By now, you’ve probably read the Slate article documenting the numerous transcription errors in this book (If not, you can read it here). Paul Devlin does an excellent job in not only pointing out the mistakes made, but showcasing how difficult it can be to decipher the many layers of meanings in the lyrics of different emcees. This leads me to more questions regarding the contents and layout of the book, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

The book has an excellent forward by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and two afterwords, one by Chuck D and one by Common. They all praise the book and provide some nice context for the material within. Adam Bradley studied at Harvard with Gates and is currently an associate professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. He seems greatly invested in the study of the power of words in the realm of hip hop. Andrew DuBois is an associate professor at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. In the ironies of all ironies, he is the co-editor of Close Reading: The Reader. I can’t speak much to his work outside of this book.

The way this book is presented, we are supposed to finally get a tome of hip hop lyrics, gathered as a poetry collection. It’s a good idea in theory. In practice, it seems like they green lit an unfinished product. The lyrics themselves have been debated by the publishers, who claim that they have been rigorously vetted. This claim just seems like more people are signing off on a product without looking at it closely.

I’d like to address the rest of the content of the book. The overall structure of the book makes sense. It’s broken up into four eras. Adding a fifth wildcard section doesn’t though. The intro for that section claims that they were running out of space and could only gesture toward other artists work. This is just lazy construction on their part. Why not take the time and put these songs in the sections they belong?

It is also in this section that the book’s most glaring and most easily verified factual error comes into to play. In the transcription to “Passin’ Me By” by the Pharcyde, THEY MATCH UP THE WRONG EMCEE TO THE WRONG VERSE. They attribute the first verse to Fatlip (actually Imani), miss the transition from Bootie Brown to Tre, who actually comes in on the line “Back as kids we used to kiss…” and then attribute the part where Imani comes back in to Tre. Fatlip’s verse is then attributed to Imani. YOU CANNOT DEFEND THIS AS OPEN TO INTERPRETATION; THIS IS A GLARING MISTAKE AND POOR EDITING.

There are other errors in the book or explanations so poor that they will make you want to check their validity. In the intro for the section on Eyedea & Abilities, it states that “Part of Rhymesayers label along such acts as Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, Sage Francis, and Blueprint, E&A have helped to define the Twin Cities hip-hop scene.” Now, the wording of the sentence is a little tricky, so I’m going to give the writers the benefit of the doubt and let them include both people on Rhymesayers and people from the Twin Cities. Aesop Rock? In his section, a mere 57 pages earlier, we learn he went to Boston University and is signed to Definitive Jux. He claims New York as home. The only thing I can think of is that he produced Felt 3: A Tribute to Rosie Perez, which was released on Rhymesayers. So while you could argue that including him on the list is technically correct, in practice it is very misleading and not helpful in understanding Rhymesayers or the Twin Cities scene. Atmosphere is obviously necessary to include on the list. Sage Francis has released albums on anticon., Lex, Epitaph, and his own imprint, Strange Famous. He is from Providence, Rhode Island. I’m not sure why he is on this list. Blueprint has released material on Rhymesayers, but claims Columbus, Ohio as his home. This should probably be clarified. The first song included is from the Oliver Hart album, with no explanation as to what the album or the pen name means.

As mentioned earlier, the book is divided into eras. However, once you get into these sections, they just go through the artists alphabetically. This is an easy way to organize things, but it misses out on the opportunity to group the artists in such a way that the lyrics can dialogue with each other. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to group the L.A. gangsta rap together or all the Native Tongues groups, so that we can see how they relate? Where this really becomes apparent is when songs don’t just complement each other, but are in direct conversation with each other. Nas’ “Ether” is included in the collection but not Jay-Z’s “Takeover.” Not only is it not included, it’s not even mentioned. “Ether” was written in direct response to Jay-Z’s attacks. Wouldn’t this be pertinent information to include in the collection? Or even a mention of Mos Def’s “Rapeover,” which used Jay-Z’s song as a platform to attack the record industry.

It’s this lack of context that hurts the anthology the most. There are no footnotes or any supplemental material to accompany the lyrics. This might be acceptable in other forums, but when the interpretations of the lyrics are questionable in the first place, shouldn’t you explain where you got them from, or why you are interpreting it that way? Also, hip hop is one of our most referential art forms. Assuming the reader will catch all of them is a lot to ask.

I admire the intent of this work, but am severely disappointed by the finished product. If someone handed me this copy as a first draft, I would be excited about the potential of the project, but aware that it would require more work before it was fit to be published. The correctness of the lyrics may be argued to some degree, but errors such as the ones mentioned above are the product of bad editing. This reflects poorly on Bradley and DuBois and Yale Press. If I were them I’d be embarrassed. This book could have been amazing, inspiring us to treat the lyrics of hip hop with high regard, listening closer and thinking harder. Instead, we get a book that reflects poorly on all involved, and that’s a damn shame.