One of the best features of hip-hop is the winding and immersive storytelling. In tandem, to be a fan of hip-hop is to be, on some level, a voyeur. That is to say, you have to find yourself attracted and attached to extraneous narratives, much like you would find yourself attracted and attached to a novel character. Just as you lose yourself in a book, you lose yourself in an album.
It’s off the strength of the author’s prose that you find yourself so enthralled in a fantasy book that you could otherwise never relate to. That same enchanting quality is what makes Clipse’s coke raps so catching. So no matter how much purists argue, there is no denying that hip-hop and literature are synonymous artforms.
With that, I’ve gone ahead and paired my top three albums of 2018 with a novel or book of poetry. Not only are the below books and albums worth your time, but experiencing them together will surely add a new layer of depth to the music and the words.
Evidence - Weather Or Not
Paired with: In The Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano
While some rappers brag about bands and bitches, Evidence flexes about paninis and coffee in Europe. One skit in particular, the outro to “Sell Me This Pen,” sets Evidence in a café in Paris, ordering himself lunch and a coffee Americano. As you may have guessed by the title, Modiano’s novel is almost exclusively set in a café in Paris.
Modiano turns Paris into a character, having the brisk novel read as a study of the city first, and then an investigation into the rag-tag group that frequent the novel’s café. Both the novel and Evidence’s album set their scenes with catching sepia tones, casing the art in a vintage and warm aura. There is something inviting about the old world veneer, and while Modiano’s characters attempt to unpack each other and a failed marriage, all across Weather Or Not, Evidence deals with unpacking himself and the impending illness of his girlfriend.
In many ways, In The Café of Lost Youth is an interrogation of insecurity and identity, and coming to terms with interpersonal uncertainty. The making of Weather Or Not had Ev following a similar path. On this record his voice is its most unfiltered, no longer an octave lower to front as a bossed up rapper. While In The Café of Lost Youth concludes with ends untied, Weather Or Not leaves us leveled and emotional in the best way.
Saba - Care For Me
Paired with: Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
Don’t Call Us Dead, a poetry collection by Danez Smith, is haunted by particular types of loss. All across the work, Smith alludes to and interfaces with the death, rebirth, and resistance of queer people of color. Poems discuss the gravity of an HIV diagnosis, police brutality, the death of Black boyhood, and all the same these poems celebrate and privilege life. Smith’s work emphasizes the need for survival through joy. Don’t Call Us Dead is a eulogy and a promise to live.
In a similar vein, Saba’s Care For Me, is a eulogy to his murdered cousin Walter Long Jr.. Best known as John Walt, one of the founding members of Chicago rap collective, PIVOTgang, Care For Me centers around Walt’s life as it relates to Saba’s own coming-of-age and coming to terms with mortality. Neither Care For Me nor Don’t Call Us Dead are dressed in heavy shades of black, but rather, each body of work explores colors and silver linings in an effort to persist.
Both artists deal with gun violence and the difficulties of being young and Black in America, but they do so with a much needed lightness in an era where the gravity of constant tragedy is becoming too great. Both Saba and Smith leave us shedding tears and laughing through the pain. Beyond the narrative connections of these two writers, we have to admire the skill with which they navigate overwhelming emotions. Sadly a lesson learned through experiencing unimaginable trauma, both Care For Me and Don’t Call Us Dead thrive in service of personal and universal healing.
Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy
Paired with: Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique
Land of Love and Drowning is a tale of rising out of literal wreckage, a scene Cardi sets with her album opener, “Get Up 10.” The novel moves through parallel arcs of two orphaned sisters and their half brother, the absurdity of their relationships, and the ways in which materialism shapes your worldview. Cardi B raps “I been broke my whole life, I have no clue what to do with these racks” on “Money Bags.”
Land of Love and Drowning is a novel built up a foundation of magic, history, love, heartache, and enchanting prose. In this pairing, Yanique’s uncanny ability to bring the breeze of the Virgin Islands to the page, to have that same air rise out of the text and waft through whatever room you find yourself reading, is right on par with Cardi B’s unmistakable voice and delivery.
Though Cardi has gone on the record stating she cannot stand her accent and records songs ten times over to avoid it, we cannot pretend that fans don’t lose their minds for her inflections and cadence. Much like the Virgin Islands’ atmosphere and character, Cardi B’s voice is the bow that holds her gift of a debut album together.