Review: i used to love to dream by A.D. Carson
Victor Del Hierro, Ph.D.
University of Florida
What more can I say about the most important publication in digital rhetorics history? One thing about an A.D. Carson record is that he always going to speak on some real shit. i used to love to dream is the type of project so many of us day-dreamed and discussed as grad students. The type of project so many of us wish existed in the academy. A digital project that was fully digital or multimodal. An academic project that spoke truth to power. Forthright, introspective, and honest. Something humanizing that the people in our lives both in and out of the academy could connect with.
Following the first ever rap album dissertation Owning My Masters, A.D. Carson created the first rap album that was peer-reviewed as he continued to emphasize that this is the moment for shifting the landscape of what counts as knowledge. What counts as academic? In the forty plus years since rap music started being recorded, we have at least three different generations of people, including academics, who have always treated these rhymes said over beats as important epistemic foundations. Dr. Carson has built on that legacy and used an academic press to emphasize that rap represents a form of critique, inquiry, and research. Carson has built on the history and tradition of African American rhetorics through storytelling along with that which rap music has always built on testifying and signifying. The fact that Black people across the world have used rap, or any other oral tradition, to be intellectual is not new. What is—as usual—is that the academy is trying to catch up.
Academically, A.D. Carson has put an open source text in our hands that should inspire us to bring such poignant critique and truth to all our scholarship. For writing studies, it puts into practice everything we represent: reflective writing to help us better understand ourselves and our world. On top of all that, a shout out to the Rap Lab on the penultimate track "Ready," featuring Truth, that Carson started at the University of Virginia, reminding us that he is committed to his pedagogy and actively creating pathways to make the university a little bit more hip hop and little bit more accessible.
i used to love to dream is the most important publication in digital rhetorics history because it makes no concessions. As a rap album: the beats knock, the bars are quotable, and the content is timely, deep, personal, and relatable. As a digital text we get a fully immersive digital experience through sound along with the accompanying site hosted on University of Michigan’s digital publishing platform Fulcrum.
i used to love to dream is the third installment of the Sleepwalking Mixtape series, which collectively represents the narration of Carson’s experiences as a graduate student at Clemson University (Sleepwalking 1), his transition to becoming part of the faculty at the University of Virginia (Sleepwalking 2), and finally on this album making sense of where he is and where he comes from. In the "Introduction" Carson stated, "i wrote the album to try to more accurately describe that particular loneliness & alienation that exists in my mind between where i’m from & where i’m at currently." Carson is from Decatur, Illinois, a small town in the center of the state. Throughout the album we get snippets of context about Decatur. Some of the snippets conjure images of those early black and white American propaganda videos set in the 1950s. The era that birthed those large block letter murals that welcomed you to "Any Town, USA." Other snippets, like the intro to "Crack, USA" underscore what this nostalgia might look like for Black communities living in the same space under the weight of systemic oppression. All of this represents what Carson might call home as he contemplated what this means across the album.
When Carson took his talents to academia, the plan was to turn rap into a career in education. It is hard to deny how much Carson cares about his ability to be an educator, whether on the mic or in the classroom, going to great lengths to combine the two. This album represents the culmination of that plan: on his way to tenure, off the strength of his raps. Yet, if you listen to the last track on the album, "Asterisk," the plan might not have been enough. As the horns come in on the hook, they emphasize the heart of the message:
is it really a win when your team ain’t there?
try to get you sleep & your dreams ain’t there.
all you want is to make a little something,
out of nothing you was given,
& you know it ain’t enough to just be living,
& you feeling like you going through the motions,
& it’s hitting you like rowing through an ocean,
& though you probably need a little help,
you only say that to yourself.
The loneliness of the academy is built on the emphasis on individualism. Carson’s larger narrative in i used to love to dream is about making sense of the physical and emotional distance between where he is from and where he is at. Despite the success he has been experiencing, turning rap into a career with health insurance, is it really a win without your team being there? This might not have been the life that A.D. Carson saw for himself but when you force Clemson University to "See the Stripes" or your new faculty orientation includes showing up for students as white supremacists descend on campus, Dr. Carson is making the most of his time.
I remember the first time I had time to listen to this album, the track that initially stood out to me was "Ready" featuring the lone guest verse from Truth. If you want to get my attention on a rap record, start with a church organ. As the beat switches to the chopped-up sample and Truth starts his verse, the infectious energy of the drums and the bouncy piano loop conjures a feeling of joy. And then Truth mention the Rap Lab at UVA. I love when rap music is wholesome and to me "at the lab in Virginia. all we need: drums, couple basses & a sample" is as wholesome as it gets in rap music. If "Asterisk" is about questioning if the loneliness is worth it, then "Ready" is the rallying cry, the motivation, and the plan is "if the doors open, & we all come through, & being here is what it all comes to, it was worth it to share." hip-hop culture at its peak is always collaborative. Even the human body needs help to make its own shit. As artists, this track captures the importance of their voices in academic contexts. Both Truth and A.D. Carson emphasize the value of community and collaboration. Like many rappers who bring their whole block with them in their music, A.D. Carson is arguing for this in rap and in academia. This whole album is a testament to that and so is the Rap Lab. As I stated earlier, from AyDeeTheGreat to Dr. Carson, A.D. was never going to make concessions. This record reminds me of all the times I have heard scholars talk about their hope of bringing their communities with them. Producing scholarship that their communities could love and appreciate. This track and this album brings us one major step towards those dreams.
As I was listening to this album in my preparation to write this review, I plugged in my good headphones and turned up the volume. And the track that made me switch to "repeat one" was "Stage Fright." As someone who fell in love with rap music from 2002–2004, I am going to be stopped every time by a sped-up soul sample. I’m listening to "Stage Fright" as I am typing these words and I keep stopping because as soon as the hook comes back around, my head nod takes over as the most important thing that my body needs to be doing. A.D. knew what he had with this one, which is why he told us to put our hands up. I feel the same way now as I did when this track first got me; I need to hear this track live. I need the feeling of the instrumental playing loudly in a club. This the type of records that make rappers seem 10 feet tall on stage. A.D. Carson came through with some of his most clever word play to match the energy of the beat. The bars before the first hook makes me rewind every time:
i won’t be defined by what confuse you.
even though i am, if i can plan it,
i can shoot through
organize, & plot like it’s a stage I stand on.
act accordingly, & then i brake like
breaks might surely lead to brake lights.
filaments & sentences
with sentiments i fill ‘em with:
These words really do feel like they are flying through an asteroid field and the last bar is a tightly fitted maneuver in between two crashing boulders executed with a barrel roll right as the hook starts. For me, this is the height of rap music. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. It’s a stank face moment that is the ultimate sign of respect for an emcee.
i used to love to dream wastes no time. Top to bottom every track stands strong on its own. However, "Just In Case" is an important record. There really are not words to do it justice, at least not from me, but I stop and focus fully every time. All I really want you to do is listen to that record and pay attention.
I do not wish to impose writing studies on A.D. Carson, but everything about his album and his efforts as an educator is where this field needs (and wants) to be. Who better than a rapper to remind us of the value of oratory? Who better than a rapper to build a digital writing lab so that others can engage in the praxis of composition? On so many levels, Carson is leading a path that the last 30 years of writing studies has been asking for and yet gives us so much more.
When I initially agreed to write this review, I was not planning to include other voices. Not for any other reason than just how things were when I was asked. All my academic life, I have always had the sneaking suspicion that the extended ennui of writing was really just setting you up for the right time, serendipity. Thus, when I really started to get into writing this review, a new semester had started and I started teaching an undergraduate senior seminar on the history of rap music. We have spent the semester developing an understanding for the history of rap music by tracing patterns and seeing where loops exist and where new ground is broken. When the editors of this special issue checked in on me and asked what I had planned for the webtext, I realized this would be a good opportunity to invite some of my undergrad students to reflect on i used to love to dream and get their perspective. So for a week I swapped out our regular agenda and instead we listened to and discussed this album. I let them know our discussion would be included in my review and invited them to submit responses of their own if they would like some individual shine.
Overall, students enjoyed the album. We had just covered the story-telling lyricism of rappers like Chuck D, Rakim, and the Geto Boys of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and many of them identified A.D. Carson within this lineage. They appreciated the vulnerability of his personal story and the connections to the politically conscious themes throughout. They consistently commented on the poetic nature of A.D. Carson’s delivery. A few students said they much more preferred the album when they could read along with the lyrics as it helped them process the stories and messages better. Interestingly, when I asked them, "Are any of these tracks going to make themselves into your regular rotation?" students hesitated. They collectively echoed the sentiment that the album requires too much attention. "You really have to pay attention to the words," one student responded. Another said, "I could see ‘Stage Fright’ getting into one of my playlists, that one had my favorite beat." I enjoyed this part of the conversations because I had just spent the previous few weeks carefully listening to each track, something I found great joy in and a practice I regularly take part in. Paying too much attention is why I fell in love with hip hop. As a teacher, I appreciate their honesty and understood it did not take away from the merits of the album either.
All throughout the semester I have been interested in understanding how my students engage with hip-hop culture and rap music. I am interested in understanding the differences from a generational, place-based, and racial perspective. Rap music is the dominant music genre in American popular culture yet we have few opportunities to collectively critically engage in understanding and contextualizing rap music. While those of us who love and appreciate rap music might be protective of how the art is treated, I do my best to be generous and work to help students unlearn the practice of consuming culture and instead opt for engagement. This is not to say that my students are solely consuming, but this is a consistent tension for rap music and the history of Black culture in the mainstream. I appreciate the students’ willingness to follow along with me in this review, and I trust that down the line they will come back to this album. Perhaps when they approach a more introspective moment in their lives. Either way, they can never say they never heard A.D. Carson and the stories he tells.
In addition to the classroom discussion, I want to thank Tiffany Teska and Jessica Luongo for offering to share their thoughts.
Tiffany Teska, English and Political Science Major:
My favorite song on the album was "Crack USA." While we often analyze the crack epidemic through the lens of its impact on large cities like New York or Los Angeles, "Crack USA" offers valuable insight into the legacy of crack in the small midwestern town of Decatur, Illinois. The song's opening lines stating "you have whole generations of black folks who are in prison, & their families have been destroyed" immediately highlighted how for many, the Black experience has become inextricably tied to the crack epidemic of the 1980s/90s. Through his amazing poetry-like lyricism, A.D. Carson successfully identified and analyzed a foundational aspect that constitutes the Black experience for numerous individuals living in the United States. A.D. Caron's introspective yet exceedingly universal message, which characterizes his whole album, was particularly prominent in "Crack, USA."
Jessica Luongo, English Major:
My favorite songs on the album were "Crack, USA", "Ampersand," and "Framing Pain." In my opinion, they were the most solid and captivating. They had a concrete message and a sort of balance on the beat. On "Ampersand," I felt like the song was easy to follow while still philosophical. The content was motivational and experiential. A.D. Carson had a cool flow over a unique beat that created a smooth technical balance between his voice and the instrumental. From the project as a whole, I felt the artist did a good job making the experiences relatable and tangible. I found myself wondering where A.D. Carson was when he wrote the album physically and if the space he was in affected his process. Finally, if I was going to recommend this album to someone else, I would tell them to be ready for a journey that is reflective and would have you thinking deeply about your own life. A unique sound that inspires introspection.
I wanted to close this review by simply stating that this text is important because it offers a fuller experience. Digital rhetoric and writing scholars have long argued about the depth and richness that digital texts are capable of. A.D.
Carson delivers rich sonic textures and layers. He delivers important contexts and arguments. But above all, you can feel the author’s presence in a way that academic texts are usually incapable.
This, I hope, is the future for how we continue to build and create knowledge.
yo, we ready