With 2013 rapidly fading out, I’ve decided to write a series of posts about the most important rap songs of the year. At this point, I’ve heard just about everything that fellow scholars and critics have recommended to me, so I believe I’m sufficiently informed to name the very best of the best.
In including a given text on this list, I’ve considered the following factors, among others: aesthetic excellence and originality, rhetorical value and scholarly significance. By “rhetorical value” I mean the song’s worth as public discourse. Does it contribute to the broader conversations going on both within the genre and in public culture more generally? Does it construct the artist and other textual identities in interesting ways? Does it interface with the vital political issues of our time? And so on. “Scholarly significance” means, simply, the degree to which the song merits criticism by scholars of rhetoric, sociolinguistics, literary and cultural studies, musicology or any other relevant field.
While there were literally hundreds of great rap songs released this year, I’ve limited myself to five (not ranked) to allow for an in-depth discussion of each. I encourage readers to check out these artists’ full albums, all of which are among the best of the year. For more tips on great rap from 2013, please visit Fact and Potholes in My Blog. Listening to everything from those lists should give you a sense of the increasing diversity, creativity and transgression in hip-hop today, so I can’t recommend them highly enough.
“Turn Up My Savage” – Katie Got Bandz, Drillary Clinton
You could reasonably argue that rap music nowadays is Chicago and Atlanta. That argument seemed to be symbolically confirmed when, back in May, Chiraq drill rapper Chief Keef signed a high-profile deal with Atlanta-based rapper Gucci Mane’s 1017 Brick Squad Records. It found further evidence when Keef appeared on “Hold My Liquor” off Kanye West’s Yeezus, the consensus best album of the year, whose phantasmagoric sound included a heavy dose of the hard-knocking drill that Sosa had helped to create. Gucci, meanwhile, made 2013 the Year of Young Thug in addition to dropping a couple of outstanding mixtapes of his own. As the year went on, these two hip-hop Meccas generated a near-constant stream of new acts and killer mixtapes.
To barely scratch the surface, the following ATL-based artists had (multiple) releases that I loved this year that I haven’t yet written about: Young Scooter, Migos, Gucci Mane, Waka Flocka Flame, Peewee Longway, Rich Homie Quan, Zaytoven, Future, OJ Da Juiceman, Killer Mike and Rich Kidz.
All of that was great, but the Chiraq mixtape that hit me straight in the gut this year was Drillary Clinton by Katie Got Bandz. Between club-ready drill bangers like “Pop Out (feat. King Louie)”, “Y U Mad”, “On Me” and “Boss Bitch”, it’s a release that I haven’t been able to stop playing since I downloaded it. “Turn Up My Savage” (listen below) is the most important track on it, because it’s the absolute hardest rap song that was released this year — by anyone. Which makes this the first year in hip-hop history that the most fearsome, lethal track came from a female.
In recent years, the ubiquity of rap on the musical and pop cultural landscapes has forced the genre to revise its core ideologies. Chief among these is the always-prevalent strain of heteronormativity — usefully defined in Jones 2006 as “culturally hegemonic masculinity” — which manifests itself through dehumanizing and exclusivist textual constructions of femininity and masculinity, respectively, as well as the use of sexist and homophobic vocabularies — to name just two common strategies.
Yet we’re living through a time when, despite still-dominant myths about femininity, Nicki Minaj can put out a dope Bangladesh-produced track called Did It On ‘Em — “shitted on ‘em / put your number twos in the air if you did it on ‘em”, she proclaims proudly on the 2010 track — and Le1f and Frank Ocean are viewed as legitimate players on the hip-hop scene (yes, Frank Ocean can rap). Sentiments are clearly shifting — slowly, but surely.
This is the climate that makes the currently undeniable rise of Katie Got Bandz possible. (I’ll just mention here that I’m less of a fan of, and less convinced by, Katie’s high school classmate Sasha Go Hard.) Who was it that made the toughest, rawest trap music of 2013? Was it Gucci? Chief Keef? Lil Bibby? Gunplay? Nah, it was this chick:
“Turn Up My Savage” is the best drill rap song released to date, period. It has most, if not all, of the sonic elements that critics have previously noted about the genre’s texts — with immeasurably greater character than anything heard in the past.
Katie is a more skilled and interesting lyricist, funnier ad-libber (“Katie!”, “skrrrrrrr!” and “drill, drill” being my three favorites) and quite honestly a stronger performer than Chief Keef, Lil Reese or, certainly, pre-autotune Lil Durk. The hook of “Turn Up My Savage”, on its own, is the hardest eight bars put to record this year:
I’m with the shits, bitch ain’t no lackin’
We catch yo ass up in traffic
Big ass 30s, let them have it
I turn up, on my savage (x2)
Notice how she puts just enough space between the first and second parts of each measure, giving the enormous beat, produced by her cousin BlockOnDaTrakk, space to breathe.
Also notice how, lyrically, the focus of this hook — and the song as a whole — is constructing Katie’s identity as the hardest hitta out there. She’s not comparing herself to other women, or even other female rappers; she’s “with the shits” — she’s doing deals — which is why she isn’t “lackin'”. If you’re not careful, she’ll catch you “in traffic” and blast you with her “big ass 30s”. This is all just how she turns up her “savage”. Has any female rapper ever rapped this ferociously? BlockOnDaTrakk’s apocalyptic beat sounds like drill’s answer to MC Hammer or B.M.F., but I’d honestly put Katie up against Rozay any day of the week; she would eat him alive.
“I need a hitta, ’cause I’m a savage”, her first verse begins, instantly presenting her vision of relationships as one based around equality: if you wanna mess with her, you have to be as hard as her. When she later threatens, “he want some smoke I’ll fire him up like doobie”, it feels like a chilling warning from one hitta to another.
But the truly jaw-dropping moment on each 16-bar verse is when the first eight give way to the second eight, BlockOnDaTrakk drops the 808s and gunshot sound effect, and Katie ratchets her flow up to double-time. No matter how many times I listen, this never ceases to blow my mind. “Bands up I got racks on me”, she boasts before spewing another threat: “tryna take somethin’ and get whacked, homie”. These double-time sections enact pure, unadulterated power.
The rest of the track proceeds in this same direction: it’s all breathtaking machismo, which implicitly subverts hip-hop’s dominant gender models. “I’m with the hittas, and we so savage” she describes on verse two, and we know that she’s for real. Just look at the scene at a listening party for the new King Louie mixtape when someone put on “Pop Out”:
It’s obvious from that clip that the Chicago drill scene, whose core principle seems to be an extreme level of machismo as a defense mechanism against the horrors described so eloquently by Chance on “Pusha Man/Paranoia”, has democractically elected Katie Got Bandz — a young woman — as one of its leaders. That’s profoundly important — not just to this scene, but to hip-hop in general.
In this heartfelt interview, Katie describes how she was inspired by Notorious B.I.G.’s story, and especially his song “Juicy”, to become a rapper. Another Drillary Clinton standout, “Dreams”, samples “Juicy” and describes that process of inspiration: “I remember those days when I used to daydream in the projects,” Katie says at the beginning of the track. “Now I’m living that dream. My dreams are now reality.” Later, she raps: “R.I.P. to the fallen — they the main reason I’m ballin’. Gotta make it out, find a better route, ‘fore I ended up in a coffin.”
It’s not far-fetched to think that Katie Got Bandz is currently providing similar inspiration to underprivileged women all over the US and the rest of the world. Past female rappers have been successful, but few, if any, have done it through such bold projections of raw agency. That’s why, for my money, Drillary Clinton is the best — and most vital — mixtape of 2013.
Thanks to everyone who has followed this series and offered feedback. You’re the reason that I’ve resolved to write a whole lot more in 2014 than I have in 2013. If you want to discuss anything at all related to rap, rhetoric or both, get at me in the comments. Happy New Year, friends!