Books: These are the Breaks

In his collection, These Are The Breaks, Idris Goodwin addresses race, class, culture and rap in essay and prose poetry. He takes a sprawling and diverse topic and does what this sort of work does best: filters it through the lens of the human I.

The I in “I like rap” isn’t like it used to be. There are plenty of rap fans going to work as cops, lawyers, teachers and civil servants every day. Hard to believe that there are many but, statistically speaking, it’s inevitable there are rap heads who are also dedicated Republicans. It used to be it was a lot more monolithic, what rap was. It was conscious, or gangsta, or radio-friendly pop and that was about it. Those were your options. As the genre has matured, there has come to be a lot of what some would call bloat and others would call diversification.

It’s not so hard anymore to find just the right kind of hip-hop to fit your personal needs. Whiney white kid ennui from skateboarders, middle-class ironic joke rap, conspiracy theorist rap, millionaire rap, it’s all out there if you want it. You don’t have to hear about crack slinging if that’s not your bag, but, if it is, you have the option of listening to rap that talks about nothing but crack slinging. The field is wide open for listeners and, as the fans get older and stop to ponder about what it all means, Goodwin offers up something a little more authentic and thoughtful in response.

Goodwin doesn’t write about just rap music in These Are The Breaks but when he’s not covering rap he’s covering something that makes more sense if you know about it. It’s a book that has a rhetorical sign next to it, like a rollercoaster, you must be at least this hip hop to get this ride. In that way it is a very gratifying book from the perspective of a rap fan. There is the innate sense of satisfaction when you consciously pick up on a cultural signifier or reference that you know the less with-it wouldn’t have parsed properly. There is also, though, the sense of a known, familiar sadness, for someone who’s heard the song the title of the book refers to and every song like it that followed in its wake. “The Breaks” are two things: bad breaks like losing a job, or getting your phone turned off, or losing your girl; and bad breaks like Apache, or The Stroke, or Funky Drummer, or Cold Sweat. To be tuned in enough to pick up all his references is also to know and have heard and lived through a portion of the moments that he captures in amber. An informed reader will appreciate how he documents the seminal battle between Lord Finesse and Percee P. It’s a powerful moment, skillfully depicting how a crowd is as much a part of a freestyle battle as the battlers are, and he captures the feeling of both being the rapper and being the person watching, the person hungry for the win and the person deciding who wins. He writes a familiar blues in “Don’t Be a Sellout,” a piece that shows what it feels like to be made uncomfortable by the thing you love, to wonder if you are betraying something by listening, or being betrayed by your music.

Goodwin’s prose is finely tuned and efficient, and it could not be otherwise–as a rapper, he works in rationed syllables. The effective, tight verbiage in most of the pieces is a tribute to that line of work. He is skilled at tying different threads of meaning together and he uses humor well when he chooses to. There is almost always a wry, self-effacing tone and the level of honesty in many of the pieces–especially where he talks about his middle class youth and the construction of identity as a response to cultural influences–is a welcome change from the current state of rap, where former cops can call themselves hustlers and millionaires spit lines about a struggle.

There are a few uneven pieces, which don’t seem to align with the tone of the whole, but they are few and far between. At 41 pieces in 100 pages it is a fast-moving collection, best digested in smaller bits because the density of ideas is thick and rich. It’s the kind of book that drives me to google references, one every few pages, to hear a song or artist I might not be as up on as I feel like I should be after reading a piece. To read about the life of a Detroit mayor, to see pictures of the embarrassments and victories he edges around. The learning curve will be steep for those not already a little in the know. But the journey is the reward and the nimble wordplay–in his poetry, his essays and his mixing of the two–makes it worth the effort.

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