Famous Rappers and Their 20th-Century Literary Counterparts


[Editor’s note: Flavorwire is counting down our most popular features of 2010. This post comes in at position number 8. It was originally published September 2, 2010.] If you’ve read a magazine in the past few years, you’ve probably encountered the fiction writer’s lament: America, they say, no longer has room for literature. Google is apparently rotting our brains. Flashing screens everywhere feed us a constant glut of infomercials, video games, Snooki’s hair poof — what literary figure can compete with that? But the decline of the printed word has seen the concurrent rise of a different kind of wordsmith: the rapper. The work of hip-hop artists might be collected on mixtapes instead of in weighty tomes, but in both games, lyrical dexterity and a nimble wit are key. To put this all in perspective, we’ve determined the 20th century literary doppelgangers of 10 top rappers.

Big Boi = William Faulkner

Now, Wild Bill Faulkner never had a partner quite as prolific or snappily dressed as Andre 3000, but both are regional figures that transcended their subject matter — in both cases, the South — to earn national recognition. Both paved the way for other Southerners in their respective fields, ushering in the ages of Southern literature and Southern rap. They’re both darkly eloquent and utilize the same fictionalized cast of characters repeatedly: for Faulkner, the Snopeses and the Compsons, for Big Boi General Patton and Sir Lucious Left-foot. Plus, Big Boi’s lyrical prowess often falls into the same modernist, stream-of-consciousness voice that made Faulkner famous. Just sayin’.

Ja Rule = Jay McInerney

In the 1980s, McInerney was a fresh-faced up-and-comer whose novel Bright Lights, Big City had just taken the New York literary world by storm. Similarly, Ja Rule exerted an iron-fisted rule over the radio waves in the late 1990s and early 2000s. McInerney and Ja Rule both celebrated cocaine culture and had an arsenal of flashy new-fangled tricks up their sleeve to impress their audience. And now, when you mention either of their names, everyone groans.

The Notorious B.I.G. = Ernest Hemingway

Papa Hemingway and Big Poppa have similar philosophies driving their work: machismo and economy of words. Biggie’s albums and Hemingway’s novels are both considered classics, referred to again and again by current writers and musicians. Biggie and Hemingway inflated their tales of toughness and got into violent conflicts with their contemporaries — what up, Tupac? — and both died tragically. Not to mention their mutual disdain for parties and bullshit…

Tupac Shakur = F. Scott Fitzgerald

Hemingway and Biggie’s respective rivals, Fitzgerald and Shakur, both favored more lush, adjective-filled styles. Fitzgerald’s portraits of Roaring ’20s parties parallel Tupac’s tales of liquor and drugs. Both had mood swings and brief, largely unsuccessful careers in Hollywood. Both had trouble with women, though Tupac’s meandered into criminal territory. And both died prematurely, robbing their fans of their next stroke of genius.

Wu-Tang Clan = Beat Poets

Building on the work of the generation before them, both the Wu-Tang Clan and the Beat Generation broke with tradition by focusing on their own fantasy worlds — Shaolin in Staten Island and Bohemia in Greenwich Village. Individually, several members of the Clan — like the Beats — are brilliant in their own right. The RZA, the GZA, and ODB were the Wu-Tang’s Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Both groups ushered in a new age for their art forms and dabbled in the spiritual. And we would have liked to be at the dinner table to see Ken Kesey and Method Man bond.

Lil Wayne = Vladimir Nabokov

Lil Wayne may not have Nabokov’s Russian background or his academic career, but in many ways he occupies the same position. Both forge the standards of their fields. Nabokov’s work, scrupulously edited, each word meticulously chosen, isn’t that far away from Lil Wayne’s madly clever plays on words. Both have reputations for being abrasive and taunting other rappers/writers with less talent for impressive metaphors.

MF Doom = Thomas Pynchon

Mysterious, reclusive artists with penchants for the experimental, the weird, and the theatrical, Pynchon and Doom are literary soul mates. Their personal lives are secrets, but we do know this: both make work aimed at making your cerebral cortex explode.

Chuck D = John Steinbeck

Both are socially conscious, plain-spoken, and obvious in their political agendas. And they should both be required high-school consumption.

Nicki Minaj = Gertrude Stein

The baddest bitches of the 1920s French art scene and the 2010 hip-hop circuit, respectively, Minaj and Stein are the less recognized members of salons that produced other hugely popular, critically renowned artists. Minaj collaborates with everyone from Ludacris to Drake to Lil Wayne, while Stein nurtured the likes of Picasso and Dos Passos in her Paris salon. It’s rumored that Minaj might also share Stein’s taste for sapphic companionship.

Jay-Z = Tom Wolfe

Once radical, hip young things who now mostly reflect on the lives they used to lead, Jay-Z and Wolfe followed similar paths from upstart to institution. And they both look fine in an all-white suit.

That’s our take, but what do y’all think? Leave your corrections, complaints, and comparisons in the comments!