So I thought I'd do a little 3 in 1 book review since a few books I've read in the last 3 months have a similar theme. All three were pretty fluffy reads, but sometimes I can't resist letting my mind run on auto pilot while in the bathtub after answering phones all day. So here's goes.
1. "I Make my Own Rules" by LL Cool J
I got this as kind of a gag gift from my brother in law for Christmas. Seriously, this book is pretty awful, but I had to get through it. LL was kind of responsible for my initial interest in the world of Hip Hop. We never had cable growing up, and some of our family friends, the Morgans, occasionally would give my sister's tapes that had 6 hrs of the Disney Channel or MTV recorded over them. We all got to know those video cassettes pretty well. Most of the stuff on there was Paula Abdul or whatever, but I remember one tape specifically because it was pretty much my first actual encounter with Hip Hop. It was 1990, I was like 6 years old, and Momma Said Knock You Out was the most incredible thing I had ever heard. I may have heard Vanilla Ice before that or something, and I probably liked it, but this was on another plane to me. Honestly I didn't understand everything he was saying, but the braggadocio was so intense that you HAD to believe that he actually believed the things he was saying about himself.
That was the only song I ever knew until about 8th grade when I kid in my class had Walking with a Panther in his Disc man. This was a year before downloading and burning CD's became common in most households, so I couldn't get a copy of it from him, but I borrowed it and listened to it over and over again on the stereo in my room with my cheap headphones plugged in. It was mostly something about how weird he was. Nobody else was gonna rap the line "The pudding is delicious", except for him. Look at how spastic he is in this video:
No matter how much people jump around on stage, they won't look as crazy as LL used to when he was some excited eager kid. The no shirt thing works for Lil Wayne, but LL perfected it. I make a pretty distict homage to his video for I'm that type of guy in my Peach Fuzz video.
Anyway, the book kind of spoils all that, it was written in 1997, which is right at the point where I lose interest in his whole career. Of all three of these books, this one is the most painful to read. The most interesting moments are about his turbulent relationship with his father. His dad once got so angry he came to the house with a shotgun and ended up shooting his mother and grandfather. They recovered, but his father moved to California and changed his name and was never prosecuted. Later in life LL hired his father to come be his manager, and as you might have guessed, that didn't turn out so hot either. For all the violence he experienced as a child it's actually surprising that his lyrics are some of the least violent in mainstream rap.
LL tends to overdo it on some of the drama and motivational stories. My favorite chapter is called "Cry School", the title strikes me as funny because it's the easiest pun in the world. It's like he was thinking, "I've got to come up with another punny chapter heading,, yeah, that'll work, because I cried alot in high school!". He talks about how he was made fun of for his skinny legs and big lips and how hard it was for him. You would never think LL had self confidence issues. But I guess you could say the same for Comedians and actors, projecting themselves into a character maybe helps them deal with that.
Mostly, his advice tend to be things like, "Keepin' it real ain't about carrying a gun and smoking blunts. I'ts about being true to yourself and those around you." and "A relationship-any relationship-only works when two people are growing together." At the end of the day LL is a family man who's life is a lot less glamorous or exciting as his supercharged youthful music was. I'm not surprised, but the little kid singing "Mama said Knock you Out" inside of me died a little.
2. "Decoded" by Jay Z
This book came out last year and was marketed as a high end coffee table book--a compilation of lyrics, explanations, pictures, and stories. As a piece of art I would say that the book works rather well. It's fun to look at and well designed. As a memoir, there are a few great moments. Jay is at his strongest when he is telling stories. It's why his music is compelling, he rarely makes you feel like you have to agree or disagree with the narrator. When he tells stories about the industry or his childhood the images are vivid and detailed. When he begins to talk about government, social issues, or possible solutions, the logic gets clouded and he starts to become too self aggrandizing for my taste. I actually believe the Jay has certain moments in his music where he makes powerful arguments in a clear and precise way, but he seems to contradict himself a lot in this book. Even points of contention are easy to agree with him on aren't framed well.
As a lyric book, I would say the project is the weakest. I don't feel like his explanations of his lyrics do anything to deepen them or make them any stronger. Sure, to the outsider it might be helpful to understand what certain slang is referring to, but by the tenth time he talks about how the song is reflecting "the hustler's mentality", I get a bit bored. I had to skip several lyric pages just to get through the book. A good storyteller does not need to make a "making of" book. I'd prefer they tell stories that inspired the lyrics instead of talk about exactly what the lyrics are supposed to inspire.
My biggest complaint is that the book is not more personal. The most exciting parts talk about controversy in his career. He talks about the Oasis Glastonbury feud and about about his disagreements with Oprah, and about a few of his run ins with the police, but very little else is all that thick. I wanted to hear about his falling out with Jaz, his issues with Diplomat and Jim Jones, his relationship with Beyonce of course....but he offers no real information. Also, even the portion of the book where he talks about his life as a hustler is never specific. He talks about certain practices, but no detailed story telling, and that was disappointing.
I also wanted him to talk more about his transition from a speed rapper to a storyteller, because the shift in creative direction is intriguing to me.
3. “The Tao of Wu” by the RZA
Last but not least I picked up the Tao of RZA at Border’s closing sale last week for %70 off. Out of the 3 books I probably enjoyed this one the most. The writing was definitely the strongest, but I think a lot of credit could go to the fact that he had a co-writer to organize all of his thoughts. Basically, RZA sat down and did just rambled about his philosophies for a several hours and the co-writer organized it into something more cohesive. Like Jay-Z, RZA is at his strongest when telling the stories.
The best thing to me about the Wu-Tang clan is how they made connections with other mythology and applied it to themselves. RZA doesn’t just like Kung-Fu movies, he feels like they embody his life. To RZA, Chess is Hip Hop, Kung-Fu is Hip Hop, Religion is Hip Hop. He is skilled at absorbing and integrating the things he loves into his music, like the ultimate fan boy. RZA is at heart a just a huge nerd who is extremely talented in emulating his influences. Because of this, he spends most of the time talking about his various obsessions and showing how he uses them in his music. He doesn’t sound humble either, but at least his excitement seems more about his influences than himself.
When RZA does get introspective about his career, he mentions that he has never had as powerful production as he did in the early days. He has made thousands of beats, but they are not as appreciated because they are too polished. He feels like not knowing the techniques makes for a better project. Being an expert in something means you won't make anything new necessarily.
RZA’s weakest moments are when he attempts to explain certain doctrines of principle. To me statements like “Knowledge is Power and Power is Water and Water is also Love because it’s all around us.” are just Gobbledigook. Talking about the “12 jewels” is nice at all, but I’m more of a fan of practical information that the theoretical concepts that RZA is into. He’s better off writing about how he used to snatch guns out of people’s hands than he writing about the practice of meditation and oneness.
Also, I wanted more information on conflict within the Wu-Tang. He seems only comfortable when dwelling on the times when they were a cohesive unit, and doesn’t get into their current differences and conflicts. He mentions Raekwon saying, “RZA, you want to make peaceful music, I want to make music that’s basically punching people in the face,” and that quote almost begs for more information about their conflicting views. Currently, Raekwon and Ghostface are the only really relevant members of the Wu-Tang Clan, so it would have been interesting to read how he feels about their approach.
I just wrote way too much that nobody will probably read. Congrats if you made it to the end. Next time, I’ll review “Life” by Keith Richards. Read up if you want to discuss it with me.