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Never Drank the Kool-Aid: Essays    by Touré order for
Never Drank the Kool-Aid
by Touré
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2006 (2006)

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I previously enjoyed Touré's fiction - The Portable Promised Land and Soul City - very much, but had not read any of his other work. The author is a journalist who's written articles on a regular basis for Rolling Stone and the New Yorker. Never Drank the Kool-Aid includes a collection of these short pieces, mainly focusing on hiphop, and Touré explains his title early on as 'a great piece of modern slang that means buying into what someone else tells you. It springs from the story of the 1978 massacre at Jonestown, Guyana' where cult followers were persuaded 'to drink cyanide-laced punch.'

In his Introduction, Touré provides a history of hiphop and its influences, and discusses his approach to interviewing. The celebrities that Touré meets with and/or writes about range from rap artists to record execs and national political figures - from Eminem, 50 Cent, DMX, and Tupac to Jennifer Capriati, Michael Jordan, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice.

Touré talks about Eminem as 'a family man' who's been raising a daughter, niece and half-brother, and compares him to Madonna, suggesting that 'both work with the idea that "if I can make some people hate me, then that will make those who like me love me that much more intensely."' Of 50 Cents, Touré says, 'In a heartbeat he can switch from the charm of a soft-spoken choirboy to a teeth-clenched ice-grill', and that being shot in the face helped his career by changing his sound! Touré calls DMX 'sonic testosterone', and he quotes Biggie Smalls' lyrics that reveal vulnerability in his drug dealing experiences. He tells us that 'An MC is a poet. A rapper is a performance artist.'

In 'Ships Passing in the Night', Touré speaks of Barack Obama and Colin Powell 'who make whites feel that progress has been made, that academia and the military are avenues to success for everyone, that racism is ending and equality is here.' He speaks of Beyoncé as 'a Black girl who's not so overwhelmingly nubian that white people don't appreciate her beauty.' In 'The Next Queen of Soul', he questions Alicia Keys about how it felt to do a NY photo shoot 'just a few hundred yards from Ground Zero' after 9/11. Touré interviews 'world's number three' tennis player, Jennifer Capriati. And he is harshly critical of Condoleezza Rice as a House Negro, concluding, 'She's done extremely well for herself living with her head inside the lion's mouth ... I just wonder how lonely it is in there.'

One of the final (and lighter) pieces in this witty, insightful, and thoughtful collection calls for a celebration of the fact that 'Bling-bling Makes the Dictionary', advising that for slang to survive, 'Ya gotta fill a void in the language.' Though, not knowing the musical or cultural context, a lot of Never Drank the Kool-Aid was over my head, I recommend it to anyone seeking to fill a void in their understanding of the African American experience.

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