It's crunch time in English 3347, only two weeks to go in the semester, and University of Texas at Arlington professor Kenton Rambsy is urging his class to buckle down. "This is our jam, everybody," he says calmly. "We're training ourselves to become better thinkers and writers. We have to be like LeBron in the fourth quarter."
This is definitely not your mother's English class. For one, there's the subject: Jay Z, the multimillionaire hip-hop mogul and husband of Lemonade-sipping superstar Beyoncé. Then there's the method. While Rambsy and his class of 30 students parse Jay's lyrics for meaning, they also spend a lot of time crunching numbers and presenting the results in graphs, pie charts and other data tools.
Call it "Big Pimpin'" meets Big Data. In analyzing the stats, Rambsy and his students seek to find the quantifiable elements of Jay's work, from the number of slant rhymes in his lyrics to the geographic locale of the artists he samples. It's a digital humanities course with a hip-hop flavor.
Beneath the numbers, however, lies a map: a topography of black literary culture's connections to hip-hop. As Rambsy says, "We're using big data to put Jay Z squarely within the tradition of African-American writers"
Hip-hop studies on the college campus are nothing new. Even recording artists are in on it: Bun B, from the Port Arthur hip-hop duo UGK, teaches a course on hip-hop and religion at Rice University in Houston. But the analytics focus feels fresh; the only math you expect in a Jay Z song comes from considering his 99 Problems.
It also raises the question: What makes Jay Z the right subject for such an approach?
"Jay Z has a very, very diverse and large body of work, and he's worked with so many people," Rambsy says after class one day. "That makes him an ideal candidate. He's also a connector. When you look at his samples, there's so much there because we can trace so many producers to him for so many different reasons." It also helps that Jay Z wrote a book, Decoded, in which he deciphers his verbal flourishes.
For students accustomed to the more traditional English class, the data diving can be refreshing.
"It's nice to be able to look at numbers, because there's a lot to quantify in literature," says John Crowley, a 22-year-old English major who sports a soul patch and a hammer and sickle shirt. "Every other class is more qualitative, where you're trying to figure out how you feel about it. That's fine, but this is more scientific."
Rambsy, 27, strikes a fashionable figure: Black fedora, tan jacket, camouflage pants. He's quick to offer praise: "You all are some nerds, in a good way. Nerds for Jay Z." But he's not shy with constructive criticism. "You all are picking some safe topics," he offers at one point. "Sometimes, by narrowing your focus, you can say more."
Every Friday, the class splits into small groups and selects a representative to present. Every group has a name - Corner Crew, Reasonable Doubt. Today's project: Dissecting the hugely popular Hard Knock Life: Vol. 2, which Jay Z recently described as his least favorite of his classic albums. In the Jay Z catalog, Hard Knock Life is widely viewed as a blatant grab for commercial appeal (and a very successful grab at that, to the tune of five times Platinum).
Most of the presentations come back to the same central theme: With its abundance of producers and guest rappers, Hard Knock Life lacks the autobiographical flourish and artistic intimacy of other classic Jay Z albums. Rambsy doesn't dismiss these arguments, but he expresses some reasonable doubt.
"I want to push back on the idea of success compromising artistry," he tells the class. He also points out that compromise has often been essential in black arts and letters. Richard Wright, for instance, altered sections of his 1940 novel Native Son to placate Book of the Month Club members. Some students argue Wright should have told the Club to take a hike. (It's safe to say these students haven't had to worry about writing for a living).
This is where Rambsy really excels: Connecting the dots between hip-hop and other black cultural traditions. Jay Z, he suggests, is a master of signifying, a form of verbal misdirection that permeates black literature. For a recent assignment students were asked to compare Jay Z's Black Album to an autobiography by a black writer; the results incorporated the likes of Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass.
"All of these texts," he tells the class, "all of these authors, are talking back and forth to each other."
Rambsy, who grew up in Jackson, Ten. and studied at Morehouse College and the University of Kansas, belongs to a generation for whom both hip-hop and digital literacy are second nature. His older brother, Howard Rambsy II, is an English professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he just taught a class on The Notorious B.I.G, Nas and Jay Z. Both Howard and Kenton blog about their work at culturalfront.org; Kenton and his students also tweet the class' Jay-Z data under the hashtag #TheJayZClass. "You all retweet your classmates," Rambsy likes to remind his charges.
Crunch time is over; the semester has ended. Time for Rambsy to prep for a couple of fall semester classes. One looks at black literary artists ranging from Frederick Douglass to Toni Morrison to, yes, Jay Z. The other class will focus on beefs, in hip-hop -- Nas vs. Jay Z, Ice Cube vs. Common -- and in black cultural history (Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neal Hurston vs. Richard Wright).
"We want to study the benefit of public argument," Rambsy says. "How does it shape aspects of history and this idea of signifying and joshing and yo mama jokes?"
For Rambsy, it's all part of the same project. Read the texts. Listen to the music. Crunch the numbers. And teach students to find the connections that bond hip-hop with its literary ancestors. Keep the texts talking back and forth and see what they have to tell us.