'The Rap Year Book' Reformats Hip-Hop History

Through colorful illustrations, irreverent humor, and informed writing, The Rap Year Book strikes a perfect balance between incisive commentary and goofy charm.

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

Publisher: Abrams Image
Length: 240 pages
Author: Shea Serrano
Price: $18.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-10

Books about music history and pop culture can rarely be described as “charming” or “playful”, so when one comes around that manages to be both educationally useful and shamelessly fun, it commands attention.

Music commentator Shea Serrano’s The Rap Year Book seems tailor-made to counter every criticism levied against routine, overly generalized music retrospectives. The writing is conversational, the layouts are flashy and attractive, and the concept itself -- breaking down the most important rap song of every year from the genre’s generally accepted date of birth in 1979 to the present -- while it may seem limiting on paper, actually proves to be the perfect combination of accessible and informative.

Combine this with Serrano’s playful, deadpan sense of humor and dozens of bright, colorful, and offbeat cartoons by illustrator Arturo Torres (featuring depictions of Kanye and Jay-Z on a movie poster, Dr. Dre in scrubs, Drake using a pottery wheel, and more) and The Rap Year Book becomes the first rap history book to have a little something for everybody.

As a practical resource, The Rap Year Book is pretty good. Serrano vividly paints in the many gray areas of rap’s uneven timeline -- between “Rapper’s Delight” and “The Message”, “Sucker M.C.’s” and “Paid in Full”, “Dear Mama” and “My Name Is” -- with a clear and nuanced explanation of the underlying, sometimes forgotten progression between them. In more generic accounts of the genre’s past, many of the early advancements in rap music are ultimately made to feel less accomplished because the form went through a development so accelerated that the genre’s fans have internalized many once-revolutionary progressions. Serrano breaks down the evolution of hip-hop into simple, light-hearted, easy to understand fragments so that the context becomes visible again. He wisely chooses songs which represent a rift in hip-hop’s evolution, not just those which have been gradually canonized through radio and chart success.

In the event that he’s overly subjective in his song picks (and he often is), he even self-reflexively acknowledges it and deconstructs the choice. In his 2004 chapter on “Still Tippin’” by Mike Jones, Serrano acknowledges that Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks” is probably the best song of that year, but argues that Jones gets the “Most Important” spot because his song briefly put the city of Houston center stage in the rap world while “Jesus Walks” “(mostly) didn’t accomplish anything broader than its own success,” which is fairly incisive analysis for a book with an unhealthy amount of genitalia-based humor. Serrano crucially always gives an easily defensible reason for his picks in every section, and in case even that is not enough, he invites a separate acclaimed professional music critic to make a short rebuttal for each chapter in which they make their case for their own top pick.

At the same time, none of this accurately illustrates the truly imaginative vision at work in The Rap Year Book that readily separates it from the rote nature of too many scholarly genre deconstructions. In the chapter on Eric B. & Rakim’s immortal “Paid in Full”, for example, Serrano fittingly compares Rakim’s talents as an MC to Michael Jordan’s enduring stature as basketball’s greatest player ever, but he doesn’t settle for the bland, naked analogy. Instead, in a wildly creative move, he asks longtime ESPN writer/editor Henry Abbott to list some of the ways Michael Jordan changed the game of basketball, and subsequently lays that template over Rakim’s presence in rap culture to explain why he’s considered among the greats. It’s that kind of bold, humorous, and novel treatment of hip-hop’s history that makes The Rap Year Book a pleasure to read and absorb, and the kind of ingenuity that doesn’t usually have a place in music histories or rigidly structured list-based pop culture reference books but that Serrano refreshingly builds his work around.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the book’s wide range of charts and infographics peppering the chapters with concepts spanning from the infantile (bar graphs illustrating every swear word used in Straight Outta Compton) and absurd (a collection of pie graphs charting out Drake’s mood over his first four albums) to the genuinely informative. Many of these prove to be practically useless (particularly the all-too-common filler charts in which Serrano cherry picks lyrics from the songs to break down into vague and inconsistent categories) but they’re at least each amusing in their own specific ways, and more than that, they liven up Serrano’s often drifting comic monologues with easy-to-digest and visually absorbing material. The real virtue of The Rap Year Book’s sporadic and dynamic format is that, if you lose interest in something on the page, there’s always something else next page over that will probably appeal.

The key to The Rap Year Book’s high quality is its versatility as a resource and the fact that it’s a smart read for anyone with a genuine interest in the subject or just looking for a quick laugh. It’s a densely colorful, approachable, and whimsical history of hip-hop that somehow, through all of that, also manages to inform.

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