Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Maybe "Illmatic" is Hip Hop's "Catcher In the Rye"?

Re-upping this one for my peeps from The New Yorker, this Illmatic meets Catcher in the Rye didn't make it in for Negropedia, but we got some other good stuff in the book, and exploring the shared literary-hip hop (Audio-Lit?) spaces is an ongoing pet love of mine. We will be here forever!

Yesterday JD Salinger passed away at the age of 91.

As a former disaffected "Choatie", I grew up in a world, uh, beholden to his majesty Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye for poetically exposing the sturm und drang of white preppie youth. As this obit on Gawker points out,

"his ability to channel the internal monologue of a bright-but-alienated kid made the book essential reading for generations of high school students."

Now this type of line gets to the heart of the problem of cultural inequity; because while I was obligated to lighten my pinky through the learning of traditional anglo spirituals (nobody knows the troubles on Park Ave, nobody knows their sorrows), my own personal Holden Caulfield years came right around the time Nas dropped his debut novel, err, album Illmatic. And I'd be a phoney moron to not recognize Nas as "channeling the internal monologue of a bright-but-alienated [black] kid which made the album essential listening for generations of [black] high school students."

So, hmmm, Catcher vs. Illmatic...

a cursory check of the wiki on Salinger and Catcher reveals:

"written in first person (as if Holden himself had written it). There is flow in the seemingly disjointed ideas and episodes ... Critical reviews agree that the novel accurately reflected the teenage colloquial speech of the time."

What's this? Flow, disjointed ideas and episodes, teenage colloquial speech?? Sounds like my kind of rapper...

how about something on Nas:

"[Nas] realistically depicts the darker side of urbanity, creating highly detailed first-person narratives that deconstruct the troubling lives of inner city teenagers"

or the NYTimes noting, "Nas imbues his chronicle with humanity and humor, not just hardness ... [He] reports violence without celebrating it, dwelling on the way life triumphs over grim circumstances rather than the other way around"

These thematic similarities are striking even before the thought of autotuning the voice of Holden Caulfield through some sort of ethnocultural babelfish translator, and getting the lyrics to "New York State of Mind". Or hypothetically plucking Nas out of the ghetto at an early age and sending him off to boarding school where he learns the writing of prose fiction books instead of ones filled with 4-measure rhymes.

And while I'm certain we'll get more out of comparing the works of Catcher vs. Illmatic than Salinger vs. Nas as artists themselves, it's still tempting to think about how they both shared the weight of auspicious debuts relative to the rest of their output. And how both debuts occupy the same psycho-generational space, and get handed down as timeless classics. And how the big reason for that in both cases is a certain poetic literary quality to a profile of disaffected urban youth (in the case of Nas, a mostly unprecedented style in hip hop at the time). And how Nas has show plenty signs of his own reclusive persona, and if hip hop classics moved units like lit classics he may very well have gone off and pulled a Salinger. Who knows, he still might. He has time. Of course, it just wouldn't register on the public landscape the same way.

Assimilation creates a necessary conflict of values. As we synthesize -- hopefully evolve -- we are practicing a form of cultural natural selection. As a black kid from the south bronx you might be taught Salinger, but experience Nas. And ten to fifteen years ago, there was still a pervasive lack of respect for all that noisy hippity hoppity business. Certainly the artists were a far cry from getting covers on Time Magazine. Now over a decade later, it could be time to reassess. As Salinger inspired many in the Mad Men era, hip hop has been the wellspring for so many from media mogul billionaires to the President of the United States. Hip Hop's history has cred now. It's genuine Americana. So is Illmatic on the summer listening list at Choate? At a prep school back in the days Illmatic vs. Catcher would have been a joke, now it might very well be a 50-50 proposition in terms of what the student population has been exposed to on their own.

Picture a black guy on a trip with some college friends. Or on his first post-grad job interview. Some joke referencing catcher in the rye is made. It flies over his head and he's scoffed at. No chance at the job. Shame is introduced. doubt. fear, etc. The guy feels alienated and he puts on his headphones and starts bumping Illmatic because that's what he always plays when he's feeling down and disaffected. He nods his head to his favorite line,

"the n raps with a razor, keeps it under my tongue. school dropout, never liked the shit from day one..."

Holden Caulfield couldn't have said it any better.

RIP JD Salinger

Previously:Is Kanye our Norman Mailer?
Is Elzhi Deeper than Updike?
Jon Stewart & Jim Cramer Meet KRS-One & PM Dawn
See also: My interview with Jeff Chang


  1. afraid of virginia woolf1/29/2010

    first off, i love your mashups.
    but though i think you are speaking to your own experiences, the focus on race here narrows the impact of someone like nas..
    i'm a white woman who grew up in nyc in the 80s. Sure I loved Catcher in the Rye when I read it freshmen year of high school, but I get Nas.
    Maybe you could (you preppie) relate to Holden Caulfield. But I could relate to him about as well as I could relate to Alcott's Jo March.
    Whereas Nas speaks to my upbringing and experiences and the specific sense of alienation and disaffection that i felt and saw all around me.

  2. Anonymous1/29/2010

    interesting analysis--hope you don't mind, but i'm going to post this on the NasForum (

    u also might like to see these lyrics to a Nas verse off of Bumpy Knuckles ft. Nas "Turn up the mic":

    St. Barts rent a house and a boat
    Two hundred thou' on my throat
    That's only half of what my wife ice cost
    Phonecall, hearin another boss got his life lost
    Well, wipin' sand off of my toes
    Read a book called "Catcher in the rye", I chose
    Some Bob Marley then I plotted a scheme
    To make me and Bump Knux more rich

  3. Anonymous1/29/2010

    I always thought Jay-Z was more like Holden Caulfield than Nas. He speaks more directly, and gives more jokes. Nas is more beat poet like Allen Ginsberg (No homo), than author. The abstract poetry explains why it's less commercial also.

    But Jay also seems more like the guy who might have went to boarding school. Hmmm.

  4. Are there hip hop summer reading (listening) lists? Maybe you should make one, TAN.

  5. Anonymous1/30/2010

    ^^^ co-sign that. Get a track listing, and match them up with scenes from the book. If we (and by "we", I mean "you") can intelligently connect literary and hip hop classics, everyone benefits.

  6. I read Catcher back in the day, and I thought it was was like reading an ancient guy in a dead language.

    Beware. When you write things like:

    "or the NYTimes noting, "Nas imbues his chronicle with humanity and humor, not just hardness..."

    you run the risk of making Nas as remote as Salinger...

    I mean, you know that's way Salinger was a recluse? Remoteness and lack of communication was his strong suit. He could only communicate with other people who did not wish to communicate.

  7. Anonymous1/31/2010

    You don't say it explicitly in this post, but you've said it before: the art form as a whole suffers when the audiences and critics don't measure up. If Illmatic were treated like "The Catcher in the Rye" maybe more rappers would strive for that level of work.

  8. I agree completely! What an amazing album.

  9. I actually would have never even considered this but after reading I think you might be right. I mean there is no doubt that "illmatic" is a master piece written by a very talented complex individual. But to further yes I agree that it should be considered amongst the great literary works of all time. it was genius.

  10. Anonymous9/04/2011

    Illmatic was the product of long toil and genius which is why Nas has never come very close to that level of work again (no time to toil, gotta tour).

    Catcher in the Rye is the product of mental illness (or serious issues) and toil.

    I'll take genius please.

  11. RIP! JD Salinger. Hip hop is cool. More to see artist like you.


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