Losing my cool over “Losing My Cool”

The original title of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s book, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd was Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture.  My father has a lot of love and a lot of books, but if he had peeped the original subtitle’s reference to “beating hip-hop” I doubt he would have gotten Williams’s book for me.  I’m glad he didn’t see the original cover.

My favorite parts of Losing My Cool touch on the tender and complex ways that fathers who care deeply about their sons’ development as intellectually curious and compassionate human beings negotiate their own powerful influence over their sons’ lives with the equally powerful influence of their sons’ peers and popular culture.  Williams does a great job of describing the sensation of maturing from a teenager who passes over his father’s books on a quest to be considered cool by his peers into a young man who finally picks up those books and begins to understand what has engaged his father so deeply and why.

At it’s best Losing My Cool is a contemporary coming of age story.  It tells the tale of a young man going from thinking “Charles Dickens was something that swung between your legs” to appreciating Dickens as the author of Martin Chuzzlewit.  At it’s worst, it takes valid personal experiences and attempts to draw broad conclusions about the value (or lack thereof) of a complex culture.

“For more than thirty years the black world has revolved around the inventors of hip-hop values, and this has been a decisive step backward,” Williams writes–a surprising statement from someone whose book jacket advertises him as “a true fan.”  Throughout the book Williams comes across as so smart and capable of critically analyzing details of texts, that it is surprising when he matter-of-factly states that “black, hip-hop-driven culture” deals “strictly with the surface of things–possessions, poses, appearances, reactions.”

“Strictly”?!

I mean, I understand that many of us went through phases where we only paid attention to the most materialistic music that hip-hop had to offer, but surely Williams is aware of the robust history of incisive political commentary that has existed since the birth of hip-hop and that directly challenges these same values.  It’s fine not to mention Public Enemy in your memoir if you never listened to their music, but before leveling cultural critiques like those quoted above, do your homework, acknowledge the large body of evidence that contradicts the sweeping statements you are making, and don’t let the phrase “true fan” be used to describe you.

Really, my biggest frustration about Losing My Cool isn’t with Williams though.  It’s with the jacket of the book, which besides referring to Williams as a “true fan” also claims he’s “lived through it all”–a silly statement to make about anyone, especially a kid from the suburbs who tried on what he perceived to be a hip-hop identity for a handful of years before choosing to abandon it.

He doesn’t “blend Dostoevsky and Jay-Z,” as the Booklist review quoted on the cover of the paperback suggests.  There are a few references to Jay-Z in the book, but they don’t engage Jay’s philosophical ruminations and blend them with Dostoevsky’s, they paint him as an unsophisticated posterboy for the “Money, Cash, Hoes” strain of rap music.  Even once Williams was in college and had developed a critical perspective on hip-hop culture, he chose to bump “Girls, Girls, Girls” on repeat, instead of the more introspective and less misogynist tracks off Jay-Z’s The Blueprint like “Song Cry” or “Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)…”  No wonder he thinks hip-hop only has misogynistic, materialistic narratives to offer–that’s what he chose to listen to and to describe to his readers.

As someone whose work in many ways romanticizes hip-hop, I appreciate Williams’s personal recounts of the negative influence he feels hip-hop had on his values coming up.  It is an important reminder for me of the ways that parts of hip-hop culture have negatively impacted some of the people who love it most dearly.  Over the years, I have had many conversations with young people who take their favorite rappers lyrics literally and the images these rappers project sometimes play formative roles in these young peoples’ identity formation.  This can be a good thing when their favorite rapper is Jasiri X, but it can be a cause for concern when it’s 50 Cent and instead of paying attention to his business acumen, they’re enamored by the “Get Rich or Die Trying” ethos that 50 embodies in some of his songs, videos, and acting roles.

Hip-hop culture–particularly the strands of it that have been promoted by large media corporations–has played a part in the negativity that Willliams describes.  And yet it has done much more.  I wonder whether Williams truly doesn’t see this or whether it just didn’t fit the narrative he was trying to create.

At his best moments in Losing My Cool, Williams comes across as a sharp, honest, and interesting thinker.  But when he admits (seemingly with pride) that he can’t see Jay-Z, Nas, Mos Def, or Talib Kweli as anything more than “entertainers and petty egoists,” he demonstrates a lack of knowledge and maturity.  As I put down the book I couldn’t help but feel that Williams must be aware of how dimensional and diverse hip-hop actually is and how much it has to offer.  But instead of letting it stand as a compelling memoir, Williams attempts to make Losing My Cool serve as his revenge on hip-hop.  Sadly, in the end he undercuts his own strength, honesty, and charm as a story teller and social critic to do to hip-hop what he feels it did to him–put it in a box far narrower than it truly belongs.

5 Responses to Losing my cool over “Losing My Cool”

  1. Fanon Wilkins August 6, 2011 at 1:25 am | Permalink |

    Thanks for this wonderful review. Busta Rhymes once said (and I paraphrase) that Hip-Hop is one of the only cultures where m*th%fu%kas make money from it, but don’t love the sh$t. This book’s dust jacket, tag lines and contents gives credence to Bussa Bus’s insights. Hip-Hop genius booooooooyyyyyeeeeee!!!!!!

  2. tylea August 15, 2011 at 4:51 am | Permalink |

    i think you give this guy a whole lot more credit than he deserves. master williams (as i imagine he likes to be called) doesn’t even do a very good job of narrating his own coming-of-age story, much less making insightful observations about hip hop or black culture (or even Dostoevsky, for that matter). i think what he really wanted to write, and should have, was a modern day, rap-inspired master-slave dialectic. and that would have been just fine because it would have been buried in the philosophy shelves and i wouldn’t have wasted a day reading this terrible book.

    i’m not sure what bothered me more, the lackluster writing or the absurd sweeping generalizations. like the one you quoted above, they were frequent, extremely obtuse, and seemingly without any type irony or self-awareness. there are too many examples to list (and i apologize to the ny public library for folding down so many pages), but most of the book alternates between badly recreated slang dialogue and these unbelievably broad proclamations – while glossing over the things that could have been really interesting.

    for example, i wanted to hear more about the prep-school educated black kid he met at Georgetown. this young man ends up in trouble for drugs and guns, despite his privileged background. the author does not acknowledge any parallels between this young man’s attempts to perform blackness or toughness and his own. he also seemed baffled at his friend charles’ ability to travel seamlessly between worlds and maintain honest relationships with his hood friends and his banker friends. the difference, it seemed to me, between the author and the prep school drug dealer and chris was that the latter was never posing. if you put on blackness like you put on a north face puffy coat, you are bound to want to take it off eventually.

    and on a personal tip, i know he got this story very wrong because it sounds a lot like mine: mixed kid growing up in suburban new jersey around a bunch of people of color, negotiating blackness, loving reasonable doubt, watching BET (or video music box for me) religiously, drinking henny at seaside heights, obsessing about jordans but being super nerdy and successful at school (and loving your father’s approval of this), then on to catholic college and finally nyu for grad school. yea, i was there too. and it really didn’t go down like that.

    we listened to the same records, and i never let a man put his hands on me. i also coveted sneakers and nice clothes, but did not get pregnant at 18. and unlike Mr. Williams i didn’t have to reject black culture in order to escape the “dangerous influence of hip hop.” it’s called growing up! and part of this process is taking responsibility for yourself, and not blaming your own bad decisions and arrogance on other people (or entire genres of music or cultures). of course there are larger, society-level problems that deserve to be addressed. but here he misses the mark again.

    mr. williams has a story to tell, and he is more than welcome to tell it. but so did biggie, pac, jay and all the other rappers we grew up with. and if you’re going to battle some of the best storytellers of our generation, you had better come correct. unfortunately, this book is more like a mediocre dis track taking shots at the big names in order to get some air time. and just like one of those badly executed, publicity-seeking mixtapes, i wanted it over as soon as possible.

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