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University Of Missouri Professor Explains His Jay Z And Kanye Course

Professor Andrew Hoberek sheds light on his goals with the English class, and why Jay and 'Ye are "working on a level comparable to any poet or writer out there."

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The kingly tandem of Jay Z and Kanye West has yielded quite a laundry list of incredible music. Since they first began working together in the early 2000s, Jay and ’Ye have gone to evolve—collectively and respectively—and break glass ceilings along the way, while cementing themselves as music gods in the flesh. 

After releasing their excellent 2011 opus Watch The Throne, the two went on to release two of the most talked-about albums last year, in Jay’s groundbreaking Magna Carta … Holy Grail and Kanye’s unconventional Yeezus, which has media outlets left-and-right dissecting the potential long-term impact of their uncompromised marketing tactics. 

Truly a testament to how far their relationship and artistry have evolved, next fall, the two-man power trip’s unique relationship will be explored in an English class at the University of Missouri.

Originally introduced in February of 2013, the course, aptly titled English 2169: Jay Z And Kanye West, will take a close look at the careers of the duo from three different perspectives: (1) Where do they fit within, and how do they change, the history of hip-hop music?, (2) How is what they do similar to and different from what poets do?, and (3) How does their rise to both celebrity and corporate power alter what we understand as the American dream?

In addition to watching their videos and listening to the legends' music, course material for the class, instructed by Professor Andrew Hoberek, includes “Jay Z’s Decoded; histories of and critical works on rap music by Jeff Chang, Adam Bradley, and others; and one or two good studies of how poetry works.”

This morning, REVOLT exchanged e-mails with Hoberek to discuss reintroducing the course next semester, and some of his goals with the class, and its academic aim.

REVOLT: Now you could have taught a course that dissected the iconic status and influence of other lionized musicians such as The Notorious B.I.G. or Kurt Cobain (with Nirvana), or any number of other artists. What led you to the decision of having Jay Z and Kanye West be the central topic for an entire course?

Professor Andrew Hoberek: That was a question the students were always happy to challenge me on, which itself led to some productive discussions about what makes an artist great. There have been other rap and rock artists who merit the title of “Major Author” (the name of the course), but I really think that right now, Jay Z and Kanye are working at a level comparable to any poet or writer out there. They also both continually invoke and ask to be placed within a larger history of art, which is interesting.  

Look at Jay Z’s short film for “Picasso Baby.” This isn’t [just] using art as a status symbol. I begin the class with “D.O.A.,” where Jay calls for a challenging rather than a pretty art, in ways that are comparable to what writers and painters were doing in the early twentieth century and (as the video suggests) jazz performers were doing in the 1940s. Yeezus—as Lou Reed, among others, recognized—goes even further in this direction, really changing the rules of the form and pushing the listener to keep up. It’s great to see that happen, and I think one of the things that was successful about the class was that we had a language for saying why Yeezus isn’t a bad record, but rather one that it will take critics and listeners a while to catch up to.

What would you say is the overall academic aim of the class?

I tell the students that rap isn’t poetry. (Another reason Kanye is good for my purposes is that he’s a producer as well as someone who works with words.) That said, the class works on one level as a sneaky introduction to the history of poetic form. We discuss the way poets in English use things like rhyme and meter, and the ways these conventions don’t apply to rap. Then we read Adam Bradley’s great Book of Rhymes, which specifically tries to lay out the rules for hip-hop. I also want students to have some knowledge of the rise of hip-hop as the birth of a major art form, and so we read Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop and Dan Charnas’ The Big Payback, as well as looking at key moments in the history of rap from its roots in Jamaican sound systems on. I also like to have students learn how to do research, and they’re more enthusiastic about that if it means looking at back issues of The Source and XXL rather than academic journals.

At the end of the day, though, I mostly want students to become better listeners to Kanye, Jay Z, and other artists.

Becoming better listeners is an intriguing goal. Would you say this is something you hope your students get out of this course?

As I say, I want students to become better, more knowledgeable rap listeners—to recognize when artists do something great; to understand how they’re working within and pushing the boundaries of a tradition; and to be able to say whether a particular song is good or bad, and why. In other words, the subject of this class is different from that of my other classes but my goal is pretty much the same.
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