Monday, 19 February 2018

Advance Book Review: Superfans by George Dohrmann

Release Date: February 20, 2018

60% of Americans identify as sports fans, and if you're reading this review you probably count yourself among the ranks of athletic partisans. Originally inspired by his experiences fielding calls from irate readers while working the sports desk at The Los Angeles Times at the start of his journalistic career, sportswriter George Dohrmann explores the most extreme depths of fandom in his new book Superfans and details the psychology behind such behavior. It is not as gripping or powerful as his absolutely fantastic Play Their Hearts Out but Superfans is a breezy and enjoyable application of pop psychology to the sporting realm.

Dohrmann is currently a writer for The Athletic and previously served as an investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated and won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles revealing academic fraud at the University of Minnesota while at the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. He is a tremendously gifted writer with a knack for deep and engaging character portraits. Superfans has a bit more an educational bent than some of his other work but he still excels at bringing to life and colorful and outrageous fans he meets such as Steven Nevets, the founder of the Portland Timbers' Timbers Army and the eccentric forefather of fan psychology Dr. Dan Wann.

Superfans bounces around the major aspects of fandom including illusions of control, affiliation and identification, and hatred or rivals. Each chapter has a mix of profiles and a little detail on relevant studies. Given the minutia researched across a variety of academic disciples, I was surprised to learn the marginalized position of fan psychology within academia. Most of the leading researchers are concentrated in pedestrian universities and for whatever reason cluster in the Midwest. Dohrmann usually mentions the conclusions of each article, but I wish he provided more detail at the psychological concepts hypothesized as causing such findings. The book might have benefited from a co-author from academia to give the book a little more scientific heft. I realize it is intended for sports fans more than psychologists, but if you are looking for some meaty psychological and neurological explanations you may find yourself wanting.

The majority of studies in the space seem to be quirky and along the lines of "The Impact of Team Identification on Biased Ratings of Odors." Some of these studies are legitimately fascinating and it is great for them to be shared with a broader audience. However, a good portion of the research papers lean heavily on self-reporting and I would imagine that the approach could cause some issues. It doesn't take a PhD to acknowledge that sometimes passionate sports fans can be a tad biased, especially when reflecting on their own behavior. Sometimes the conclusions are essentially reaffirmations of common sense, such as the notion that fathers are hugely influential in shaping rooting interests and that many fans are looking for social acceptance and a sense of camaraderie. Dohrmann also largely ignores sports fans beyond America's shores, and I would have appreciated expanding the book's geographical scope, especially when it comes to some of the more soccer-mad countries.

Gripes aside, Superfans was still quite a fun read. Dohrmann writes with a sense of compassion and empathy for the fan and he gives his superfan subjects a sense of humanity that can be lacking in some accounts. It's a nice mix of sociology and psychology applied to the sports fan, a topic that for some reason has largely been ignored by the brobdingnagian pop psychology publishing world to this point. Sure, I would have liked some more scientific rigor in some of its explanations (a psych professor co-author could have done wonders) but I still had a good time with Superfans and think it will appeal to any sports fan with at least a passing interest in the social sciences.

7.5 / 10 


Saturday, 23 December 2017

Advance Book Review: All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams


Release Date: February 13, 2018

The Wire has aged remarkably well. Almost 10 years after airing its final episode, the show's themes and subject matter are just as relevant as ever, if not more so. It has also played a huge role in ushering in the era of "peak television" and slow-burning narrative dramas like Breaking Bad and House of Cards. While there are plenty of encyclopedic volumes analyzing episodes and story arcs and critically assessing the show through various academic lenses, there are no comprehensive accounts chronicling The Wire's history and production. Jonathan Abrams' All The Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of the Wire adeptly fills this gap, providing an illuminating and insightful oral history of the groundbreaking series. With participation from co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns, studio executives, production staff, and essentially every major actor involved with the show, Abrams is able to cobble together a captivating history of the show that should delight all of its fans. 

The book traces the history of the show from creator David Simon's experiences as a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun through its five seasons and its enduring legacy. Proceeding largely chronologically, Abrams explores the show's influences, its major themes, turbulent relationship with HBO, and more, largely through the eyes of those directly involved with it. One recurring subject in All the Pieces Matter is the show's obsession with realism and the painstaking lengths it took to cultivate it. From the first day of shooting, actors and production staff were taking steps to present an accurate depiction of the streets of Baltimore. Actors such as Felicia Pearson (Snoop) were able to bring their personal experiences into the show and help foster its authenticity, and this verisimilitude actually compelled a real-life criminal in Baltimore to surrender himself to Wire actors portraying local cops, believing he had come into contact with the real deal.

Although this is a departure in both format and subject matter from Abrams' last book (the excellent Boys Among Men about the preps-to-pros era in the NBA)he wrote several definitive oral histories on Grantland about basketball (my personal favorite is his history of the 2005 Pacers-Pistons "Malice at the Palace" brawl). Abrams clearly admires The Wire and writes knowledgeably on the subject, to the extent that I was surprised to realize he basically exclusively focused on basketball during his time at Grantland. Abrams begins each chapter with some exposition but then lets his prose take a backseat, letting the players tell their stories. Additionally, Abrams is able to get his interviewees to open up to him, admitting mistakes and offering candid opinions that greatly enrich the reading experience, and he logically organized his book by keeping things reasonably chronological but diving deeply into particular broader areas when applicable. 

Staying consistent with its title, Abrams is able to hunt down virtually every major player involved with the show and the reader discovers the pivotal roles that supporting actors such as Andre Royo (Bubbles) and assistant directors had in the show's success. The only actor with a substantial role missing was Robert Chew (Prop Joe), who tragically died from a heart attack in 2013, and many of his castmates recounted stories about his valuable role as a mentor to younger actors such as the four young teenagers who were central to Season 4. Like many other fans who started watching The Wire after the show's conclusion (invariably after finally caving in after repeated fervid recommendations from friends) and it was strange to see how frequently the show flirted with cancellation. Not just after its languidly-developing first season or the dramatic departure from Season 1 to Season 2, but for virtually each of its 5 seasons (the city of Baltimore compounded matters by threatening to pull the show's shooting permits right before Season 2). Abrams is able to talk with several HBO executives about such matters and get their takes, but their explanations don't make this fact any less mind-boggling.

I have always enjoyed oral histories for their quick pace and colorful insider stories, but I also readily acknowledge their flaws. The two biggest problems with most oral histories is their disjointedness and limited participation. I Want My MTV was a fun read but plagued with random non-sequiturs and James A Miller's mammoth tomes on Saturday Night Live, ESPN, and Creative Artists Agency were generally entertaining but hindered by some key players such as Eddie Murphy sitting out. Thankfully, Abrams is able to avoid both pitfalls through herculean wrangling efforts and adopting a sound structure and format. Sometimes I wish Abrams would chime in a bit more and provide extra background in certain sections, but overall the book flows well, especially given its format. Talking with so many different players allows for multiple perspectives and opinions, and thankfully everyone seems to largely agree on most matters and stories and Abrams is not forced to mediate between multiple conflicting viewpoints. Simon and Burns and the actors (rightfully) are the biggest contributors to the book, but I also liked hearing from writers such as George Pelecanos and Richard Price about their roles in shaping the show. 

The book is packed with anecdotes and trivia (John C. Reilly was one of the early actors considered for McNulty and actors were often prevented from interacting with their real-life inspirations). Yes, some of the trivia such as Omar being originally intended as a bit player are likely familiar to fans, but the insights from David Simon about his thought process about whether a gay character would fit in his gritty, inner-city world and how actor Michael K. Williams interpreted his role add extra color and new revelations to such stories. There was a period in college where I became obsessed with the show and devoured virtually every piece of content related to the series, which like most pop culture minutia has remained moored in long-term memory and crowded out bank passwords and other far more important information, and the book was still quite revealing.

All the Pieces Matter is designed with fans in mind, chock-full of spoilers and references that will fly over the head of the uninitiated, and it is a treat for those who have watched and enjoyed the series (even if they didn't care much for Season 5, like this particular reviewer). The Wire was one of the greatest television shows ever and All The Pieces Matter is the definitive history it deserves. Not only is it an excellent book, it also inspired me to restart the show on HBO Go with an even greater sense of appreciation for its craft and attention to detail. Perhaps this is a bit pessimistic given we're still in December 2017, but I would not be surprised (or bummed out) if All The Pieces Matter ends up being my favorite book published in 2018.

9 / 10 

Friday, 15 September 2017

Advance Book Review: Homogenic by Emily Mackay

Release Date: October 5, 2017

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Bjork's Homogenic, and while the album was not her most commercially-successful or ambitious release, it was her first truly thematically and musically-cohesive album and many fans (this book review author included, though Vespertine makes a strong challenge for the spot every now and again) believe it to be her best full-length. Clearly this is an important work deserving its own entry in Bloomsbury Press' long-running 33 1/3 series, which are generally light and breezy critical explorations of seminal albums. There is no set template for 33 1/3 books, leading to a good amount of diversity, but Emily Mackay, a writer for the likes of NME, The Guardian, and The Quietus, adopts the popular "let's briefly analyze this album from every possible relevant angle" framework and executes it quite well. Her end result is a highly readable look at a classic album that should offer insights and new material for even the most devoted Bjork enthusiasts.

Homoegenic is divided into nine chapters that each study the album from a different perspective. Mackay starts by examining how Bjork's turbulent experiences in the mid-90s, including receiving a letter bomb from a mentally-unstable fan and attacking a reporter at an airport, influenced Homogenic. The middle is devoted to the album itself, looking at lyrical and musical themes and how everything was constructed. The book ends with a study of Bjork's boundary-pushing music videos and experiments with virtual reality and how Bjork has always been at the forefront of technical innovations (her official website launched in 1994 on the same month as the U.S. government's) and places Homogenic in the context of Bjork's discography.

Mackay draws heavily from Bjork's interviews, and the book benefits considerably from Bjork being such a prolific interview subject and so open and honest with music journalists. In addition to the usual magazine interviews, Mackay also mines chat logs and other communications and all of the quotes she shares are relevant and thoughtful. A good bit of them were also new to me, which is a considerable achievement given I have devoured a substantial chunk of the content on the outstanding bjork.fr fansite (as Mackay did over the course of writing her book). That is not to say that this is just a rehashing of old interviews, as the author provides her own analysis when breaking down the album's lyrical and musical content and she also was able to interview major players who worked on the album including composer Eumir Deodato. Some 33 1/3 books fall flat with die-hard fans of the album because a lot of the content is old hat to them, but Homogenic does not suffer from this as there is plenty of original material.

The best 33 1/3 books cause listeners to increase their appreciation for their subjects and Mackay succeeds in that area as well. She identifies several subtle musical flourishes that such as how a short synth riff emulates whale noises during Bachelorette and how the electronic whines that open "Hunter" are actually distorted samples of an accordion that I wasn't aware of even after listening to the album tons of times. Homogenic made me want to jump back into the album and look for all the themes and elements Mackay touched upon in her book as well as look for other things I might have missed. Fans of Bjork will really enjoy this and Homogenic is one of the stronger entries in the series.

8.5 / 10 

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Advance Book Review: Greater than Ever: New York's Big Comeback by Daniel Doctoroff

Release Date: September 12, 2017
Amazon / Goodreads

In some respects, Greater than Ever: New York's Big Comeback could appear to be the victim of bad timing. This summer the city has struggled with especially frequent subway delays, due in part to unprecedented levels of overcrowding. It should be noted, however, that the increased ridership is largely a result of the tremendous growth the city has enjoyed as it recovered from the September 11th attacks. At the start of the Bloomberg administration in 2002, the future of the city seemed much bleaker and the prospect of subway crowding far unlikelier. New York had lost 43,000 jobs in the wake of the attack, 18,000 small businesses were destroyed or displaced and vacancy rates in lower Manhattan skyrocketed. Fifteen years later, the city has seen tremendous development in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn has enjoyed spectacular growth in both population and purveyors of artisan mayonnaise, and new developments such as the High Line, Barclays Center, Hudson Yards, and Brooklyn Bridge Park have revitalized neighborhoods and driven sizable economic growth. Daniel Doctoroff served as the Deputy Mayor for economic development and rebuilding during the first six years of the Bloomberg administration, and in Greater than Ever he reflects on his tenure in the role and how the city achieved such impressive, subway-clogging growth. It is an enlightening and engaging peek into the messy world of urban politics and one of the better books I've read on the subject.

Doctoroff's book is essentially a memoir of his tenure under Mike Bloomberg and touches upon all of the major projects he worked on. It details efforts such as re-zoning 40% of the city to foster growth in neighborhoods such as Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, building new stadiums for the Mets and Yankees, attracting businesses to locate in the city, and improve the lives of New Yorkers through environmental regulations and pedestrianizing streets. The author was a political neophyte when he initially took on the role, having worked in investment banking and private equity before being tapped by Bloomberg. He quickly learned the importance of schmoozing and vote-trading and developed advanced politician mollification techniques to help manufacture the sausage known as urban policy. Doctoroff was at the front lines of many massive initiatives conducted by the Bloomberg administration and describes the often contentious behind-the-scenes negotiations with state and city politicians to get his ideas off the ground.

The book is not afraid to get into the policy weeds, and Doctoroff spends ample time analyzing the rationale for his redevelopment strategy and the intended effects of his policy interventions. Greater than Ever is intended for the lay reader, however, (basically if you are a regular reader of the "New York" section of The New York Times, liked The Power Broker or The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or have any interest in New York City or urban development in general, you'll really like this book and nothing is going to go over your head from a reading difficulty perspective), and Doctoroff is an amiable and intelligible guide through urban economic development concepts. While he may have a business background rather than an academic one, Doctoroff delves into topics such as tax increment financing and selling air rights with a clarity and lucidity that college students probably wish their professors had.

Greater than Ever also offers an account of life in the Bloomberg administration and some insight into how the mayor ran the city (very much like a business, it turns out). Calculating, analytical, and hyper-rational, Bloomberg comes off very well in the book and is portrayed as someone with the best interest of New Yorkers at heart. He was willing to make the tough call on politically-unsavory measures such as raising property taxes and restricting smoking if it meant that overall quality-of-life would improve for the city. The reader also learns about Bloomberg's management philosophy, which is largely based around finding smart, talented, and passionate people and trusting them to make the right calls, which is how Doctoroff had a brief stint as head of Bloomberg L.P. after stepping down as deputy mayor. Doctoroff acknowledges that Bloomberg had his flaws and wasn't the perfect mayor, and while he clearly admires the man Greater than Ever doesn't ever feel like a hagiography of Bloomberg or the city. Greater than Ever is fair-minded and objective throughout, quick to admit mistakes and Doctoroff and Bloomberg's foibles.

Doctoroff was criticized by some in the press as being too preoccupied with the city's 2012 Olympics bid, and his efforts at wooing the International Olympic Committee receive several chapters in Greater than Ever. While his Olympic role may seem unrelated to his deputy mayorship, he viewed the games as a way to galvanize action and development. The thinking is that every city wants to put their best foot forward while hosting the world and hosting the Olympics both motivates considerable new construction and improvements and creates a hard deadline for their completion. Doctoroff specifically wanted to leverage the games to get a new stadium and convention center built on what would eventually become Hudson Yards. The book covers all the wining-and-dining necessary in an Olympic bid and navigating through all the national governing bodies and greasing and/or fawning over them, as well as the campaign's pitches to the IOC and other bodies and how absurdly stubborn former MLB Commissioner and head of the 1984 Los Angeles games Peter Ueberroth was throughout the process (even Donald Trump comes off better in the book, as while he had a few petty spats with Doctoroff he sent him a nice thank you card (albeit with a typo) when he stepped down and was occasionally cooperative with Doctoroff). I'm not sure such extensive coverage of the selection process and other minutiae really contributed to the book's major topic, but the Olympics were central to some major redevelopment processes and I also am personally interested in all the work that goes into such a bid. Readers less enthusiastic about sports and/or associated selection processes in order to attract sporting events can find solace in the fact that these passages are interwoven throughout the book (because again, the Olympics was intended to serve as a catalyst for development to achieve Doctoroff's development goals) and it's not like Greater than Ever turns into a book about the IOC for 100 consecutive pages or anything.

Ultimately, Greater than Ever does a splendid job at outlining New York's economic comeback that began in the 2000's. Doctoroff worked tirelessly on New York's development and its Olympic bid and his passion for both areas comes through on every page, as well as his deep knowledge on such subjects. His book is an excellent read and benefits greatly from his prominent role in the rebuilding effort as an insider and trusted confidante of Mike Bloomberg. If you are looking for an enlightening and at times even engrossing read about urban policy and development you should pick up Greater than Ever. 

8.0 / 10 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Advance Book Review: Betaball by Erik Malinowski

Release Date: October 3, 2017

Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History is a decent chronicle of the Golden State Warriors' recent run of success, though I was disappointed by its light treatment of the "how" in its subtitle. The reader doesn't gain much insight into how the team utilized cutting-edge analytics and technological platforms to forge its success, with the book instead focusing largely on season-by-season recaps with little additional analysis. At its worst it reads like a digest of game recaps with details the average Warriors fan is likely already familiar with. There are a few compelling passages when author Erik Malinowski covers some of the innovations and strategies leveraged by the Warriors' players and front office, but I can't recommend the book too strongly to the casual NBA fan. Warrior fans should get some enjoyment out of Betaball, though they should be forewarned that there may not be a ton of new material for them. 

The book does start out strongly, outlining the storied history of the Warriors and how former owner Chris Cohan helped drive the team deep into the Western Conference doldrums, at one point going 19 seasons without reaching the playoffs. There are also detailed profiles of major actors in the team's turnaround, such as new owner Joe Lacob, a former Silicon Valley venture capitalist who attempted to apply his business philosophies to running the Warriors. The Warriors have their fair share of quirky and engaging characters, and when Malinowski describes how Lacob built his front office or covers coach Steve Kerr's cosmopolitan childhood Betaball at times feels like Michael Lewis' book chronicling another Bay Area professional sports franchise looking to gain competitive advantages through unorthodox means. Malinowski is the lead writer for the Warriors on Bleacher Report and has been published in Wired and Rolling Stone. He clearly has a lot of passion for his subject and to his credit the book is well-researched and comprehensive. There are brief mentions of how Lacob tried to change the company's culture and emphasize analytics and apply the business principles that served him so well in the VC world to basketball. 

From time to time Malinowski will mention advanced new technologies utilized by the Warriors, though he is frustratingly light on details or analysis. The Warriors were early adopters of player-tracking software such as SportVU, developed proprietary performance metrics, and even tracked player psychographics to help manage cultural fits and personalities. They even gave Kevin Durant virtual reality goggles to simulate the experience of walking out onto the Oracle Arena as a Warrior when they were recruiting him, and while the technology fritzed out during their meeting it seems that it didn't turn off KD from the team. As someone who is fascinated by such technologies, I wish Malinowski spent more time outlining how the Warriors employed such tools. I understand that team officials might be tight-lipped about such matters, but Malinowski could try to reach out to the founders of such platforms and tools to speak in broad terms about how their stuff works (readers interested in learning more about such things should check out Brandon Sneed's Head in the Game, which features many company founders more than happy to tout their products). Many of the "season recap" books can quickly descend into monotony and read like box scores tied together with a tiny bit of prose, and Betaball succumbs to this at times. The Warriors' unorthodox approach to running a team offered Malinowski a compelling angle to enliven the rather staid recap genre and I feel like he could have done more with it. 

The bulk of Betaball is season-by-season reviews of the Warriors' campaigns, beginning with Steph Curry's rookie season in 2009-2010. Malinowski highlights notable games and off-court happenings and draws heavily from primary sources. To my knowledge Malinowski didn't conduct any additional interviews for the book, so what you get is basically a series of game recaps without much additional insight. As someone who likes basketball but is not a Warriors fan, this format grew tiresome as I became bored by Malinowski reciting Curry's shooting performances, describing a few key plays, and noting controversial/incendiary/insightful comments uttered in press conferences. The book covers the 2009-2010 season through the 2015-2016 season (with a brief epilogue covering the Warriors' Finals win in 2017) and there is no real suspense or tension for any reader who paid one iota of attention to general basketball happenings over the last few years. Will the Warriors break the record for best regular season record? Will the Warriors blow their 3-1 Finals lead to the Cavs? Will Kevin Durant come to Oakland? Spoiler Alert: Yes, Yes, Yes. I realize that society's collective memory and attention span seems to get shorter and shorter, but the average reader is probably well aware what went down in the 2016 NBA Finals, and rehashing events without much additional analysis isn't going to be all that engaging. 

While parts of this review can be rightly interpreted as harsh, Beta Ball is a fine entry in the "season recap" genre. My disappointment is a result of Malinowski devoting too many pages to the "what" (the Warriors winning a lot) and not enough to the "how" that helped them turn around the franchise. If you're a fan of the team you will probably enjoy rekindling these largely positive memories, but average fans may be left wanting more. 

5.5 / 10

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Advance Book Review: 4th and Goal Every Day by Phil Savage with Ray Glier


Release Date: August 29, 2017

Dating back to the start of the 2008 season, Alabama has played in exactly three regular season games in which it had been eliminated from national title contention. This is an absolutely mind-boggling factoid and a testament to the outstanding job Nick Saban has done leading the Crimson Tide since he arrived at the team in 2007. Despite ridiculous levels of staff turnover, he has managed to churn out dominant seasons year after year. In 4th and Goal Everyday, former Saban co-worker (the two worked together as assistants under Bill Belichick with the Browns), ex-Browns General Manager (the less said about that the better, to his credit he did draft Joe Thomas), and current Alabama radio analyst and Executive Director of the Senior Bowl Phil Savage investigates the secrets to Saban's success at Alabama.

I approached the book with some trepidation because its presumably publishing house-decided title seemed ridiculously cliched and portended a slew of clunky metaphors and hagiographic prose. And yes, Saban comes off very well (there is a brief section on his less-than-stellar tenure with the Miami Dolphins, but it's not particularly long or thoughtful), but there is some substance between talking about how great and successful he is. Savage is able to leverage his connections with Saban to share stories from their days as NFL assistants and how working under Belichick shaped Saban's coaching philosophies. He is still very close to Saban and even writes up film notes for Saban to help prepare for games, but this isn't a fly-on-the-wall account of a season in the life of Saban. Rather, Savage relies mostly on anecdotes and interviews with former players and coaches to help the reader understand how Saban operates. Thankfully, he is able to get a wide array of former Tide players to open up about their experiences and his stories from the Browns also help the reader learn about what shaped Saban during his formative coaching years.

So what makes Saban so great? Savage offers several reasons, dividing his book into the various contributors to the Tide's dynastic run over the last few years. Some factors include emphasizing fundamentals, a tremendous emphasis on recruiting (which has to be helped by the Tide's status as a SEC juggernaut, it's much easier to get talented players when you're located in a high school football hotbed and are consistently the best college team in the country), and constant desire for improvement and innovation and adapting to and setting trends. He is also excellent at developing talent, to the point where some NFL scouts ding Alabama prospects because they assume that Saban has milked all he can out of them and they have basically hit their skill ceilings.

The reader gains considerable insight into Saban's quirks and personality. He is obsessed with little details and perfectionist puts a lot of pressure on himself and his players and fellow coaches, with this high-stakes ethos serving as the source for the (rather cheesy, to be honest) title of this book. Anecdotes such as how Bill Belichick forced Savage to run tryouts for Browns ball boys illustrate the "no detail is too small" philosophy that Saban adheres to at Bama. Savage also details several coaching innovations over the last several decades that Saban is leveraging, such as the Cowboys' data-driven approach to drafting players that began in the early days of the franchise.

Overall, 4th and Goal Everyday is a pleasant read for Alabama fans and anyone interested in how dominant college football programs operate. Savage devotes plenty of time to X's and O's such as why Saban stopped recruiting traditional Nose Tackles and how he coaches defensive backs but also how he fosters a culture of winning and more off-the-field matters. It definitely seems geared towards Alabama supporters, and even die-hard fans may get a bit bored by Savage monotonously detailing recent major Alabama games, but all in all it's a decent read. You're not going to get a deep psychoanalytical investigation into Saban (I doubt he's the kind of person to really open up all that much about anything anyway) but you will finish with a better understanding of how he has been so successful for so long at Alabama.

6.5 /10

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Advance Book Review: Wiggaz with Attitude by Andrew Emery

Release Date: August 21, 2017

The basic premise of Andrew Emery's new memoir Wiggaz With Attitude isn't particularly earth-shattering. The author chronicles his experiences growing up as a white hip-hop fan in an ethnically vanilla region where his music preferences were met with confusion and occasionally derision from his peers. He also goes into considerable depth on his dabblings as a rapper during his teenage years, which, as the "My Life As a Failed White Rapper" subtitle might suggest, resulted in little more than a few random recordings and performances at sparsely-attended shows. While Emery occasionally lapses into self-indulgence when he deeply examines his old recordings that even he acknowledges often aren't particularly high-quality, his writing chops and clear passion and knowledge for all things hip-hop caused Wiggaz With Attitude to exceed my expectations and made for a quite entertaining read.

Emery grew up in 1980s England and following the music was a dramatically difficult endeavor during its early years. He writes of scrounging for whatever bits of hip-hop he could find on obscure radio stations, immediately befriending the few schoolmates who had an interest in the music, and poring through the pages of Hip-Hop Connection, a British monthly that actually predates The Source as the world's first hip-hop magazine. The music had a huge impact on his worldview and eventually inspired ambitions of rap stardom. Emery began to write rhymes in his early teens and performed in a few local groups. The bulk of Wiggaz with Attitude centers around Emery's limited rap career, detailing his music evolution (Emery cycled through several different hip-hop lyrical personas, including an especially amusing period as an uber-conscious, albeit somewhat hypocritical and misguided, rapper) and attempts at making it big while balancing music with making money and school.

Emery combines wistful nostalgia with reflective embarrassment and is an engaging guide through his rap career, teenage years, and hip-hop music in general from the 1980s through the early 90s. He brings an encyclopedic knowledge on the subject, getting way into the weeds on hip hop arcana and trivia such as the legendary 1981 battle between the Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Romantic Five at Harlem World and his favorite songs about cars in the book's frequent footnotes. My personal highlights while reading Wiggaz were the passages where Emery riffs on random hip-hop minutia or goes off on topics like why live rap is often so underwhelming. He's also a gifted writer, perceptively noting that rappers will often request the crowd to make substantial amounts of noise, preferably of "the 'motherfucking' variety" and taking KRS-One (Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everybody) to task for never specifying the few individuals who are above knowledge over his thirty-plus years as a recording artist. Wiggaz also benefits from the fact that U.K. hip-hop fans are rather underrepresented in the genre's limited literary canon, and it was interesting for me to read about how the music was received and followed in the country.

At times Wiggaz felt like it dwelled too much on Emery's rap career. This isn't a book like Hot Karl's Kanye West Owes Me $300 where he seemed on the precipice of fame and just had a few bad bounces that doomed him to relative obscurity. Outside of a brief flash of interest from Gee Street Records (who released P.M. Dawn's eclectic and critically-acclaimed 1992 album Of the Heart, Of the Soul, of the Cross: The Utopian Experience), Emery's rap groups never came anywhere close to making it big, medium, or small. Which is totally fine, and doesn't detract from his reflections on what the genre meant to him as a white kid growing up in Leeds and small-town England or his sense of wonder at finally traveling to the hip-hop mecca of New York City. And Emery is self-effacing and is always willing for the reader to have a laugh at his teenage rapper self's expense when sharing some of his old lyrics. Still, the book would occasionally drag when Emery would analyze seemingly every song put out by his rap crews. I liked Emery's review of his forays into didactic and super-political hip-hop and his posse cut about drinking tea was clever but a lot of his other songs were kinda bland (a fact that Emery willingly points out) and grew tiresome to read through.
 
One frustrating aspect of Wiggaz is that there are times it feels like Emery is holding back on the reader. Early on there is a footnote about a time when he punched Woody Harrelson at a party without much further context, and I understand why he didn't elaborate much on that (though as he tells it the True Detective star was in the wrong) in what is ostensibly a memoir about growing up as a hip-hop head. I'm more referring to how the book's narrative arc basically ends after Emery graduates university and gives up his rapping career. This would have been fine and understandable if he became an accountant or something similarly un-hip-hop, but Emery instead worked at the aforementioned Hip-Hop Connection magazine, eventually becoming its contributing editor. He teases the reader by mentioning in passing activities like playing pool with the Beatnuts, a disastrous interview with Method Man, Prodigy falling asleep on him, and conducting a phone interview with Lauryn Hill while she was in the shower. I would have loved for him to have elaborated on at least some of these and share some of his other adventures in hip-hop journalism. We can at least take solace in the fact that this isn't Emery's only book (he previously penned The Book of Hip-Hop Cover Art and is currently working on a book about hip-hop memorabilia.

As part of doing due diligence and adequately performing my duty as a book blogger, I perused Emery's website and found that he does in fact have plans to eventually release a book called Adventures with Rappers, and it's safe to say that I'll being pre-ordering (or better yet requesting a review copy) the first second I can. Wiggaz showcases Emery's wit and deep knowledge about hip-hop and his ability to entertain the reader. It's a funny and reflective paean to hip-hop that refreshingly doesn't take the genre (or Emery's limited contributions to it) all that seriously but does an excellent job at capturing how the music has captivated generations of fans from the Bronx to Bingham, Nottingshire.

8 / 10