Deconstructing Prophets

Some might dismissit as “cultural-studies academese.” But about halfway through Prophets of the Hood, Imani Perry finds her groove. Focusing her Harvard-bred literary sights on lyrics, from Run-DMC to Cee-Lo, she serves up the dynamics driving “hypermasculinity” as a form of “subjectification for black men in hip-hop”: subaltern societal status and religion, socially pressurized friendships, to say nothing of white male patriarchy. But get past the occasionally opaque prose and ham-handed analysis, and you’ll reach the funky, provocative break that needs to be extended, looped and remixed by Perry and other public intellects: an intertextual discussion, transcending the usual knee-jerk reactions, of how hip-hop’s women have gone from MC Lyte to today’s lifeless — and often light mulatta — capitalist commodities par excellence.

Throughout Prophets, Perry illustrates and advocates popular “media literacy,” cognizant of the many contradictory levels on which hip-hop operates. Liberatory lyrics subvert vapid music vids. Lauryn Hill’s Farrah Fawcett–styled kinks in Harper’s Bazaar both accommodate and resist mainstream norms. Stereotypes, deftly used, can implode systems from within. But though the book proves hip-hop lyrics, themes and structures worthy of serious theoretical thought, too much of it reads like a string of disembodied insights teaching the uninitiated how to read hip-hop in all its neglected complexity. And its account of hip-hop’s origins and future is rightly black American–centered, but overly Afro-American-centric. It’s no coincidence that the most cogent arguments of the first book dedicated to hip-hop as literature concern gender at the same time that Snoop Dogg’s “Can You Control Yo Hoe,” Lizz Mendez Berry’s important Vibe story on domestic abuse, and other recent signposts are forcing hip-hop heads to question how far our love for beats and rhymes is fucking up our love for mothers, daughters, lovers and even brothers. What we need is a contemporary sociology of the hip-hop industry that combines culture, socioeconomics and corporate politics with the breadth of Todd Gitlin and the street genius of KRS-One.

PROPHETS OF THE HOOD: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop| By IMANI PERRY | Duke University Press | 248 pages | $69.95 hardcover


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >