Cornel West’s Sketches of My Culture is probably the first hip-hop record by a Harvard professor. I demand that academia reciprocate and immediately put Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the tenure track. Until then, Dr. Dre doesn’t need to worry about Dr. West. Positive? Awwww yeah . . . this is some of the most eat-your-(black-eyed)-peas hip-hop to fall off the conveyor belt. It is resolutely positive, self-conscious about the integrity of its message. What Sketches needs is more Professor Griff and less gentleman-scholar.
Perhaps music-industry liberal Danny Goldberg, head of Artemis Records, put him up to it. Maybe West is doing this simply as one more fan inspired by the music. He does call rap “the greatest creative breakthrough of the last 25 years/The younger generation fusing linguistic virtuosity with rhythmic velocity.”
But let’s not sweat West’s own rhythmic velocity; he’s got better mic skills than Billy Bob Thornton does on his debut album, and probably better than Angelina Jolie, too. Ponder instead the linguistic virtuosity—where his writing has often fallen short in the past. Let’s just say that if hip-hop was born out of verbal battles and confrontation, this record comes out of one big lefty group hug. West goes for feel-good blockbuster progressivism, and he takes it very seriously; nuance, detail, personality, poetry—these are things that keep people from one another, brothers and sisters, and West is a coalition builder. This might be the first album of the new “Americans better watch what they say” era. It’s staunchly forward-looking, a train almost anybody can board, uplifting and as self-censoriously programmatic as Tom Ridge or “Tom Dooley.”
The music is not the problem, never so good you think about songcraft, never so bad you pay much attention. You are supposed instead to attend to the public intellectual, perhaps especially when he gently swings at those who have replaced public intellectuals in the eyes of much of the popular audience—namely, rappers. West spanks those who flaunt the N-word, and chastises gun-toters thusly: “Without self-respect you’ll certainly self-destruct/Be true to your history, therein lies the possibility.” Will that be on the test?
What’s next? A cover of Ludacris’s “What’s Your Fantasy” from Marjorie Garber? Maybe the Coup will team up with Stanley Fish to debate the existence of free speech? Meanwhile, I’m heading to the bunker with a copy of The Donald Goines Reader and a sack of purple pills, waiting for a more nutty professor to make sense of the world.