Art by Jeremy Perez Photos
Dweez finds the absence of shoelaces the most frightening banality in mental hospitals.
“They want to believe that their shit is working and that their way is the right way. It took me a minute to figure it out—and it got to the point where I couldn’t even stand the idea of going to the quiet room—but once I saw what it was and how it worked I knew I had to do whatever the fuck I had to do to get out of there or they would have me locked up for a long, long time.”
—Brad Jordan, Diary of a Madman, page 19
Who reads celebrity memoirs? What do they hope to find in them? Why are so many produced every year? Where are the lines drawn between what people can and cannot say? Do they draw their own lines?
I don’t know that a book titled Diary of a Madman was ever designed to be the venue to discover answers to any of these questions. The madman’s mind doesn’t suit itself for the linear memoir. Which, on the one hand, is fine because the rules of memoir are meant to be toyed with, but on the other, this fact inevitably leaves the story’s organization caught between at least two—if not more—minds.
Before Kanye ever promised he was so self-conscious, Brad Jordan confessed, “I can’t talk to my mother so I talk to my diary.” Perhaps more pages in human history have been flooded with the ink of inner turmoil than for any other reason. While these pages are often deliberately kept secret, occasionally someone decides the world would be better off with them in plain sight.
Are people who do this crazy? How do we gauge if someone is mad? Will we be told so? By whom? When?
Originally published in 2015, this book was the product of a regional rap pioneer and a music journalist. As with all cooperation of literary nature, potential disaster is ever near. No temptation is greater than that of changing someone else’s words. Fortunately, Brad Jordan’s collaborator, Benjamin Meadows-Ingram, lets him do the talking. In the case of Prodigy’s unfortunate memoir, My Infamous Life, this tactic led to scattered, over-exertion to use his vernacular. It works better here.
Jordan’s voice reads conversational without being plain, as if you’re sitting beside Face on the block, listening to him walk through his life as a Geto Boy and the dozen solo albums that followed. “Now, you’ve got to understand,” Jordan recalls on page 46. “I didn’t know shit about shit at the time. I was still just a kid. In New York and L.A., Rick Rubin was already a legend.” The effect is at once intimate and smooth.
Like many a celebrity memoirist before him, Jordan affords himself the opportunity to clear the air about a few matters of public business. He puts record execs on blast in a way that’s uniquely his own. From page 158: “There was always some shit going on or being added in at the last minute. You’d hear that shit and it’d be like somebody went in your sock drawer and put their feet in your socks or their ass in your underwear or some shit. It was disgusting. But the label was in control.” Later, he criticizes his own projects in a freewheeling fashion few musician memoirists before him would dare.
The egocentrism here, an unavoidable feature of any memoir, reads well-earned. Jordan reminds readers of how major the impact of his music was on the country and the culture. He’s blamed for murders in two different states on temporary hypnosis from listening to Geto Boys songs. He pioneers a nascent industry in the south as a lyricist, then a producer, and later solidifies the region’s long term health as an A&R, instrumental in signing Ludacris to Def Jam South.
It’s all delivered with a schizophrenic stream of consciousness that pays less attention to detail and more to an ethereal sense of himself as an artist. Reading his story, in his voice, the way you imagine he would want it told, is valuable not just hypothetically but right there on the page. The effect is not quantifiable but more an appreciation for the gravitas of his career, stumbles and all.
Throughout Diary of a Madman, the author ruminates on subjects ranging from label politics, mental health, and death. In the last dozen pages, Jordan’s family life suddenly appears for really the first time only to break into a meditation on child support. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these digressions, in fact they ring truer at times than the traditional narration found elsewhere. Yet these philosophical tangents split the narration in a way that creates a bifurcated reading experience.
If contemplation is removed, more attention could have been aimed at creating a flow that captivates readers a la the recently released Kanye West Owes Me $300. If they remain, the book would have worked as an artist’s collection of pondering on various subjects including his own commercial releases, think David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish as told by Houston’s finest.
Rap memoirs have morphed into everything from coloring books to cook books nowadays. There is no reason to adhere to any semblance of tradition. If tradition is the goal, a unified structure should be established for the sake of the reader. Maybe the scattering here is intentional and reflective of the author but if a book can’t make up its mind, it will be equally hard for readers to do so.
But Should You Read It?
In the trenches of the attention war, reading a book cover to cover is no small battle. It’s not the easy ask of watching a video clip or streaming a song. Neither is it a short review or listicle that can be conveniently chewed-on during time’s fascia. Even at a brief 220 pages, the return on the time investment to flip through Jordan’s memoir needs to be high.
So, what space do we afford heroes of yesterday? How much is required of rap’s students today? Are books—of any organizational structure—the best venues for this study?
I don’t know that there are universal answers to any of these questions but they are at least worth asking when deciding whether or not you ought to pry open someone else’s diary. That’s the least any human, man or mad or millionaire or not, deserves.
Page numbers are taken from Diary of a Madman: The Geto Boys, Life, Death, and the Roots of Southern Rap, 2016, Day Street Books. That was the edition reviewed.