Chuck D, of the seminal hip-hop group Public Enemy, famously said that "rap is black America's CNN," meaning that the music provides a window into the marginalized black underclass. It's a thought that's been echoed many times since, in one form or another: whether you like the music or not, it's invaluable as a way to understand what young Americans, especially those of color and those in cities, are thinking and feeling.
Richard Beck, writing for n+1, sees things differently. In a thoughtful review of Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, a memoir by Thomas Chatterton Williams, Beck maintains that "the power of hip-hop is a specifically musical kind of power" and that "hip-hop is a music before it is a sociological lens, an urban newscast, an adolescent fantasy, or anything else, and it should be discussed as such."
The review is worth reading in full, but here's a bit of Beck's argument:
Most casual hip-hop listeners, for all the handwringing about their being influenced, do not actually listen to rap lyrics. They listen to the beats, and what hip-hop's beats suggest is a cultural world in which you are completely surrounded by reproductions of culture, in which culture never stops quoting itself in bits and fragments, in which sequels and remakes depend on the audience's familiarity with the original documents ... What you hear on a great hip-hop track is a voice, surrounded and propelled along by fragmented bits of other, earlier music, inventing a completely new world for itself to live in.
Last week, Williams wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal railing against the inclusion of Jay-Z and Lil Wayne on President Obama's iPod. Beck would likely not be surprised by this news. While Williams's memoir is effective in places, Beck says, "Williams shares even with academics who otherwise disagree with him... an almost pathological lack of interest in the music he pretends to discuss."