IN THE HISTORY of the Oulipo — that group of writers in Paris who compose literary texts based on constraints, mathematical formulas, or preestablished rules — there have been three anglophone members, of course all fluent in French. The most recent is the American Daniel Levin Becker, whose new book, published by City Lights, is What’s Good: Notes on Language and Rap. What, you might ask, is an Oulipan doing writing about rap? One possible answer to that question highlights something fundamental about both practices: manifesting and celebrating the almost alchemical powers of words.

Written in short, savorably dense chapters, What’s Good manages to be many kinds of books at the same time. It’s exhaustive — in its command of rap lyrics, in its ear for modulations in meaning and tone, in its ability to straddle the complexities of race and identity as they converge in rap, in its sensitivity about what it means to be a white fan of a Black art, in its ear for the linguistic ingenuity found in what may appear to be simple lines, in its grasp of the relevant criticism. Among all these things, Levin Becker threads two major interconnected love letters to the transformative power of hip-hop and to the binding power of language. “I don’t have blind faith in many things,” he writes, “but I have blind faith in language. I want to believe it’s good. I do believe it’s good. I believe it connects us to each other and to ourselves, that it makes art and science possible and accessible and is itself an endlessly rewarding species of both.”

What’s Good begins in a gutsy way — by quoting 50 Cent. It’s a daring opening, but a smart one. The early-2000s rapper is not many people’s idea of the gold standard for lyrical excellence or personal comportment. “I’m into having sex, I ain’t into making love,” the rapper boasts. “So come give me a hug if you’re into getting rubbed.” Wait, what? What does “getting rubbed” even mean in that context? Levin Becker then spends four pages exploring the unexpectedly strange lexical ambiguities contained in those two lines. I must admit, against my sometimes-sanctimonious backpacker self, that Levin Becker convinced me of their lyrical value, even though I tried, as best as I could, to find that phrase in previous tracks. (A mishearing even meant that I thought I’d found it in an early Wu-Tang Clan song, but after repeated listening and various transcriptions, I decided, no, 50 wasn’t citing Ghostface Killah.) As Levin Becker explains,

rap lyrics, even ones from such a poetically trivial source as “In Da Club,” contain multitudes of meaning, and also of nonsense, of possibility, of exquisite care and carelessness and carefreeness, sometimes all at once. If 50 Cent can be ingenious and metaphysical and clumsy and puerile in the space of twenty words, six seconds, just imagine what depths of inventiveness and complexity and contradiction abound within a lyrical tradition that will soon turn, well, fifty.

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Levin Becker’s first book, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, published by Harvard University Press in 2012, chronicles his initiation into the Oulipo, as well as providing the best in-depth study of the group and its members in English. “[I]t does not purport to tell anyone what literature should or must be,” he writes of the Oulipo. “What it does is tell anyone who cares to listen about what literature could and might be, sometimes by speculation, other times by demonstration.” His openness to what writing, listening, and reading can be — that is, to their potentiality — gives What’s Good much of its resonance.

For Levin Becker, a shared affinity between these two passions runs deep. When he was 16, he tells us in Many Subtle Channels, he made a mixtape of songs and performers’ names that did not contain a single letter e (think Xzibit, Tha Dogg Pound). A few years later, in French class, he discovered the work of Georges Perec, whose 1969 novel La Disparition (A Void, in Gilbert Adair’s English translation) is written completely without the same vowel. Levin Becker’s personal story with rap is also developed in What’s Good, perhaps in part to give context for his relationship to a historically Black art form. He tells us that he grew up in a white middle-class enclave of Chicago’s South Side; he admits that the cover image of Public Enemy’s Muse Sick-n-Hour Mess Age (1994) still terrifies him the same way it did the first time he encountered it on a poster at Rose Records. He then describes going to Yale, where he learned to be a critic. “I developed better and smarter ways of asking questions of the texts around me,” he writes, “and the attendant habit of treating most things around me like texts. Rap wasn’t explicitly included in this, but it never made sense to me to exclude it either.”

Throughout What’s Good, Levin Becker extends this openness to critical sources. From Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Greg Tate to Mary Ruefle and Hua Hsu, Levin Becker summons up a wide range of voices. He provides us with a history of rap and places it within the Black literary traditions from which it derives; he explores specifically African American rhetorical tropes, such as signifyin(g), a humorous form of wordplay that works by indirection. In one chapter entitled “Intelligences,” he ponders the effect of lyrical dexterity in rap. He begins with an analysis of a particularly raunchy track by arguably one of the greatest rappers ever, Notorious B.I.G. “Even by today’s standards,” Levin Becker begins,

the standards of a world whose shock barrier has retreated steadily in slow creeps and sudden filthy lurches, a world in which it is the birthright, nay the imperative, of rappers of all genders and orientations to enumerate and commentate freaky sex acts in lurid detail, “One More Chance” is racy as fuck.

He then proceeds to explore the mind-boggling lyrical complexity of Notorious B.I.G. The bars culminate with what, at first, seems like a rather obvious boast (“They don’t call me Big for nothing”) but which turns out to be rather complex wordplay. “Imagine my delight,” Levin Becker writes,

to discover, at the bottom of a rabbit hole some years ago, that this maneuver has a name, a pedigree, some disputed etymological elements, a medium-sized Wikipedia entry — all that fly shit that gets the turtledoves hot and bothered. It’s called paraprosdokian, which breaks down to “against expectation.”

He then describes instances of paraprosdokian. He notes, though, that rappers themselves don’t use these kinds of technical terms. So why should he apply them? (By this point, he has quoted or sourced Notorious B.I.G., LL Cool J, W. E. B. Dubois, Jeff Chang, Khia, Ty Dolla $ign, Big L, Nikki Giovanni, Emily Lordi, Paul Edward’s 2009 book How to Rap, the website Genius, and Eminem and Ice-T discussing craft in the 2012 documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap.) He then moves to a consideration of inscrutability in poetry, via Jay-Z and Wallace Stevens.

Here’s where the chapter takes a fascinating turn: Levin Becker reflects on himself. “My intelligence,” he writes,

such as it is, is the kind that likes synthesizing, concatenating, solving puzzles. It likes facts that don’t serve an immediate purpose, if only so it can cross-reference them with other facts. It appreciates what Nabokov, the acquirer of languages and hunter and classifier of butterflies, calls the tactile delights of precise delineation.

He quotes William Empson, who describes the way “unexplained beauty arouses an irritation” to scratch an itch. The shift in his sources is telling about the point he is trying to make, something he ponders throughout the book. “Suppose signifying,” he continues,

playful as it is, is a kind of misdirection in the interest of survival. Survival, says Audre Lorde, is not an academic skill. […] Particularly in a country that has historically treated young people of color as challenges to be neutralized rather than collaborators and equals, I have to wonder whether there is something in this practice of naming and annotating and cross-referencing — in this vigorous, competitive understanding — that violates the covenant, that overcomes the poem’s resistance by force.

These kinds of moments speak a lot to the kind of criticism that Levin Becker practices.

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Among the various kinds of books about hip-hop — from autobiographical accounts such as Jay-Z’s Decoded (2010) to academic heavy-lifters like Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois’s Anthology of Rap (2010) and Jeff Chang’s history Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (2005) to biographical studies such as Don Charnas’s Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm (2022) — What’s Good earns its place in the small but essential canon of titles by literary writers or critics, notably Hanif Abdurraqib’s classic Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest (2019). What distinguishes Levin Becker’s book, though, is its Oulipian flare, which becomes a lens to explore those intricate linguistic structures that rappers call bars. That flare also applies, though, to Levin Becker’s own compositional technique.

All Oulipian texts must involve some kind of constraint, game, or formula, and I assume that What’s Good is no different. Oulipian language games, however, do not need to be extravagant, or even explicitly announced. Harry Mathews — the first American to be inducted into the group — even claimed that he forgot some of his own. So, within Levin Becker’s linked series of essays on a variety of linguistic topics relating to rap lies a hidden compositional rule of some kind, and part of the fun of reading a successful Oulipian book is figuring out what it is. My best guess is that Levin Becker is using hinge words — linguistically intuitive leaps that lead us from one chapter to the next. In one sequence of chapters, he addresses how words intersect with issues of race, gender, and racism: the topics flow based on a string of chapter headings about the b-word and the n-word, about whiteness, and then rather ingeniously about the use of the second person. Exactly how Levin Becker is composing the text, though, is never revealed. Whatever compositional techniques he employs are left to speculation, though it’s clear that his attention to the possibilities of linguistic play manifests in how he writes and how he interprets rap.

As a critic, Levin Becker never assumes anything. He approaches his subject with awareness, humility, and excitement. Rap is, after all, arguably the most significant verbal art form of the 20th century. It needs no validation from a highfalutin Eurocentric literary movement. It has had an exponentially greater impact on global culture than the Oulipo ever will. Hip-hop’s best MCs practice verbal dexterity of the highest order — backronyms, internal rhymes, acrostics, to say nothing of uniquely Black tropes such as signifyin(g) or the Supreme Mathematics of the Five-Percent Nation. Rap has its own forms of mastery, its own aesthetic legacies. Levin Becker never uses his Oulipian cred to validate or justify rap in terms of Euro-normative literary criteria (even if, at times, he deploys its rhetorical taxonomies). He’s skeptical and sensitive enough to be aware of that impulse. “I spend a lot of this book,” he writes,

thinking out loud about rap as process and as product and as language, wondering rather than finding out, being fascinated. That’s where I’m from, who I am. I’m more interested in questions than I am in answers, and that may well explain the nature of my privilege better than anything else I can say.

Maybe that’s why my initial question doesn’t really matter in the end. Levin Becker’s own engagement with the European avant-garde and its critical histories runs parallel to his exploration of rap and language, more a show-and-tell of two passions that don’t need each other but which, it turns out, have fascinating ways of relating.

And so, while still an ode to language and rap, What’s Good also becomes a nuanced example of how to write criticism. This is critical writing that shares what the critic sees language doing: “I prefer to think of the critic,” Levin Becker writes, “less as an arbiter of taste than as a kind of performative interpreter, someone who tries to understand a work and succeeds or fails in a candid and illuminating way.” Think of that opening example of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” “Maybe the job of the critic,” Levin Becker continues, “is to challenge the face value of the old binary poles, to set an example by publicly being a little bit bored with that which is simply good, and a little bit haunted by that which is still in the process — by transgressive means, antisocial means, bad means — of becoming it.”

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Aaron Peck is a contributing editor at frieze magazine. His work has recently appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Aperture, and Walrus.