“I spot the crew, standing where they always stand, between the liquor store and the corner store, next to the Fern Rock Apartments fence, under the train tracks, and across the street from Rock Steady, this bugged ngh who sits on a crate all day with a broken radio, rocking his head back and forth to a beat no one else can hear.” – M.K. Asante
MK Asante is an 80’s baby. He is his Post-Hip-Hop Generation. Asante is to a Miles Marshall Lewis what Kendrick Lamar is to a Talib Kweli. He’s to a Bakari Kitwana what Big K.R.I.T. is to a KRS-ONE. Light on the patronizing and heavy on the paint strokes. Less tell more show. If Asante’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop defined what the Post-Hip-Hop generation is, Buck is the portrait of the PHHGer as a young man. It’s this culture millennial’ed, instead of X’ed.
Nelson George’s City Kid, Te-Nehisi Coates’s The Beautiful Struggle, and Cepeda’s Bird of Paradise are the closest analogues the hip-hop literary cannon has produced to Buck. Coates even blessed Buck with a back cover blurb and an invitation to that canon’s club. Asante’s coming of age story is informed by those voices but has evolved past them in both craft and chronology.
Buck is closer to now and it reads realer. It’s vernacular is not dissimilar to Vice host and Restaurateur Eddie Huang’s 2013 memoir Fresh of The Boat. He’s also Buck’s other back cover blurber. Huang is a fellow 80’s baby and his more comedic employment of hip-hopisms exists on the same generational plane as Asante (despite tonal differences.)
In poetic prose, Buck strikes a balance more similar to Michael Datcher’s Raising Fences. Datcher cut his spoken word chops in the same Liemert Park open mic shops as Freestyle Fellowship and Nocando. It begs the question of how many book writers hip-hop loses to the mic.
Whether pre-, post-, or mid- hip-hop, if you’re good with words, and exist in this cultural dimension, you just rap. Asante does that too, apparently. He dropped a verse on the Ras Kass track “Godz N The Hood” alongside Bishop Lamont and Talib Kweli. Already a filmmaker thrice over, it would be interesting to see Asante’s multi-talents at the helm of a novel. Strangely, creative self-restraint feels like Buck’s only spur.
Being mentored by the most famous contemporary poet could work against you, but Maya Angelou picked a winner here. Asante’s prose purrs on the page, it dodges cliché with dexterity and booms with originality. His first two published books were poetry. Anyone student of what New Sincerity and Realism look like in 2013 needs to take notes. Angelou didn’t raise no slouch.
From the very first stroke, “The fall in Killadelphia. Outside is the color of corn bread and blood” (3) Asante’s descriptions pummel between the periods. It’s not an accident that he can also rap. Some other gems:
“You just sit there smelling stinkers and listening to yourself swallow.” (34)
“The wind slaps the house like it stole something.” (65)
“I shake, roll, the jump back fast like bacon’s popping.” (158)
“I’m biting my nails like they’re sunflower seeds.” (212)
As for-young-bucks as it intends to be, Malo doesn’t skimp on the dirty details. Whether it’s young lovin’, serving grandmas on the block, or afro-centric porn, Asante creates a requiem for a street dream sans cage. Where else can you find Angelou-grade lines applied to a dick-sucking contest? “She holds the condom up like a freshly caught fish.” (99)
As self-indulgent as it is, memoir isn’t a form for the long-winded and self-aggrandizing. Asante aims each of his 252 pages towards a narrow window of a few years in his youth. Malo the toddler and the collegiate, interesting as they may be, are absent. As interesting as the circumstances of the first American born in Zimbabwe might have been, the limited ground allows for a much more cohesive coverage. Buck’s a study in scope.
There are 40-ish rap tracks that accompany Malo on his journey. Each track gets two lines, that’s it. It helps break up the text but for anyone with a hip-hop background it gives the story an entire other sensory experience. Whether you’ve dug deep enough into Nas and Pac to know “Poppa Was a Player”, and “Panther Power” or if you’re still stuck on “N.Y. State of Mind” and “I Aint Mad At Cha” there are rap couplets in here you’ll know. Replaying lines from Black Star and Souls of Mischief next to N.W.A. and DMX make for a ride that sounds as excellent as it reads.
Asante’s 45 short chapters fly by. The page-turning quality can be accredited to the limited use of over-cooked hip-hop slanguistics (you’re not going to find all the hip-hop catchphrases stacked together and explained). This isn’t the same old story you’ve heard before and Asante makes sure there is no risk that it comes across that way. Asante doesn’t rehash the first time he heard “The Message” or at least he doesn’t care to recall it here. He explains his own repeat-dodger tactics, while simultaneously showing his n-word substitute of choice: “I think about the nghz I know with limited vocabs, the ones who keep asking, Nahmean? Yahmean? because they don’t have the words to express what they really mean.” (229) Asante doesn’t want to fall into that trap and he doesn’t. Et al.
From 2pac’s death to swiping the same Shogun Assassin scene RZA swiped for GZA’s Liquid Swords, Buck is filled with mementos the millennial generation experienced before adulthood. Just as The Wire’s is dated via David Simon’s Baltimore Sun reporting from the 80‘s and 90‘s, Buck reflects it’s time. As The Atlantic’s John Hendel called The Wire, “something of a post-9/11 pre-social media artifact,”) Buck is a post-2pac/Biggie, pre-Internet Philly artifact. Yet, nowhere is the timestamp more firmly planted than in the song selection. It says as much his age as it does about his taste.
Occasionally, Asante takes the easy way out. Malo, Buck’s narrator, hits pause in both his character and poetic conviction when it comes to some turning points in the story. One paragraph, he’s writing-off some block nubians, “These nghz are crazy…” The very next he decides, “I also think it’s kind of cool, though. Cool that they’re into something, something besides the block. They’re teaching themselves, questioning stuff, and trying to figure this crazy world out — and that’s dope.” All before getting back into character, describing the book they give him thusly: “Shit looks like a nightmare.” (173)
Later, when Malo’s life is changed with a blank page, Asante sells some scenes short in montage-like hurry. A janitor whispering to a passerby, “He’s still in there, writing. Been in there for hours,” is an escape hatch from delving into the transformative moment more fully. It’s too easy. It tiptoes too closely to the corny-creative-writing-inspirational line that the film Freedom Writers did it’s best to cheese into infinity.
Should You Read It?
These stopgaps in the narrator’s psyche could have been opportunities to explore Malo’s pathology in crux. Elaboration may have risked disrupting the flow but it would add another dimension to the protagonist. Otherwise the book is drum-tight as a memoir can be.
Buck is dedicated, “to all the young bucks,” and Asante dresses for substantive victory even as he steers Buck away from literary perfection. That move, is above all else, very ‘hip-hop generation’ of him. Maybe it helps mollify gripes raised by his forerunners who’ve scoffed at a decline in rap values, both artistic and moral, over time. “What is going to happen to kids listening to this stuff?” is a question the chapters of hip-hop generation’s texts obsessed over.
Asante is what happened. Less structured, less obvious and less tied down than memoirs before it, Buck renews the promise of what hip-hop literature can be by bringing it up to speed. It invites readers to look forward. It challenges us to peek again at how this culture frames these increasingly fragmented snapshots of the American experiment right before the onset of Total Noise.