Hip-Hop, Criticism and Crossword Puzzles

Decoding Fabolous Using Ancient Greek Rhetorical Devices

Paraprosdokian: Rapper Fabolous gets his lyrics parsed by Daniel Levin Becker in the pages of The Believer magazine using ancient Greek rhetorical devices.
Paraprosdokian: Rapper Fabolous gets his lyrics parsed by Daniel Levin Becker in the pages of The Believer magazine using ancient Greek rhetorical devices.

By Eitan Kensky

Published July 27, 2012, issue of August 03, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature
By Daniel Levin Becker
Harvard University Press, 352 pages, $27.95

It takes a certain kind of literary genius to explain rapper Fabolous’s lyrics using ancient Greek rhetorical devices. Best known for his 2001 song “Young’n (Holla Back)” — now an unintended time capsule for the long forgotten two-way pager — Fabolous has never been accused of lyric virtuosity. Yet there it was, in the pages of The Believer, one of America’s most important literary magazines: a review analyzing Fabolous through the paraprosdokian, “a rhetorical device where the end of a sentence compels a re-parsing of the beginning.” According to the reviewer, Daniel Levin Becker, the lyric “I’m raw, dog” (“which initially glosses as ‘I’m redoubtable, homey’”) is revealed by the end of the line to mean “raw dog,” a euphemism for unprotected sex. The review is funny and playfully erudite, though by the time it ends you wonder if Fabolous is as clever as his interpreter.

Levin Becker, reviews editor of the Believer (and, full disclosure, a former high school classmate of mine), appears to appreciate Fabolous’s lyricism sincerely. What he appreciates, however, is not Fabolous’s ability to tell a story, but the swagger of disconnected phrases and rhetorical taunts. As an interpreter, Levin Becker is less concerned with a writer’s moral force, or with the arguments of a text, than he is with the intricacies of language. He has the kind of literary mind that revels in anagrams, puzzles and uncovering the hidden, near-mathematical formulae behind certain works of art. Levin Becker’s new book, “Many Subtle Channels,” is about this kind of literary genius.

Strictly speaking, “Many Subtle Channels” is a book about the Oulipo (an abbreviation for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), a post-1960 French literary movement best known in this country (if it is known at all) for Georges Perec’s 1969 novel, “La Disparition,” translated into English as “A Void.” As Levin Becker explains, the idea driving the Oulipo is that imposing restraints can paradoxically unlock creativity. “La Disparition” is a lipogram, meaning it is missing one or more letters of the alphabet — in this case, “e.” (There is also a sequel, “Les Revenentes,” whose only vowel is “e.”)

Another prominent oulipian form is the beau présent, an ode that contains only the letters in the subject’s name. Constraints don’t need to be linguistic. The idea behind Perec’s “The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise” (1968), was “to write a text based on an office flowchart.” Such restrictions not only force writers to become more attuned to their language, but also generate literary possibilities where none existed before.

While oulipian demands frequently sound arbitrary, there is nothing trivial about this type of literary endeavor. At the end of a section on public workshops, where readers can learn to make their own oulipian works, Levin Becker writes: [D]rawing attention to oulipian constraint… is not a question of exposing the structure so that it can be used again, or even so that it can be admired: it’s a question of making you, the reader, aware of your own effort and engagement, of putting you in control, of diminishing the distance between finding and making.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.