From Jay-Z to Yacht Rock, 4 Great Music Books to Read Right Now

Have you ever wondered about the origins of “yacht rock”? Or how Van Morrison made his enigmatic classic? Look no further than these excellent new books.

3 Kings: Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z and Hip-Hop’s Multibillion-Dollar Rise by Zack O’Malley Greenburg
In the past 20 years, hip-hop has produced enough wanna-be Warren Buffetts to fill the biggest strip club in Atlanta. But, according to Forbes editor Zack O’Malley Greenburg’s new book, only a trio of artist-entrepreneurs have risen to a status that rivals the corporate titans: Jay-Z, Dr. Dre and Diddy. What sets them apart? “[They] built their fortunes by creating a 24/7 head-to-toe lifestyle,” Greenburg writes, having branched out into movies, sports management, alcohol, fashion, TV, music streaming and beyond. 

Greenburg did more than 100 interviews for the project – including paying a surprise visit to Tidal’s shadowy Oslo headquarters – connecting the kings’ artistic personae to their endeavors: Dre, the laborious sonic perfectionist, marketed audiophile-worthy Beats headphones to the masses; Jay, the reserved jet-set player, has invested in luxury items like Basquiat paintings and a company described as “Uber for private jets”; Diddy, the omni-directional hustler, will do anything from reality TV to promoting acne medication (according to most reports, Diddy is the richest, approaching $1 billion, with Jay close behind).

The book explores pivotal moments in what old-school icon KRS-One has called “the hip-hopitization of corporate America,” like how an entry-level rap fan at Coca-Cola helped rebrand Sprite for the urban market in the Nineties, and the meeting by the ocean when Dre and Jimmy Iovine hatched the idea for Beats (“Fuck sneakers,” Iovine said. “Let’s sell speakers!”). The number of hundred-million–dollar deals Greenburg chronicles is staggering. But he’s also aware that hip-hop’s mega-mogul phase is fading, as artists like Kanye West and A$AP Rocky forgo chasing huge profits in a search for prestige (“a currency that’s becoming perhaps more valuable than the dollar”). 3 Kings proves it was sweet while it lasted. J.D.

The Yacht Rock Book: The Oral History of the Soft, Smooth Sounds of the 70s and 80s by Greg Prato
In the late 1970s, there wasn’t a name for the smooth, AM-friendly music made by the likes of Hall and Oates, Orleans, Kenny Loggins and the Doobie Brothers. But a series of viral videos retroactively dubbed it “yacht rock,” as it appealed to a very white, upscale audience and an odd number of songs had nautical themes. Greg Prato’s oral history tells of the rise, fall and semi-ironic resurgence of the genre, including new interviews with John Oates, Jim Messina and more. “It’s amazing this style came to be,” Fred Armisen writes in the foreword. “It must take an incredible amount of restraint to play that gently.” A.G.

Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 by Ryan H. Walsh
In the summer of 1968, Van Morrison was a rock & roll refugee, an Irish blues poet on the run from his homeland after a bitter fling with pop stardom. Down and out in Boston, he wrote the songs that became one of rock’s most beloved masterworks, Astral Weeks – and then blew town as suddenly as he’d arrived. In this fantastic chronicle, Ryan Walsh unearths the time and place behind the music. Morrison fell into a Boston underground scene full of outrageous characters – like Mel Lyman, the folkie harmonica player turned cult leader with a tribe of acid-crazed worshippers. Future rock legend Peter Wolf was a radio DJ spinning the blues on the overnight shift. Lou Reed was often hanging around town, sharing hippie tracts on ritual magic with friends like Jonathan Richman. Walsh even catches up with Morrison’s long-lost flower-child bride Janet Planet, now selling her love beads on Etsy, who tells him, “Being a muse is a thankless job, and the pay is lousy.” R.S.

Women Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives by Holly Gleason
Now that Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Margo Price and more are smashing country’s glass ceiling with progressive songwriting and attitudes, there’s probably no better time for Women Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives. “Part history, part criticism,” in the words of editor and journalist Holly Gleason, these 27 essays, all penned by women writers and musicians, celebrate female country heroines: household names (Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn) and those who deserve more attention (rockabilly wildcat Wanda Jackson, jazz pianist Lil Hardin, who once played behind Jimmie Rodgers). Rosanne Cash writes lovingly of her stepmother, June Carter Cash, for supporting her dad Johnny: “If being a wife were a corporation, June would have been the CEO.” Grace Potter pays respect to the voice, musical versatility and wardrobe of Linda Ronstadt, calling “Blue Bayou” her “comfort food.” In a previously unpublished mash note written when she was a teen, Taylor Swift rhapsodizes over big-voiced Sixties crossover queen Brenda Lee, calling her someone “who mastered the sound of heartbreak so flawlessly that she made audiences not only identify with her but believe her.” Swift clearly learned that lesson – just one example of the way the groundbreakers in this anthology continue to strike many chords. D.B.

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