Before Hanif Abdurraqib can begin talking about the legendary Queens hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, he has to go back — way back. “In the beginning,” he opens, “from somewhere south of anywhere I come from, lips pressed the edge of a horn, and a horn was blown.” Before he can talk about Queens he has to talk about South Carolina and the 1740 slaves codes, enacted precisely to prohibit that horn from being blown, because blown horns were a means of surreptitious resistance among African slaves. Before he can talk about Tribe Called Quest and the Native Tongues collective, he has to talk about himself, his own involvement in the history of jazz that proceeded from that first blown horn, and how that involvement predisposed him towards an impassioned attachment to the music.
The beauty of Go Ahead in the Rain, of its engagement with Tribe Called Quest’s jazz-influenced hip-hop, is how Abdurraqib discards well-trodden assumptions about what criticism is: that it must relegate the critic to a position of detached, passionless analysis, or that it must proceed in orderly, logical fashion in order to prove a point. In place of these conventions Abdurraqib presents a work concerned with enmeshment in and with the music, the history that it expresses and alters, and the communities that have given us this music. If, as he says, “jazz is actually a story about what can urgently be passed down to someone else before a person expires,” he has written a work of criticism whose form mimics that movement. It weaves its way in and out of the past and the present, between memoir and pinpoint analysis, in order to think about not only the music but also the way the music raises larger questions of influence, inheritance, and community. Adopting hip-hop’s history-obsessed, fragmented, heterogeneous aesthetic, Go Ahead gives us a glimpse into a criticism that doesn’t just subject black music to the conventions of the critical essay. Rather, it allows black music to contort and reinvent those conventions.
— Ismail Muhammad