Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Any Chance that Elzhi is Deeper than John Updike?

The wikipedia, for all its flaws, has become an iconic testament to this Information Age. The depth of its reliability can be strained, but it works as a get-everyone-on-the-same-page knowledge depot/resource.

1. The wikipedia on John Updike says "Updike was widely recognized for his careful craftsmanship, his unique prose style, and his prolific output."

Updike is a wonderful example of one of these American literary lions that often does not translate for people not of his generation, or, possibly more importantly, his purebred American background. We shouldn't forget the missing modifiers in David Foster Wallace's essay on "the end for Magnificent [White, Male] Narcissists".

Updike is a legend for his prose. One of Slate's assimilateds, Troy Patterson, says,"Updike's most enduring legacy exists at the level of the sentence." Even in Wallace's previously mentioned takedown he concedes love for "the sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose."

I was talking with a friend of mine who recently had a book club session on one of the "Rabbit" books. They told me how the group started talking about the book until everyone admitted they were bored/distracted/frustrated by the elaborate prose; stripped of the pretense, no one cared or related enough to make the effort to appreciate the flourishes and "getting every word and rhythm right". In the Patterson piece he mentions an example of Updike spending ten pages discussing the character's penis. It's an indulgence that ultimately makes Updike niche; if you're expensively educated like Patterson or Wallace, you've likely cultivated an appreciation for this strain of mental acuity. But as the fields level, it's easy to see other ways to flex your brain muscles.

2. The wiki on Detroit rapper Elzhi identifies Jason Powers as "a solo rapper" and also a member of the group Slum Village.

A few weeks ago a new single from Elzhi began making the rounds. It was called "Deep", and in an era of fractured opinions i was struck by the near universal love/appreciation for elzhi's skills. This given, of course, by those who gave the time to check it out. Deep isn't a pop song. It's the underground hip hop that your white girlfriend might appreciate, but you're pretty sure her parents won't. Not that they won't listen, they just won't get it. Or will be bored by it. White-black noise, if you will.

So as i bumped the Elzhi track on loop, i realized the same effort, the same niche-nerdiness that is demanded of someone who loves elzhi is also required of Updike apologists. Fans of El will mention his wordplay, meticulousness w/ rhyme schemes, his imagery. Here's Patterson on Updike again, "The precision is painterly in the way of photorealism, except when it's cinematic."

Here's the start of Elzhi's first verse in "deep":

i'm the bell ringer
shell slinger
hiding bodies until the smell linger
until they pale as renee zellwegger...

Worth noting rhat last line works orally, not on the page.

3. There are obviously a lot of difference between Updike and Elzhi, but that seems to make the similarities all the more striking. Most critique of underground hip hop will use terms like narcissistic, ponderous, overly indulgent in minutiae that no one cares about.

I hear/read a lot of academic talk about hip hop lyric appreciation, processing it as literature, but that sensibility is not embedded in the pop cultural zeitgeist yet. The difference in mainstream perception between Elzhi and Updike is the gap yet to be bridged. Obama can't do it alone. Or in 100 days. Only time and a history of multitudes will condition us to think in different ways. Until then our wikipedias, our informational home base, will be slanted. One that places updike and that white male narcissist on a pedestal, while barely making a case/argument/entry for 'zhi. elzhi = updike?, maybe not totally equal, but we have to raise one or lower the other a little.

This is mostly a rough thought exercise. the analogy might not be perfect. a more apt comparison, for example, might be: a John Updike is to Dave Eggers as Jay-Z is to Elzhi. That one seems to work in a few ways, including J and J both being "bigger" artists. While eggers and elzhi are master craftsmen operating within the constructs of genre limitations. by choice.


  1. Anonymous5/06/2009

    cool beat, good lyrics. i don't know if that makes him 'deep.' whatever points you get for using 'medula' you lose with 'sucking a**'.

  2. FEMBOT5/06/2009

    i love that references to women include one mention of 'clit' and a 'shake your tits'... the pairing with updike is appropriate

  3. TAN, i was missing these cultural smashup posts. brilliant.

  4. Seriously though, I'm all in for any lowering of John Updike's pedestal. He's the literary equivalent of waterboarding.

  5. Ha. The misogyny point is a good one, I had some comments on it but felt too many worms were popping out the, um, bottle

  6. Re. the exercise, some sort of themed tumblr could come out of this.

  7. Anonymous5/06/2009

    The whores of youtube DELETED ElZhi's vid! I wanted to check it out! ugh!

  8. houstongirl: the vid was just the pic and audio, so odd that it'd be gone now. should be here or you can google it (elzhi "deep")

  9. Vato from San Anto5/07/2009

    I think a more apt comparison would be Aesop Rock to Updike.

  10. Based on his new video Eminem might be Stephen King. Not literary, but populist and dark.

    Maybe Nas is the guy who wrote Oscar Wao.

    But who would Kanye compare to?

  11. Anonymous5/07/2009

    I'd agree that the hip hop lyrics = literature is typically lip-service from white liberal types who want to act like they appreciate hip hop but really only know the heavily marketed corporate pop-rap candy.

  12. Lord Quas5/31/2009

    Nice post here.

  13. stumpled upon this post looking for info on elmatic. nice stuff. last summer i was obsessed with elzhi's similarities to borges...


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