Listen Comprehensively: Quick Thoughts on Anne Hathaway and Jimmy Fallon’s Rap Covers

Last night Anne Hathaway and Jimmy Fallon converted some rap songs into lounge music*. I was afraid that there might be some lame mocking of rap, but that’s not what happened. The main joke seemed to be the sheer oddness of lounge performances, especially the awkward, contrived sexual tension between the pianist and the singer and the bizarreness of the popular songs they choose to perform. Live lounge music is basically karaoke done by professionals instead of drunken strangers. It’s wrong in principle and even worse in execution.

What was specifically interesting to me was how thoroughly Fallon and Hathaway managed to convert the rap songs into lounge music. They genuinely sounded nothing like the originals. The cadences, deliveries and general affects were profoundly different despite the lyrics remaining unchanged. A lot of people – especially the people over at Rap Genius and sometimes Reddit- insist that lyrics are the most critical part of rap songs and implicitly music in general, but I think that performances like this and perhaps even remixes in general thoroughly disprove that argument. There is a constellation of things happening in this performance and the lyrics are just one, tiny dimension.

Lyrics vary in significance from artist to artist (within rap and across genres) and I definitely would support the notion that lyrics have a heightened significance in rap, but lyrics aren’t everything. More importantly, as this performance demonstrates, how we experience lyrics is profoundly affected by other elements of songs. Anyone who has ever been to a live concert and enjoyed it despite a crappy sound system or complete ignorance of the music being performed can definitely agree. Even better, if you watched this video and knew nothing about the original songs, yet were unable to identify them as covers of rap songs, you can agree. Rap music is so much more than words on a page or just words. Talking about music is only worthwhile if we realize this and listen comprehensively, not just closely.

Lastly, damn Anne Hathaway can sing.

*The video is labeled as “Broadway versions” of rap songs, but I think that’s a mistake. This is definitely lounge singing.

Rap Genius is Stupid*

I have beef with Rap Genius. It all started when I heard “Middle of the Cake,” a song by rap group Das Racist. In the last verse of the song, Kool A.D. says, “RapGenius.com is white devil sophistry/ Urban Dictionary is for demons with college degrees.” Ignoring the ironic Black Nationalist rhetoric, I found these lines to be very interesting. In the past, I had used both sites, particularly Urban Dictionary, without much thought. Despite their problems – namely an abundance of crappy [over]explanations and fucked up (racist, sexist, etc.,) jokes – at the end of the day I saw both sites as relatively benign. After listening to this song, however, that changed.

In essence, Das Racist argues that Rap Genius and Urban Dictionary are plagued by an undercurrent of positivism.   Das Racist is right. Unlike SongMeanings.net, Rap Genius does not endorse a plurality of song experiences. Rather than providing meanings, a plural term implying a boundless amount of ways to experience songs, Rap Genius provides the meaning of rap lyrics. In its title and its mission, Rap Genius sees itself as an authority, the authority, rather than one resource among many.

Does this matter? Absolutely. It’s tempting to dismiss Rap Genius as a bunch of white nerds circle-jerking (and yes they are overwhelmingly white), but I think we can use Rap Genius as a way to think about one of the larger issues in hip-hop culture: the authenticity debate. In this debate, hip-hop fans vehemently argue over what constitutes “real hip-hop.” By “real,” overwhelmingly they mean “good.” This is a problem.

On a daily basis, my homie, Cameron Kunzelman, confronts a similar problem in the world of video game criticism. In a recent piece in which he debates Taylor Clark’s now (in)famous assertion that video games can be “smart,” Cameron laid down some useful words of wisdom:

“Instead of constantly fighting over what is smart and what is stupid, we should value the games that both reward us as players and open up the field of games for more experimentation and difference. Under this paradigm, Anna Anthropy’s contributions to the gaming scene and Skullgirls have equal aesthetic right to exist.

This saves us from “smart” and “dumb.” It saves us from video game journalists and tastemakers telling us how to feel about a game. Play a game; if you think it is smart, it is smart, and don’t let anyone tell you any differently. Celebrate art that makes the world of gaming bigger, more robust, more strange, most hackneyed, more archaic.”

For Cameron, conceiving of games as “smart” or “dumb” is useless, arbitrary and ultimately detrimental to the world of video games. These falsely objective value judgments do nothing but preclude diverse experiences of video games and feed peoples’ egos (particularly Jonathan Blow). I agree. By rewarding people with “Rap IQ” (this just might be the most pretentious concept ever), Rap Genius encourages limiting and egoistical ways of understanding rap. For Rap Genius, the “smart” way, the “best” way, to experience rap is to distill it down to the minutia, to definitively explain every tiny aspect of every song.Under this schema, it logically follows that the most intricate songs are the best songs.

That kind of thinking is stupid, positivist and indicative of a severely flawed understanding of rap.

Please don’t be a Rap Dummy Genius. Be a rap fan. It isn’t hard. I’m not going to define what a rap fan is because I’m not a Rap Genius. I don’t need to pin down what rap “means” to validate my experience of it.  I think that Kreayshawn is just as legitimate of a rapper as Kanye . In the end, all I’m saying is that participating in the discourse around rap doesn’t and shouldn’t require fastidiously breaking down  songs and dissecting them for presumed hidden meanings. It shouldn’t take a genius to figure that out.

Afterword*
For more on video games and all that other stuff Cameron writes about, visit This Cage is Worms.

This post is the first post in a series that I will attempt to develop over the summer. The current plan is for most of the posts to be responses to the essays in That’s the Joint. We’ll see how that goes.