Long ago, I remember seeing the inner city black kids that got bussed in to my suburban high school sit in the computer lab looking up rap lyrics on the Internet. I didn’t get it at the time — I was wandering through the too-bright wasteland of “nu metal” and its ilk — but it struck me that these young people who had no interest at all in memorising Hamlet or the periodic table of elements (neither did I, of course) were so compelled by this music that they would spend their free hours learning every word.
I get it now, of course, and I do the same thing with really catchy songs, googling the lyrics and playing them over and over in my head on long jeep rides or rainy walks home until I can recite the whole verse, the whole song. There is a prissy, rational part of me that insists that that time and mental energy would be better spent committing to memory facts and figures or eloquent quotes from respectable literature — knowledge more useful than crude rhymes about fast money and faster women. But unfortunately we don’t get to choose the medium that grabs us. For me and millions of other hip-hop fans, rhyming phrases and dope beats form an irresistible combination with an addictive power. Now if only there was some way we could harness that power…for science!
Last week an ex-girlfriend of mine inexplicably emailed me a link to an album by an artist I’d never heard of before: Baba Brinkman. Curious, I downloaded The Rap Guide to Human Nature, and just a couple tracks in I understood why this music made her think of nerdy, hip-hop loving me. Baba Brinkman quite literally raps about science, specifically about evolution and, in this album, how it shaped and continues to shape human behaviour.
Apparently Baba has been doing it for quite a while now, and he has a couple other similar album covering other topics from an evolutionist perspective. Like any rapper he goes on tour, but not of big stadiums or traditional concert venues: he performs at college campuses, there to educate students as much as entertain. He isn’t a parody, like “Weird Al” Yankovic or some of the early nerdcore artists who tried the science gimick; it is obvious that he genuinely loves hip-hop and works hard to make his music accessible as well as informative. And that pays off, for while he doesn’t have any club bangers on here, his beats are fun, sophisticated and competently composed.
The science is solid too. I am especially entranced by the five short “Hypothesis” tracks, which eloquently and concisely argue five different theories of human nature as they relate to evolutionary theory and the sex and violence that permeates rap music. Though brief, “Creationism,” “Spiritualism,” “Social Constructivism,” “Biological Determinism” and “Evolutionism” are the most valuable tracks on the album from an educational standpoint, because because by masterfully putting them in rhyme Baba makes the basic points and fallacies of each theory almost absurdly easy to remember.
Baba Brinkman isn’t the only one out there grinding for more academic hip-hop. I’ve always been a big fan of the nerdcore act MC Hawking, which used a voice synthesiser to recast renown theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking as a crude, gat-blasting gangster rapper. I especially enjoy the tracks that quite literally articulate scientific concepts like The Big Bang or entropy, and when I played those for a professor of mine he said he would like to use them in his natural science classes — if it weren’t for the dirty joke about priests watching child porn. Most everything I know about 18th Century American treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton comes from a hip-hop performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
But Baba Brinkman does more than lay out the facts and theories: his songs deftly weave together the science with personal opinion and autobiography, as well as commentary about the flaws and power of the rap game. “The Planter’s Dilemma” isn’t just a recitation of the classic “prisoner’s dilemma” thought experiment on the tension between cooperation and competition — the song talks about how Baba’s family worked in ecosystem restoration and describes the unique practices of reforestation subculture. The delightfully framed “Twin Studies” gives us a glimpse into Brinkman’s life on tour, while still digging into the classic “nature vs. nurture” debate and how some of those questions can be answered by studying twins separated at birth. “Parental Investment” is an ode to the producer that makes the beats for Brinkman’s songs, and then goes into the difference amounts that males and females are required to invest to have a child. Baba is more than just his schtick: he’s a legitimate artist whose work has a lot of mainstream appeal. He isn’t going to blow up on the charts anytime soon, but I think rap fans who aren’t as geeky as me can really enjoy — not to mention benefit from — music like this.
I believe in hip-hop just like I believe in science. And I believe in what Baba Brinkman is doing, taking the powerful techniques of rap and using them to literally make his audience smarter. That’s not something a lot of artists can say, I don’t think. Any good album will make you think, of course, and broaden your experience, but science is better than platitudes or aesthetic clichés. If you give The Rap Guide to Human Nature a few solid listens and honestly try to learn the insights articulated within, you will be better equipped to act more rationally and understand the irrational behaviour of others. That’s a big deal.
You can listen to Baba Brinkman’s new album, The Rap Guide to Human Nature, which is also available to download on a pay-what-you-want basis, at http://bababrinkman.bandcamp.com/album/the-rap-guide-to-human-nature. Check it out, and learn something.