Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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But Seriously, Folks

Rap and Race in the Urban Present
By Mark Costello and David Foster Wallace

With its Basquiat cover and footnoted text, Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present might tempt the browser to lay down cash money for (ahem) "the first serious consideration of rap and its position as a vital force in our American cultural consciousness." Don't do it. The analysis is adequate to ignorant to barmy, and whenever the authors--Mark Costello an attorney and jazz fan, David Foster Wallace a philosophy grad student and writer of highbrow pomo "fictions"--get near a fact, it hangs its head in shame. Their revelation that "almost all established rock critics . . . tend to regard serious, ever new, non-crossover rap as essentially boring and simplistic, or as swaggering and bellicose and dangerous" will astonish the voters who made Public Enemy and De La Soul winners of the 1988 and 1989 Pazz & Jop Critics' Polls (and high finishers in Rolling Stone's more conservative tallies). I presume both acts qualify as serious and ever new because both appear in the pencil-necked discography (which proceeds directly from Raising Hell--there was one called King of Rock in between there, fellas). Costello says his "favorite rap ever" is an "untraceable 5-minute cut" he taped off the radio with an "inscrutable chorus" about a "Honeychild." Er, that wouldn't be Ice-T's "The Hunted Child," would it? B side of "High Rollers," later on Freedom of Speech? Nah, it's his favorite. Surely he cares too much to have missed anything so obvious.

Village Voice, 1990