Simultaneously smug and beleaguered, "All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America" raises the question: Who, exactly, is claiming it can? No one -- academic, artist or critic -- has made any such argument since roughly 1988. This puts Manhattan Institute senior fellow John McWhorter in the awkward position of playing provocateur to an empty house, and gives his prose the tone of a petulant undergrad being shouted down in a dorm lounge. It also raises serious doubts about his engagement with either hip-hop or the large body of scholarship about it.
OK, so I'll violate and say a few words. Megan has this whole thing about being polite to people you disagree with. I think it's--generally--a good principle. I disagree with McWhorter quite a bit, but that isn't my beef. I think his book (which I recently received in the mail) is deeply dishonest. As Adam points out, it's the strawmanship that leaves me so cold--I just haven't heard anyone make a claim like that recently. If anything the kids, and the rest of us, have been doing the opposite. McWhorter is allowed to be dishonest because, in his circles, he really doesn't have to worry about people calling him out. This is basically the same scam that box-minded reporters have been pulling while purporting to cover "Obama and race." First you flatten your subject until he resembles a cartoon, and then you "argue" against the cartoon.
It's like watching a fighter who shrinks away from his most formidable opponents and builds his rep whipping up on jobbers and journeymen. It's also a sort of bullying, because you never have to deal with the most potent arguments of your potent critics. I have never known how to be polite with bullies. So I'll simply say this: For a young black boy coming up in these times, I would play Illmatic, De La Soul Is Dead, The Infamous, Word...Life five hundred times over before I would offer him a single word written by John McWhorter.