Book Review: Go Ahead in The Rain by Hanif Abdurraqib
There are books I’ve read—specifically authors I read, I guess—that when I’ve finished one of their works, I am not particularly pleased that I’ve finished the book and am able to pick up something new; but, rather, I’m sad that the book is over, because I know whatever I do pick up next will just simply not be as good as what I have completed.
This happens when I re-read David Foster Wallace—his essays, Infinite Jest, even the uncompleted, final novel, The Pale King—I just don’t want the work to end, and when it’s over, and I move on to another book from the pile on my dresser, more often than not, it just seems like the volume has been turned down. It’s just not as exciting, or maybe it’s just that I am not as excited, about reading something else.
This happened when I read the Penguin edition of The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith; it happened again, though to a lesser extent, when I read the New Directions reissue that restructured the pieces contained within. Even with the work of a different translator, and even in a different sequence, the Pessoa’s work, for me, was no less impactful.
This happens when I read Hanif Abdurraqib.
Admittedly, I erroneously slept on Abdurraqib’s 2017 collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, not properly discovering it and immersing myself in it until roughly a year after it came out. But after I turned to the final page, I was filled with a palpable sadness because the book was over—I needed more. I told anyone who was willing to listen about the book and Abdurraqib himself, hurriedly ordering his 2016 collection of experimental poetry, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much.
Crown is a slim volume, and I devoured it too quickly; again, I was devastated when it came to an end.
Though, there was hope on the horizon—with the promise of Go Ahead in The Rain, Abdurraqib’s third official effort, arriving in early 2019.
I should also mention that, with authors like Fernando Pessoa, David Foster Wallace, and Hanif Abdurraqib, when I finish reading their work, aside from the actual thrill I get out of reading their words on the page, there is a part of me—the writerly part of me—that hopes, somehow, I can write with as much compelling beauty and intelligence as they are able to.
When I write a sprawling, 6,000+ word essay with 20 footnotes, I hope that it tells a personal, thoughtful narrative that isn’t a chore for people to read; I hope that when I write about depression, or loss, I paint a tangible portrait of what it’s like to be consumed by emptiness—that it’s authentic and it resonates—and that it doesn’t come off as being whiny.
I hope that when I write about music, memory, and the place where those two, among other things, converge, that it is a fraction as self-effacing, charming, and moving as it is when Abdurraqib, seemingly effortlessly, recalls the soundtrack of his youth, and the heartbreaking, evocative memories he has associated with those songs.
An all to brief 200 pages and change, the book is called Go Ahead in The Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest. When I was telling my wife about the book, before it arrived at the house, she said she thought it was a missed opportunity that it wasn’t called A Book Called A Tribe Called Quest.
One of the people that I successful turned onto Abdurraqib’s writing was one of my bosses—even though she was not familiar with everything he mentions in the essays from They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, she was instantly taken by it. When we were discussing Go Ahead in The Rain, she was curious to find out if she really needed to know anything about Tribe prior to reading the book.
Go Ahead in The Rain’s cover art is startling—not startling in the same way as the wolf wearing a large golden chain around its neck from They Can’t Kill Us—but startling never the less. Solid black, there are three large blocks of text spaced throughout the cover—much of the text is a metallic, shiny gold; Abdurraqib’s name, and the title itself, are red, and green, respectively, borrowing from Tribe’s well know 1990s’ aesthetic.
It’s a love letter to a group, a sound, and an era, the cover promises; it’s not wrong.
One of the things that makes Go Ahead in The Rain such a phenomenal book is that, yes, it helps if you know, like, anything at all about A Tribe Called Quest’s original and tumultuous five album run, their subsequent break up, the volatile one-off reunions, and the heartbreaking conclusion of the group—but you don’t really have to know any of that. Go Ahead in The Rain is, truly, a love letter to an era, presumably painstakingly researched and truncated by Abdurraqib.
Throughout the book’s 12 chapters, he weaves an astoundingly compelling narrative that details where rap music and ‘hip hop’ as a movement came from, as well as where they were both headed, along with where A Tribe Called Quest fit in, year by year, album by album, to the larger picture.
The book’s subtitle is Notes to A Tribe Called Quest; it, too, is not wrong.
A poet and music critic at his core, if all of that weren’t enough, Abdurraqib directly addresses members of Tribe as the book progresses—they are actual notes, or letters, as it were—as well as placing himself, and his life, into the narrative through memories of discovering the group through older siblings, or willing himself to try and find things worth liking about the group’s later, less lauded albums.
One of the things that was so breathtakingly amazing about They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is the fearlessness and creativity with which Abdurraqib juxtaposes surprising things, and the way he surprises us again by making that contrast really stick. The first example that comes to mind is the essay that takes his experience seeing Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band play The River from start to finish on the album’s anniversary tour a few years back—butting this right up against the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death. I would never think to do this, but he does it again, and again, with a jaw dropping grace and intelligence, each time.
He uses this device, again, throughout Go Ahead in The Rain, with chapters often taking surprising, elaborate asides that, early on, you have to wonder how he’s going to bring the narrative back around—but Abdurraqib, rarely, if ever, missteps, as he imaginatively, and breathlessly weaves together information about The Source, Jet, and Ebony, about New York baseball and basketball teams, and the group’s various solo endeavors after Tribe’s original split in 1998—and where this all falls into his own life.
While it is not mandatory for you to have any working knowledge of A Tribe Called Quest, or the evolution of rap music and the ‘hip-hop’ movement from the late 1980s and into the 1990s, if you do possess that knowledge, however much, Go Ahead in The Rain is written in such a way that doesn’t condescend—it is a seemingly endless well of information on rap as a genre, and how it flourished on both coasts, as well as the development of the scene in Atlanta; it also provides an unflinching insight into the dynamic within A Tribe Called Quest—the tenuous give and take between its de facto leader, Q-Tip, and Phife Dawg, the group’s reluctant second MC and even more reluctant sidekick to Tip.
Even though you could say that Go Ahead in The Rain is a book about popular music, music history, or even just popular culture, at its core, it is a book about loss—or, at least, it tells stories that involve numerous kinds of loss, and this is one of the things that makes it such an urgent, essential read.
There is, of course, the heavy sense of impending loss that runs throughout the entire narrative, knowing that A Tribe Called Quest can never truly be again due to the passing of Phife Dawg. Born Malik Taylor, Phife was premature, and in 1990, was diagnosed with diabetes—his health was always fragile, even during the group’s original run in the 90s; in 2008, he received a kidney transplant, but it was not successful.
In the midst of what was, more or less, a secret Tribe reunion, formulated at the end of 2015, Taylor passed away on March 22nd, 2016, and the group’s final album, We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, was put together using material Taylor completed before his death, as well as an outline he left the rest of the group to follow. Q-Tip, as well as the group’s DJ and producer, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and original, founding member Jarobi White, were left to continue on as best they good without him, releasing the album shortly after the 2016 election, and making a handful of live performances, including a memorable turn on “Saturday Night Live” and the Grammy Awards.
But even before all of that, there is the loss that came from the group’s original disbanding in 1998, announced via a cover story in The Source, following the release of their poorly received The Love Movement, as well as the continued animosity that Phife and Tip had for one another throughout subsequent reunions for live performances, and for the 2010 documentary about the group.
What connects all this loss together, however, is Abdurraqib’s personal loss—the death of his mother when he was a teenager in the mid 1990s, a topic he explored in some of the poems included in The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, as well as something he reveals slowly throughout the course of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.
In a letter, or note, that Abdurraqib writes to Phife’s mother, the poet, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, he addresses loss—both hers, and his own, in what is the most devastating passage in the book: “It seems…that we are nothing if not for our histories, and so much of mine is tied up in the business of ghosts. I don’t want to burden anyone, but I consider anyone who has lost someone my kin, because I think we are all faced with the same central question of how we go one. How we live the life that best reflects the people who aren’t here and are still counting on us.”
Like Abdurraqib’s other two books, I did not make Go Ahead in The Rain last very long—and like so many other times, a sadness descended upon me as I finished his final reflection on Tribe and the group’s legacy.
There is so much more I want to say, or feel I should say, about Hanif Abdurraqib and Go Ahead in The Rain—about his use of language, and the way his poetic nature naturally eases its way into a relatively straightforward, albeit personal, narrative; about the way he creates these evocative pictures—it’s like you are right there alongside him, as he sits on the bus, A Tribe Called Quest cassette in his Walkman, headphones placed firmly over his ears.
About the way he lets you into the often strained, yet at its heart, familial, dynamic of A Tribe Called Quest—how Abdurraqib literally breathes new life and imagination into what, at one time, was once just an album cover. After finishing this book, it is almost as if a new world, or at the very least, a new way of thinking about each Tribe record, has revealed itself.
For those who are looking for an exhilarating, emotional, and incredibly personal read, I cannot recommend this book enough. It, much like its predecessor, are the kind of books you want to buy a dozen copies of and just hand out to people you know, forcing them to sit down and read them.
For those who aren’t very familiar with A Tribe Called Quest, this will, hopefully, make you want to visit their canon, along with thinking about how music played a role in your life during your formative years, and what that means to you now.
For those who are longtime Tribe fans to any degree, the early press about Go Ahead in The Rain is true—it will make you love, and appreciate, the group even more. It is, without a doubt, an artistic statement of beauty.
Go Ahead in The Rain is out now via the University of Texas Press; their website is currently out of copies. However, you may (unfortunately) purchase it from Amazon.