kyle Jackson, Common Sense Media
The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song from Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed Book Poster Image
Smart, funny, and informative chronology of rap history.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Highly informative and chronological approach to the history of rap music, featuring an extensive discography far beyond the main list of "important" songs.

Positive Messages

By presenting hip-hop culture in a positive and self-serious light, author Serrano embraces the music and musicology in a way few scholars have been able or willing to do. Rap is revealed for what it is: a revolutionary, competitive, forum for expression and communication, particularly within communities of color.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though readers can admire the independence, perseverance, and cultural significance of many of the figures in the book, some might bristle at the thought of glorifying the exploits of such rap heroes as 50 Cent (former drug kingpin, shot nine times), Jay-Z (former drug dealer, stabbed a man in a club for leaking his album), and DMX (repeat offender). However, the book views the icons here -- most of whom are not criminals -- through a sympathetic lens, focusing on how their tremendous successes were the result of timing, endurance, and an ability to tap into the zeitgeist.

Violence

Though the humor is offbeat and very tongue in cheek, there are quite a few anecdotes about violent incidents involving many of the rappers and their associates. Additionally, many of the lyrics referenced and quoted depict assaults, shootings, and worse.

Sex

Rap has long been a genre willing to speak directly about sex, often in graphic detail and in a misogynistic tone. Accordingly, the book features a number of quotes from lyrics that are barely appropriate for mature audiences. Serrano also highlights a number of good hip-hop "love songs," some of which are more tasteful than others.

Language

Throughout the book, swear words are used and quoted regularly, including a bar graph of the frequency of swear words used by NWA on their classic album, Straight Outta Compton, including "f--k," "motherf----r," "s--t," "bitch," and on and on, with practically every obscenity in the dictionary. Similar to rap music, this book has language that may offend readers sensitive to explicit content.

Consumerism

Though Serrano's assessment of the "importance" of many of the songs is directly tied to the commercial achievements of each record, the analysis goes beyond simplistic and conventional definitions of popularity and significance. The bombastic and outlandish materialism of rap music is thoroughly displayed and skewered, such as in the comprehensive list of "Rap videos with less impressive boats [than the yacht used in Jay-Z's 'Big Pimpin'' video]."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Rappers love to rap about drinking various high-priced liquors and doing or dealing all types of drugs, including cocaine but particularly endless amounts of marijuana. As such, The Rap Year Book contains a plethora of references to illicit substances.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Rap Year Book is a highly entertaining, engaging, humorous, and honest anecdotal chronology of the history of rap music by Shea Serrano, a knowledgeable contributor to the music website Pitchfork and the former sports website Grantland. There are quite a few anecdotes about violent incidents involving many of the rappers and their associates. Additionally, many of the lyrics referenced and quoted depict assaults, shootings, and worse. The language and content of many of the lyrics quoted throughout are explicit, so, in the words of NWA, "Parental discretion is advised." This informative book would make a great gift for any rap fan or a teen just getting into hip-hop.

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What's the story?

THE RAP YEAR BOOK traces the history of rap music by highlighting the most "important" song of each year, from rap's commercial debut in 1979 with "Rapper's Delight" all the way up through 2014's inescapable smash hit "Lifestyle" by Rich Gang. The list was determined solely by the opinion of the author, Pitchfork and Grantland contributor Shea Serrano, whose blog-happy, short-form style lends itself well to this brief but informative overview of pop culture's dominant force for more than 35 years.

Is it any good?

Hilarious anecdotes, insightful cultural commentary, and well-researched analysis are a constant throughout these colorful pages. The wry storytelling and silly lists (such as "Eminem Picks on People" and "DMX Death Threats by Type") are accompanied by goofy charts (such as a "Rap Rivalries" infographic and "Tupac & Biggie Timeline") and gloriously evocative caricatures of the rappers by illustrator Arturo Torres, whose imagery is essential to The Rap Year Book's appeal.

Serrano's anthology serves as an ideal, millennial-friendly introduction to the ethnomusicology of rap. Scores of influential songs are noted, recommended, and compiled in the index, offering the reader a path to further exploration and investigation of the deep annals of this authentically American art form. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about rap's progression from a completely underground, largely regional movement into a multibillion-dollar industry, popular throughout the world. What is it about the message and the music that resonate with people across generations and continents?

  • Is it fair to be critical of the misogyny, materialism, and violence depicted in rap songs while still being a fan and consumer of the music? At what point does the promotion of bad values begin to have a negative impact on the culture at large?

  • If you were making your own list of the most important rap songs (or pop or rock songs), what would be on it?

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