Top Five Rap Albums That Are Named After Books That I’ve Read
Hip-Hop’s connections to literature are grossly under-examined. I’m glad I can play even a minor role in exposing the relationship. These albums helped me think critically about the books they are named after and vice versa!
Common and Laura Esquivel: Like Water For Chocolate
This is one of my favorite albums, so when I found out in high school that we would be reading it I was excited to extract the similarities. There weren’t many obvious ones. It seems as though Common created an Afro-centered interpretation of the title, compared to the tones of cultural sensuality Laura Esquivel pairs with the book title. While Common and Esquivel’s work seemed to have little connection in content, I began to understand Esquivel’s Magical Realism as Common’s album prepared me for it with its mystical tones, poetics, and focus on ancestral lineage. Recognizing this parallel empowered me to better appreciate and comprehend new concepts of the written word.
Lauryn Hill and Carter G. Woodson: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill/The Negro
Some might say that I’m cheating on this one, and to them, I say “chill.” Lauryn Hill’s title is a clear homage to the seminal book The Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson. Having heard the album myriad times before I read the book, I was able to connect Woodson’s systemic analysis to L Boog’s album cut “Everything is Everything.” I was also able to detect his illustrations of self-destructive programming in joints like “Doo Wop (That Thing).” As far as I’m concerned, these two cultural artifacts are companions. Decades apart, together they manage to work in tandem in addressing some of the most important systemic, psychological, and spiritual experiences of black folk, while still cultivating hope!
The Roots and Malcolm Gladwell: The Tipping Point
This isn’t my favorite Roots album (that isn’t saying much because they are all dope), but I feel like this is their most aptly titled album. Named after Malcolm Gladwell’s game-changing book, the album’s timing and sound expertly represented the core idea of Gladwell’s work! The Roots had reached a status where consistency, connectors, and mavens tipped The Roots from hip-hop purist exclusivity to a wider mass appeal. They remained authentic throughout this album, but it was clear that joints like “Don’t Say Nuthin’” worked to accelarate the tipping. It would be dope if ?uestlove wrote the Forward to a new edition of the book in which he used the creation of the album as a testimony. Just throwing it out there!
The Roots and Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart
This, in contrast, is one of my favorite Roots albums. Named after Chinua Achebe’s modern classic “Things Fall Apart,” this is the only album on the list where the artist directly references the author in a song (Black Thought: “Push pen to paper like Chinua Achebe”). I actually read the book before I heard this album from beginning to end, and I’ll say the book definitely helped me see the album in a different light. The novel tells the story of a traditional Nigerian village fully transitioning into a colonized way of life. The album, in my mind, represents a story of traditional hip-hop as hip-hop fully transitions into a commercialized way of life (ca. 1999). These cultural transitions can be morose and tragic, as proven by Okonkwo’s downfall (novel), and the haunting “The Return to Innocence Lost” (album).
Nas and Dick Gregory: Nigger/Untitled
They tried to pull a Toby on Nas’ album title, but we know the real title of this album. The label didn’t object to the “vulgar” language of the title as much as they objected to the poignancy of it. A poignancy that Dick Gregory captured decades prior when he entitled his biography Nigger. I read the biography after I heard the album a few times, and upon finishing the biography both contributions became more defined in my mind. Gregory and Nas had a mission to show you their personal climb from institutional poverty and racism while contextualizing it with their community and its history, without being too preachy. They do this all while exercising their personal flair for language. Nas was one of the few mainstream emcees to honor Dick Gregory when he passed, and it makes sense.
Those are my five. If I’m trippin’ by missing or leaving out a classic album with a book title, put me on! Peace and Progress.
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