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Playas! Grab Your Contemporary Fiction if You Love Hip-Hop

Warning: Distasteful But Awesome Content Below

The ghosts of dead obese rappers hang over contemporary fiction, unnamed but potent.

One novel is an isolated incident, but two novels is a trend. (Isn't there some rule about these things?) The trend first surfaced in Zadie Smith's "On Beauty." The main instance comes when Smith describes Levi, the biracial son of an English professor and a nurse, bopping down the streets of Boston:

He pressed play on his iPod (the earphones of these [sic] had never left his ears). He got lucky. It was a beautiful song by the fattest man in rap: a 400-pound, Bronx-born, Hispanic genius. Only twenty-five years old when he died of a coronary, but still very much alive to Levi and millions of kids like Levi. Out of the coffee shop and down the street Levi bounced to the fat man's boasts...

The rapper here is self-evidently Big Punisher aka Big Pun, and when reading the passage, I immediately thought that the song must be "Still Not a Player," his big hit prior to croaking. It's not implausible, anyway; "Still Not a Player" is indeed a beautiful song, sunny and nimble as Big Pun describes his bounteous sexual prowess.

Elsewhere in the book, Smith sideways-invokes another dead obese rapper, the even more famous Notorious B.I.G. Here is the passage in question:

It was surely only seconds before Howard recited the only piece of rap he could ever remember, a single line he'd mysteriously retained from the mass of lyrics he heard Levi mutter day after day. "I got the slickest, quickest dick—" began Howard [the professor]. Screams of consternation rose up from the rest of his family. "A penis with the IQ of a genius!"

Just as self-evidently, I submit, this is an intentional authorial corruption of a line from Biggie's "One More Chance" (the original version, not the remix that got all that radio play):

I got the cleanest, meanest penis

You never seen this stroke of genius

Evidence for my assertion: (1) The line Smith puts into Howard's mouth shows up nowhere on the Internets except in discussions of "On Beauty"; (2) Biggie's couplet is a whole lot like Smith's, only way better. (Notice the awkward scansion of Smith's second line—it trips over that "IQ," which requires you to make "with the I" an anapest and then dactylize "Q of a." Not good in any medium.)

Again, this would not be Internets-notification worthy if another novel had not surfaced that employs a dead obese rapper—in this case, another authorial dilution of the Notorious B.I.G., thus giving Christopher Wallace an apparent monopoly in the marketplace of young novelists looking to make up a rap song similar to, but significantly worse than, a classic joint. We find this next one in Gary Shteyngart's hilarious "Absurdistan," specificially in a hallucinatory interlude in which the narrator (whose own grotesque girth and penchant for rhyming earned him the nickname Snack Daddy as a collegian) is being seduced by his widowed mother-in-law, who, at 21, is nine years younger than him. (Great book!)

This parody is more involved; rather than just a couplet, Shteyngart makes up an obvious pseudonym, "Humongous G," and drags in a whole song. The original song is "#!*@ [Fuckin'] You Tonight," also known to the radio as "Lovin' You Tonight." It features a hook crooned by noted statutory rape enthusiast R. Kelly:

You must be used to me spendin'

And all that sweet winin' and dinin'

But I'm fuckin' you tonight

Shteyngart's interlude features a song called "I'm Busting My Nut Tonight," which (strangely for satire) is much less offensive than the original title. The rest of the rhyme is subliterate Biggie. Contrast:

Some say the Ex make the sex spec-

Tacular - make me lick you from your neck

To your back then ya shiverin, tongue deliverin

Chills up your spine, that ass is mine...

With:

Uh, sex in the Lex

Check my genuine Rolex

Wiping cum off your tits

I'm busting phat beats

Right past your shoulder

It's over

Now go cook for my kids

Again: Funny! But obviously intentionally inferior to Biggie.

Why is this happening, that these two young novelists would invoke the spirits of dead obese rappers without actually naming them? One of the many people with whom I routinely discuss the issues raised by the proliferation of anonymized, deceased, corpulent MCs in contemporary fiction recently put forth the idea that the Smith did not want to lock the reader into one experience - that Smith instead intended to evoke an image. Let us suppose this is true. We may divide humanity into two populations:

  1. Those who know who Big Pun is
  2. Those who do not know who Big Pun is

These populations can be assumed to react in the following way to Smith's passage as written:

  1. "Hey! It's Big Pun!"
  2. "What?"

Now let us consider a universe in which Smith actually identified the rapper in question as Big Pun. The responses from the two groups would be exactly the same. So I still don't understand. I actually wrote Smith a letter in the hope of getting to the bottom of this.

Smith's Biggie situation requires little further analysis; she actually quotes 2Pac directly elsewhere in "On Beauty" (I feel compelled to note here that these matters are extremely marginal to "On Beauty" itself), so it's a bit of a mystery why Howard's quoting sub-Notorious poesy.

Shteyngart's reduction of the black Frank White, on the other hand, qualifies as satire — he's exaggerating the original features of "Fuckin' You Tonight" while stripping it of its subtleties and felicities. Shteyngart correctly names other rappers in the novel (even big-upping the fairly obscure DJ Assault) and singles out only the Notorious B.IG. for this semi-anonymous ribbing. The reader is expected to be sufficiently familiar with the rap idiom to get the jokes, but special bonus yuks are available if you know the original text like the back of your hand. What does all this mean? It means that (word to E.D. Hirsch!) contemporary novelists now assume that their readers are literate in the oeuvre of Biggie. In other words, the Notorious B.I.G., ten years after his death, has been admitted to the American cultural canon. And if you don't know, now you know. Unh.

 

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