Rhyme Unintentional: A Conversation with Daniel Levin Becker, Author of What’s Good

Mar 22, 2022

cover image of What's good by daniel levin becker

By Maureen Miller

I have known the music writer Daniel Levin Becker for twenty years. This period covers three or more generations of American hip-hop. Throughout them, Daniel has been an essential writer on that subject, keeping a footing in the most fringe elements of its canon while translating major works of French experimental literature by day. Like a Premier Cru licensed to an East Coast B-list rapper of the early 2010s through a third-party distributor, Daniel’s work grows and richens with age. Drink up what he has to say. Drink lots, too, for Daniel is as witty, kind, and generous a person as he is in print. May I say on the record––his book cover being shaped like a record sleeve––that he is among what’s good in the world once you overlook that he is yet more proof that life is unfair. Really, it’s maddening!

Below, I interview Daniel about old times and too rare optimism in his new book What’s Good (Published this year by City Lights Books). We will continue our conversation on March 28, 6pm CT in Seminary Co-op Bookstore’s Virtual Event Series. Seminary Co-op is in Daniel’s hometown of Hyde Park, Chicago, and the talk is co-sponsored by The Point Magazine.

Maureen Miller (MM): Readers may know you as a critic in the time of poptimism vs. rockism and radical positivity . . . but you really come into your own here as a head. And I tend to see you, friend, as a small d-democrat and populist who defies description. What word would you invent to situate yourself in the Discourse as a critic and listener? 

Daniel Levin Becker (DLB): I mean, I’m fascinated. Selectively, erratically, inclined only occasionally to act declaratively on that fascination, but full of wonder: the verb. I’ve liked writing about music much more regularly in the past, letting myself be swept up in the continuous flow of the Discourse, but I sort of doubt I could dive back in at this point. My hot takes need to go cold before I even agree with myself, you know? And I’ve never given much thought to the deeper meaning of the word head in the sense of hip-hop devotee, but I suppose it must be rooted in something similar to what I think the critic’s stance should be—leading with an open mind, being primed to wonder out loud. Nodding along while also stroking your chin, which is pretty much what I picture when I think of a hip-hop head anyway.

MM: DLB heads may know your old site was called Dinner Lunch Breakfast. That always sounded like a hip-hop album title to me. If you recorded an album, who would design the cover? What would it look like?

DLB: lol, “DLB heads.” (I still have that site!) I can’t not see this as an MF DOOM album cover, but I’d definitely get Jeff Mellin, who’s responsible for the beauty that is the What’s Good cover, to work his magic as he saw fit. This question is actually a great case in point for the thing I talk about in the book where the same line or phrase can be inflected totally differently—not just in its nuances but in what it actually means—by two different personalities. Like, Dinner Lunch Breakfast could be a Lupe Fiasco album or a Rick Ross album, but not in the same way.

MM: My favorite Rap Exegesis (later, Genius) annotation by you (“Diplopotamus) is for Pachanga by Fabolous, using the writers analogy about watching Friends to ask how any of us define ourselves as observers of our own lives. Whats your favorite annotation? What do you think of the site now versus the early days?

DLB: You’re giving me more credit than I deserve—I was just making a dumb joke about a simile that Fabolous was too lazy to set up properly. I don’t remember who wrote it, but at some point in the site’s very early days there was an annotation of the same Cam’ron line I analyze at the beginning of the main section of What’s Good—“Coke like a caterpillar, I make butter fly”—that really opened up my thinking about the intricate molecular ways wordplay can function. These days I mostly use Genius as a database, less often as a sort of magazine to flip through, and almost never as something to contribute to anymore, barring the occasional fit of pique where I discover something and I’m like, “People need to KNOW about this!” But the sense I get is that there’s still a steady influx of people who are newly curious about song lyrics and excited to participate in a collective debate about what they mean, and I think it’s great that now the platform is right there for them to do it.

This is almost unbearably corny, but fuck it, I’ll say it anyway: love is a rare and precious resource, especially in the Discourse—rhyme unintentional—and it’s always a net positive. I’m as susceptible as the next opinion-haver to the pleasures of the excoriating takedown, but it’s an unsustainable way to engage with art.

MM: The title of your book is What’s Good. Over the years, we’ve talked about this concept a lot as a first-do-no-harm approach to criticism and life, the whole Moe’s Tavern chestnut “Im a well-wisher, in that I dont wish you any specific harm.” So what might be good about using a “what’s good” framework for music appreciation? What’s not so hot? 

DLB: This is almost unbearably corny, but fuck it, I’ll say it anyway: love is a rare and precious resource, especially in the Discourse—rhyme unintentional—and it’s always a net positive. I’m as susceptible as the next opinion-haver to the pleasures of the excoriating takedown, but it’s an unsustainable way to engage with art. With anything, really. It’s easier to find and broadcast the flaws in things than it is to really articulate how and why they resonate—maybe because the resonance is necessarily more personal, maybe because of the sinister machinations of very-online late capitalism, maybe because human nature, who knows—but I really believe the latter is a worthwhile exercise. No doubt this is partly informed by my time editing the reviews section of The Believer, where the mandate I inherited was that we didn’t do negative reviews; my way of interpreting that mandate was to try to make a home for the critical approach that says, essentially, “This thing is flawed but in an interesting or instructive way.” I think that’s a healthier and more rewarding way to engage with the world, personally. I suppose we get into the not-so-hot part via the moral complexity of a passionate critical defense of, like, a blackface movie or a Skrewdriver album. But even then I want to believe there’s a space to ask, “This is actively noxious first and foremost, but is there anything good in it?”

MM: You and poet/fellow Hyde Park guy/U Chicago professor Jeremy Schmidt were the first people to show me Kanye West “before he was cool.” You wrote a gorgeous essay on Kanye’s work for an Australian magazine. Please tell us your take on the new Kanye meme cycle (Julia Fox, the recent Mercedes-Benz Stadium ascension from 2021, whatever). How is he? Have you changed your mind on him?

DLB: Mostly no, not really. I think I’ve always had faith in Kanye, and still do, despite knowing he’s a difficult character. I also don’t pay much attention to the meme cycle, and no doubt that’s part of why I haven’t washed my hands of him. But will I ever stop being susceptible to his charms when he shuts up and does the work? Probably not. (Case in point, look at how much pure fun he seems to be having in the “Diet Coke” video, though, again, it’s probably not coincidental that his mouth is closed for most of it.) Anyway, yeah, he’s an impetuous doofus and all that, but I think in a very real way he’s also a monster we’ve all helped create, an extreme case of the way brilliant public figures are forced to play the sordid games of the media landscape unless they’re willing to be branded as mysterious hermits and have their whole narrative written for them without their say. Or what if we read his current arc as him trying, in his helplessly candid way, to resist the temptations of being rich and evil? I don’t know. Musically speaking, his last few albums have some sparks but I haven’t loved them on the whole—Donda makes me wish he’d just do a crabcore album and get it over with—but Dylan had fallow periods too. For the record, I find Dylan infinitely less interesting than Kanye.

Musically speaking, Kanye’s last few albums have some sparks but I haven’t loved them on the whole—Donda makes me wish he’d just do a crabcore album and get it over with—but Dylan had fallow periods too. For the record, I find Dylan infinitely less interesting than Kanye.

MM: You’re a serious intellectual writing confessional work for what may be the first time. I’ve known you forever and I didn’t know some stuff that you reveal in this book. Thank you for being you. What motivated this shift to show the real you on the page, with the caveat that I was a skeptic, I think even quoting Usher’s follow-up to Confessions (“Raymond v. Raymond is my dichotomy”)?

DLB: I’m calling it now, one day your handwritten annotations to the first seventy pages of a 2018 draft of What’s Good will sell for millions. On some level I was leaning into the advice I got when I was writing my first book, namely to put more of myself in it because the topic itself, the Oulipo, had the opposite of mass appeal. But most of all in this case it was a question of authority: whereas that first book is about something I know about more than almost anyone else on the planet, I don’t have any privileged expertise about hip-hop besides the fact that I’ve been listening to it for a long time, reverently agog, and because of that—and, it should be said, because hip-hop scholarship is a new enough field that people in it can be sort of territorial and touchy—I felt the need to make it really clear that I wasn’t claiming any authority beyond my own dumb fascination. Also it wouldn’t have been right for me to take Drake to task for being too Drake without copping to a few embarrassing truths about myself.

MM: What is your favorite hip-hop song about San Francisco/Bay Area? Favorite reference to the Beats in rap?

DLB: Probably “Heart & Soul” by Equipto, because of what my friend Ian Port calls “A hilarious refrain that we will attempt to spell as ‘errrrrrryyyyyyy.’” I don’t think I know enough Beat references in rap to rank them, so it has to be Ad-Rock’s Kerouac reference in the last verse of the Beastie Boys’ “3 Minute Rule,” which is way better heard than quoted. Unless you’d allow e.g. Lil Wayne’s I am a vegetarian I only eat Beats, but that’s an unreasonable amount of pressure to put on that completely unverifiable capital B.

MM: During the pandemic, many of us want ‘what’s good’ for others, good news, anything good! Where do you find good in the world? What’s good in your life right now? In rap?

DLB: I’m lucky to have a relatively harmonious life where I get to do work that excites me, even if I almost certainly work too much. During the first lockdown my wife and I started a press called Fern Books, and while it hasn’t been the greatest time to be making stuff in terms of supply-chain holdups and paper shortages and VAT nonsense, it’s been a rewarding learning and playing experience. (Shoutout to my wife, who’s the competent one.) Also we have an elderly American cat and a very young French cat who never cuddle but sometimes bump noses in a really heartwarming way. Meanwhile, rap keeps serving up new shit I hear or hear about and can’t wait to dig into—this week I gotta listen to the new Conway the Machine and Ivy Sole albums and figure out what the deal is with Omerettà the Great—and sometimes I love it and sometimes it makes no sense to me, and that’s okay. It’s better than okay, even—it’s a sign something is right with the world. Sometimes it’s not for me because it’s literally not for me. It’s weirdly soothing, I think, to keep being reminded of the limits of my ability to get it.

Maureen Miller, MD MPH is a board-certified pathologist and epidemiologist who researches blood transfusion. Her poetry, prose, and performance art has appeared in The Atlantic, the Occupy! special issue of n+1 magazine, Paris Review Daily, The Awl, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and other places. As a contributing editor to the music and lyrics website Genius, an experience she recounted in her essay collection A Taste of My Own Medicine (Kindle Singles, 2012), she collaborated with her Yale classmate Daniel Levin Becker as he developed what became What’s Good. She is working on a novel about healthcare worker burnout and suicide. 

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