Daniel Levin Becker in conversation with Ian S. Port
celebrating the release of Daniel Levin Becker’s new book
What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language
published by City Lights Books
What’s Good is a work of passionate lyrical analysis, a set of freewheeling liner notes, and a love letter to the most vital American art form of the last half century. Over a series of short chapters, each centered on a different lyric, Daniel Levin Becker considers how rap’s use of language operates and evolves at levels ranging from the local (slang, rhyme) to the analytical (quotation, transcription) to the philosophical (morality, criticism, irony), celebrating the pleasures and perils of any attempt to decipher its meaning-making technologies.
Ranging from Sugarhill Gang to UGK to Young M.A, Rakim to Rick Ross to Rae Sremmurd, Jay-Z to Drake to Snoop Dogg, What’s Good reads with the momentum of a deftly curated mixtape, drawing you into the conversation and teaching you to read it as it goes. A book for committed hip-hop heads, curious neophytes, armchair linguists, and everyone in between.
Critical praise for What’s Good
” What’s Good is, among a great many other things, a byproduct of joyful obsession and immersion into both language and sound, an intersection that offers a rich and expansive land upon which to play. I’m grateful for Levin Becker’s mining of that land and the revelations found along the way, revelations which come to life in this book with a vivid and generous exuberance.” —Hanif Abdurraqib, author of A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance
” For those of us who love rap, What’s Good is a gift. The book offers a new set of eyes and ears through which to see and to hear the language of rap. Its brief and brilliant chapters are like the best kinds of freestyles: spontaneous and structured, startling and profound. A remarkable achievement.” —Adam Bradley, author of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop
“Could this be the rap equivalent of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift or Marina Warner’s Once Upon A Time? Anyhow, it’s an electrifying book, full of wild epiphanies and provocations, an exhibition of a critical mind in full and open contact with their subject at the highest level, with a winning streak of confessional intimacy as well.” —Jonathan Lethem, author of The Arrest: A Novel
“What’s Good is a feat of critical precision and personal obsession: Daniel Levin Becker’s deep appreciation for rap is rangy and illuminating, and his delight in language is infectious. What a thrill to swing so gracefully from Lil Wayne to Mary Ruefle to the lyrical evolution of ’tilapia’; pure pleasure. A generous, joyful exegesis.”–Anna Wiener, author of Uncanny Valley: A Memoir
“There is so much I admire about Daniel Levin Becker’s What’s Good: how knowledgeable it is, how synoptic, how precise, persuasive, and risky; I love its savvy politics, its passion, its aching, tragic heart.”–David Shields, author of Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season
“All in all, What’s Good is an enlightening, self-aware, and deeply satisfying look at the wondrous ways rap music uses language. It is absolutely essential reading on hip-hop–and one of the smartest books about music I’ve read.”–Ian Port, author of The Birth of Loud: Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock ‘n’ Roll
An early contributor to the groundbreaking lyrics site Rap Genius (now known as Genius), Daniel Levin Becker is an American critic, translator, and editor, and the youngest member of the Oulipo literary collective. He is the author of Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard UP, 2012) and the translator of, among others, Georges Perec’s La Boutique Obscure (Melville House, 2013) and Eduardo Berti’s An Ideal Presence (Fern Books, 2021), and co-translator of Frédéric Forte’s Minute-Operas (Burning Deck, 2015) and All That Is Evident Is Suspect: Readings from the Oulipo 1963–2018 (McSweeney’s, 2018). He is a contributing editor to The Believer, senior editor at McSweeney’s Publishing, and English editor for the French nonfiction publisher Odile Jacob. He lives in Paris.
Ian S. Port is the author of The Birth of Loud (Scribner, 2019), an acclaimed portrait of electric guitar innovators Leo Fender and Les Paul and their impact on music. Ian’s writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, and many other outlets. A Bay Area native and former music editor of SF Weekly, Ian spent seven years in New York City, and is trying to decide where to live next.
Sponsored by the City Lights Foundation