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Lists and the Epic Tradition (Inspired by Jay-Z)

collateral tales

collateral tales

So obvious, in hindsight.

Entertaining piece by Zadie Smith on Hip-Hop in general and Jay-Z in particular in the New York Times:

Meanwhile, back in the rank and file, you still hear the old cry go up: Hip-hop is dead! Which really means that our version of it (the one we knew in our youth) has passed. But nothing could be duller than a ’90s hip-hop bore. Lil Wayne? Give me Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Nicki Minaj? Please. Foxy Brown. Odd Future? WU TANG CLAN 4EVAH. Listening to Jay-Z—still so flexible and enthusiastic, ears wide open—you realize you’re like one of these people who believes jazz died with Dizzy.

My favorite insight from this article, though, is this (referring to such lines as “I got watches I ain’t seen in months / Apartment at the Trump I only slept in once”):

But asking why rappers always talk about their stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies. Because boasting is a formal condition of the epic form.

Precisely—another piece of stylistic property falling into place. The sudden revelation why postmodern texts are often so occupied with lists.

Besides playing pranks on highbred poetic forms through the flippant but careful execution of faux-lowbrow mimicry, other aspects are of course involved: making the familiar unfamiliar by dismantling seemingly “natural” categories through lists ranging from the playful to the bizarre, or disrupting our sense of categories altogether by evoking semantic satiation on the level of semantic fields through increasingly arcane lists of synonyms, for example through interminable ripostes as vehicles of mutual abuse in frenzied dialogs. And, indeed, boasting.

A most vivid and highly influential example of such lists has been provided by Borges in his “Chinese Encyclopedia” early on:

These ambiguities, redundances, and deficiences recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.

On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

Lists got nukes, lists got knives, lists got sharp sticks. Nothing is safe.


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