Nelson George's "Hip Hop America" is a 400-page book masquerading as a 200-page one. Had George chosen to encompass all the tales he tells here into one large, overarching story -- rather than relying on brief chapters and subchapters -- he might have written an essential piece of cultural criticism. What he winds up with, a critic/reporter's snapshots, isn't bad, but the structure doesn't give George room to let the contradictions of the story play out, to delve into his own relationship with the music, his love for it and his arguments with it.
I wouldn't be making that criticism if George weren't one of those critics I find myself turning to to make sense of a genre I've followed only intermittently. In my mid-30s, I'm still an avid pop music listener even though most of my contemporaries have stopped following it. But hip-hop, despite the songs and albums and artists that have won my love (like Missy Elliot, Timbaland and Magoo's "Welcome to Our World," De La Soul's "Stakes Is High," the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me," Tricky), has often left me feeling like an outsider. And it's largely a question of distance, confusion over whether what I'm hearing is a blunt reporting of reality or nihilistic celebration.
George appears to be confused by that, too. The story he tells in "Hip Hop Nation" is, from time to time, the story of his own growth as a music writer. He traces his own career as he recalls the elements that came together to make hip-hop -- DJ gigs by MCs like Kool Herc, graffiti, the evolution of popping and locking into break dancing. That affinity doesn't keep him from questioning what he sees as the strains of materialism and misogyny that have crept into the music. He steers through some thorny paths here, demonstrating how white money has fostered the music, but also refuting claims (made by anti-rap activist C. Delores Tucker among others) that gangsta rap is a ploy by white racists to degrade African-Americans.
Sometimes, George is too willing to give the benefit of the doubt, as when he questions his initial reactions to the misogyny of 2 Live Crew, and sometimes he's just flat unconvincing. No matter how "alleged" he claims the anti-Semitism of Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome" was, the lyrics ("Crucifixion ain't no fiction/So-called chosen frozen ... Still they got me like Jesus") knock that "alleged" into the dumper. But George is a rare critic, one who makes his writing accessible to readers with little or no experience of his subject without dumbing himself down.
In his new collection, "Grown Up All Wrong," Robert Christgau recounts a conversation in which he told George he needed to resolve the contradiction of celebrating "the integration of black creators into American culture" while regretting the passing of segregated institutions that produced specifically black ways of shaping the world." George replied that this is a permanent, unresolvable contradiction. "Hip Hop Nation" reads like a series of notes for the full-bodied examination of that contradiction that George has yet to write.