Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Playlist
November 9, 2015
By, Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate
My favorite playlists tell stories. As someone who spent hours of my middle school days in the mid-1990s waiting for the songs I requested to hit the radio airwaves so I could capture them on a mixtape, I appreciate the ease of the digital playlist. Some miss that moment of syzygy—when the right song plays at the right time, when the right amount of tape remains. But I relish the time and energy the playlist’s easy logistics leave available for selecting and ordering songs.
The downside of the digital format is the mass of compilations made without attention to the arc, the pacing or the way different artists can come together like characters in dialogue. But, when the rare, perfect playlist is achieved, the meaning and resonance that lays beneath the tracks turns it into one worth listening to again and again.
When upcoming SAL author Ta-Nehisi Coates published his first book, A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, he created an annotated playlist for the New York Times’s “Living with Music” column. The list opens with Slick Rick’s “A Children’s Story,” which Coates describes as “an allegory of my generation — young black kids, raised in the inner-city during the Crack Age, many of us tempted by the fast life.”
Framed by the past, the playlist weaves together anecdotes from Coates’s youth, his evolving meditations on hip-hop and the lessons of his father through music that sounds anything but dated, despite most of its songs being over twenty years old. Echoing between eras—the recent past, the book’s present, in 2008, and the current moment, seven years later—I found myself listening to the playlist on a loop for several hours, hearing phrases I hadn’t noticed before, each and every time.