Next week Yale University Press will publish a book called The Anthology of Rap [All Things Considered will air an interview with one of the editors, Adam Bradley, on Sunday]. Its pages contain the lyrics to more than 300 rap songs written and recorded between 1978 and this year — but they don’t contain any of the music. No voices. No melodies. No bass lines. Just text.

Sam Anderson, New York Magazine’s book critic, reviewed the Anthology — all 788 pages — but he did so without ever having heard more than a couple of the songs. Turns out he loved the songs on paper — he writes that he is “evangelically excited” about the book and its emphasis on rap as “lyric poetry.”


A Great Big Book of Rap Lyrics

But before we dismiss it entirely, let’s move on to the second thought that hit me when I received this book: most online lyric transcriptions are riddled with down-right embarassing errors. Having transcribed a few songs for The OHHLA myself, there’s often that one line you can’t quite make out, maybe due to a reference you don’t get or phrases you’re not familiar with, and you’re left just trying to sound it out… So, I wondered, did this book just google these songs and lazily cut and paste those transcriptions, ridiculous goofs and all?

I’m happy to report the answer to that seems to to be no. I’ve flipped through this volume again and again, looking to stumble upon something laughably stupid, and the only errors I could find are debatable and nitpicky. As an example, according to The Anthology, Slick Rick’s “I Shouldn’t Have Done It” starts out with the lyric:

“Well, I’ma tell you a story and I come out bluntly,
Want a ugly child? Hey, nobody would want me.”

But I’m pretty sure he’s actually saying:

“Well, I’ma tell you a story and I come out bluntly,
Born an ugly child. Hey, nobody would want me.”

But compare that to OHHLA’s:

“Well I’ma tell you a story and I come out bluntly
Wanna ugly shot, hey nobody will want me”

Now, that’s just clearly wrong. So The Anthology has stepped the game up considerably from the usual transcriptions found online, which goes a good way towards making this a more valuable resource. Even this example song has more errors on OHHLA, which are not carried over to The Anthology (the book and I agree that “I love the wedlock, what up, not going to front/ See the problem that arouses, why on earth did she want me?” should instead read, “I loved her a lot, word up, not going to front, see?/ The problem that arose* is why on earth did she want me?”). And both The Anthology and I concur that the OHHLA is the best of the online sources,** so The Anthology has the best transcriptions you’re going to find anywhere.

and on a less positive note:

Fact-Check the Rhyme: The Anthology of Rap is rife with transcription errors. Why is it so hard to get rap lyrics right?

And not all of the mistakes are small. Some stem not just from mishearing but from an apparent lack of understanding of the cultural context. For example, when KRS-ONE is quoted on a 1995 track as saying, “I reside like artifacts/ On the wrong side of the tracks, electrified,” artifacts should be Artifacts, as it is a reference to the group of the same name who authored the 1994 song “Wrong Side of the Tracks.” (Unlike many anthologies, this volume has no footnotes. Footnotes would have been useful to explain echoes, cross-references, in-jokes, esoterica, and so on.)