2013′s best rap texts, part five: Turn Up My Savage by Katie Got Bandz

Previously in this series: 1. Picacho (feat. Maceo) by Young Thug, 2. Black Skinhead by Kanye West, 3. Coins by Le1f, 4. Pusha Man/Paranoia by Chance the Rapper

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.

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“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.

The same list for Chi-town is about as long: Vic Mensa, Caleb James, Tree, ZMoney, Spenzo, Lil Durk, Lil Bibby, Lil Mister, Yung Gwapa, King Louie, RondaNumbaNine and DJ Rashad.

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:

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“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!

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2013′s best rap texts, part four: Pusha Man/Paranoia by Chance the Rapper

Previously in this series: 1. Picacho (feat. Maceo) by Young Thug, 2. Black Skinhead by Kanye West, 3. Coins by Le1f

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.

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“Pusha Man/Paranoia” – Chance the Rapper, Acid Rap

As of this writing, Chance the Rapper has still not responded to my invitation to “kick it”. In that post, which unpacked the dizzying genius of Acid Rap standout “Smoke Again (feat. AB-Soul)”, I noted the various literary elements at play in Chance’s writing. Specifically, I lauded that song’s use of meter, consonance/assonance and multiple-entendres. For the most part, though, “Smoke Again” is a party jam — a brilliant one, but still a party jam.

Acid Rap became a well-deserved critical darling this year, I think, not for its moments of trill euphoria like “Smoke Again”, “My Favorite Song (feat. Childish Gambino)”, “Juice” and “NaNa (feat. Action Bronson)”, but rather for those instances when Chance disarms the listener with his emotional clarity — “Good Ass Intro”, “Cocoa Butter Kisses (feat. Twista & Vic Mensa)”, “Lost (feat. Noname Gypsy)” and especially the subject of this post, which can be heard below.

“Pusha Man/Paranoia” is this year’s “Cartoons and Cereal”, though it resonates less triumphantly and more somberly than the latter does. Over the course of the track’s three distinct movements, Chance’s first-person protagonist — both a synecdoche for the Chicago hitta and an earnest representation of himself as a rapper — first rides high and free, then encounters gut-wrenching conflict and finally mourns loss. Thus, the track follows a Shakespearean dramatic structure, only condensed from five acts into three: exposition, conflict and catastrophe. (Based on his use of meter on “Smoke Again” and structure on this one, Chance evidently loves Shakespeare.)

The three-act narrative of “Pusha Man/Paranoia” serves to raise listeners’ awareness of the crucial context surrounding his text: his hometown Chicago’s status as murder capital of the Global North, which I noted in my post about fellow Chicagoan Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead”. “Pusha Man/Paranoia” is a textbook case of effective hip-hop rhetoric, because it is bitingly critical — especially in its second act, as we’ll see below — while still being musically appealing, lyrically entertaining and, ultimately, personally revealing.

“Ten damn days,” begins act one, “and all I got to show for it is shoes and shows and chauffeurs with road rage.” At our story’s outset, Chance is a relatively successful Pusha Man (a reference to Chicago soul great Curtis Mayfield’s classic from the Superfly soundtrack), dealing both drugs and raps. After he got caught smoking marijuana by school officials, which led to his being suspended and thus making his breakthrough mixtape, he transformed himself from a bored high school student into a nationally touring hip-hop act. Now, he wears a “letterman” jacket but he doesn’t actually “practice”; instead, he uses his “burner” to make sure there’s “no lacking” on his side.

The sonic palette of this first act, produced by Ceej from the Atlanta beatmaking crew Two-9, is all Chicago soul and jazz, heavy on live keyboards, horns and soulful background vocals from Lili K. These production choices really set the mood for act one as a celebration of Chance’s Chi-town hustling lifestyle.

Over that musical backdrop, Chance richly characterizes his story’s setting:

a land where the lake made of sand
and the milk don’t pour and the honey don’t dance
and the money ain’t yours

Unlike the Bible’s land flowing with milk and honey, Chance’s Chicago has a lake “made of sand”, milk that doesn’t “pour” and a “honey” that refuses to “dance”. Moreover, it’s a place where the money ain’t “yours” — presumably, it belongs to the local hittas. He goes on to fully adopt the mantle of the hitta, telling “the buyer what Nitty told” him (according to an annotation at Rap Genius, Nitty was a well-known Chicago drug dealer). Thus we come to act one’s hook, performed by Chance’s Save Money cohort Nate Fox (producer of “My Favorite Song”, “Juice”, “Lost” and “Chain Smoker”):

I got that mmm, mmm
I got that God damn
I’m your pusha man
I’m your, I’m your pusha man
Pimp slappin’, toe taggin’
I’m just tryna fight the man
I’m your pusha man
I’m your, I’m your pusha man

At this point, Chance — represented here by Fox — is simply reveling in his lifestyle and his identity. He praises his own product, calling it “mmm, mmm” and “God damn” — meant to refer to both the raps and the drugs that he’s pushing — and he gleefully confesses to “pimp slappin’” and “toe taggin’”, pimping and killing. He claims that this behavior is his way of fighting “the man”, which adds to the satisfaction he takes from it.

Verse two continues this spirit of revelry. He brags about smoking weed with “your bitch” and about how Chicago media such as the “Reader”, “RedEye” and “Sun-Times” are similarly all over him. At the end of act one, it’s all good in the life of a hitta: “she came to party, she popped a molly / I said ‘come to papa’, she said ‘papa yes’”. But after another exuberant hook, act one ends as abruptly as it began.

The listener is then treated to about 30 seconds of absolute silence which recall the ending of the series finale of The Sopranos. That story, too, was about the tragic fate of a once-great Pusha Man.

When we fade back in from black, a colder, darker, Nosaj Thing-produced instrumental grounds a mirror image version of act one’s hook. Now, Pusha Man is no longer free and easy but wracked by conflict:

I’ve been riding around with my blunt on my lips
With the sun in my eyes, and my gun on my hip
Paranoia on my mind, got my mind on the fritz
But a lotta niggas dying, so my 9 with the shits

In act one, “your bitch” was “breaking down [Chance's] weed sometimes”, and he had “poppy fields of that popeye” (a lot of really good marijuana) stored in his house. Now, we get a comparably bleak image of a “blunt” perched pathetically on his lips. The sun is in his eyes as he rides around, suggesting that he’s driving through the South Side of Chicago at sunset. He’s feeling “paranoia”, not so much from the weed as from the fact that “a lotta niggas dying” in his neighborhood. Lately, his “9” has been experiencing “the shits” — it’s been unloading its contents repeatedly — just to keep its owner alive.

It’s evident, then, that we’ve moved from exposition to conflict: Chance’s protagonist is now doing battle with his fellow hittas and, even more passionately, with the social conditions that have driven him and them to their lifestyles. Act one was about showing off his power; act two is about battling to keep hold of it as it slips away.

Act two’s first verse primarily serves to reset the scene, updating listeners on Chance’s day-to-day life. “Move to the neighborhood,” he addresses an unseen gentrifying family, before telling a fellow local: “I bet they don’t stay for good, watch.” If they do stay, Chance points out, “somebody’ll steal Daddy’s rollie and call it the neighborhood watch.” For Chance’s part, he’s praying “for a safer ‘hood when his paper’s good”, when he has enough money to get out.

But at his age and in his circumstances, he’s powerless. He’s “still gettin’ ID’d” when he goes to buy “swishers”, and his mother is still doing his laundry. He’s just “trapped in the middle of the map” — in this Midwestern metropolis — “with a little bitty rock and a little bit of rap”; all he’s got are his drugs and his raps, and so far neither is providing the relief he seeks. Notice how as he raps this verse’s last line, “and a little shitty Mac that I literally jacked”, his background vocal is a building scream of frustration. This confirms that we are in the conflict and climax portion of this dramatic tragedy.

In verse two, Chance lets loose with his political anger:

They murder kids here.
Why you think they don’t talk about it? They deserted us here.
Where the fuck is Matt Lauer at? Somebody get Katie Couric in here.
Probably scared of all the refugees. Look like we had a fucking hurricane here.

In act one, he was content to be a pusher in order to “fight the man” — that was his act of protest. By act two he’s realized that this is insufficient, so he lashes out at the dominant culture that refuses to “talk about” his social conditions. Matt Lauer and Katie Couric would never go to the South Side, Chance argues, because they’re too “scared of all the refugees”. He goes on:

Down here it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot
No love for the opposition — specifically a cop position
Cause they’ve never been in our position

Act one portrayed Chance’s rapping, pushing, pimping and killing as willful choices, all parts of a lifestyle that he opted for due to its benefits: “poppy fields of that popeye”, “threesome time”, his visibility “in the streets, in the tweets, in the Reader and the RedEye” and so on. Now, he reveals that, in fact, he has no other choice; it’s simply “easier to find a gun” than to find positive alternatives. Lamenting his powerlessness, he castigates the police who have never been in his position, who constantly engage in “dry snitching” and who refuse to protect the interests of him and those like him.

And then Nosaj Thing disrupts the instrumental once again, revealing a synthy, lurching knock that is even more somber and sobering. We thus enter act three, where the inevitable outcome of Chance’s struggle has arrived (or is just about to arrive): death and mourning.

It’s left ambiguous who, specifically, has died — on Acid Rap track four, “Juice”, Chance reveals that he “ain’t really be the same since Rod passed” — but the mood of act three is unmistakably funereal. It stares, unblinkingly, at the reality of death, something that the individual humans living under these social conditions are regularly forced to do. “I know you scared. You should ask us if we scared, too,” the hook points out, again seeming to address outsiders. You’re afraid to drive in our neighborhoods with your car doors unlocked, he says, but have you ever wondered how scary it is to actually live there? “If you was there, then we just knew you’d care, too”, he notes. If you were at Rodney’s funeral, you’d understand the reality of the crime statistics that talk you out of taking that cushy job in Chicago.

“It just got warm out,” Chance says, “this the shit I been warned ’bout. I hope that it storm in the morning; I hope that it’s pouring out.” Presumably, when the weather is nice, the hittas are not. “I hate the sound of fireworks,” he complains. This is no longer the Pusha Man of act one — this is a child coming of age in a war zone, so worn down that his nerves are a wreck.

“Everybody dies in the summer,” he sings soulfully. “Wanna say goodbye? Tell ‘em while it’s spring.” As noted above, Chance serves in this text as a synecdoche for the inner-city youth who has had to bury so many of his or her friends. This final act, this catastrophe, in which Chance surveys a South Side landscape riddled with the bodies of children, is a fitting conclusion to this deeply political tragic narrative.

In act one, Chance was the hitta riding high while business was good — maybe it wasn’t the lifestyle his parents had wanted for him or the one he had dreamed about, but it kept him alive. In act two, he was that same hitta wracked by paranoia, denouncing his society for rendering him powerless against the threats of violence all around him. Finally, in act three, he’s simply a sorrowful human who wants someone, anyone, to be “there”, to “care”.

“Pusha Man/Paranoia” is social criticism of the most poignant and meaningful sort. It doesn’t simply shout political positions at its audience — more gun control!; more social programs!; less police corruption!; end the drug war! — it suggests them, organically, through its stirring personal narrative. Like “Cartoons and Cereal”, it discourages a life of hustling, but Chance can’t yet take a victory lap because he’s still too close to that life and its effects. He still sees the faces of too many children, like Rodney, who are destined to become casualties of a dominant culture ruled by fear.

“I know you scared,” Chance the Rapper declares in what is, in my opinion, the most memorable single lyric of 2013. If only more artists, citizens and humans would show Chance’s bravery — would admit that they are profoundly, viscerally scared — perhaps we could begin to fix this place.

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2013′s best rap texts, part three: Coins by Le1f

Previously in this series: 1. Picacho (feat. Maceo) by Young Thug, 2. Black Skinhead by Kanye West

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.

“Coins” – Le1f, Fly Zone

Honestly, I was hooked from the second I hit play on Le1f’s debut mixtape Dark York last year, and my appreciation had nothing to do with the rapper’s subversive identity as an out gay dude. I was blown away by his music — his verbally-dextrous and impassioned delivery, often in double-time; his writing’s stream-of-consciousness style and hyper-referentiality, equally influenced by Nicki Minaj and Das Racist (to whom he provided the “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” beat, incidentally); and especially his choice of off-the-wall yet trunk-rattling instrumentals from crack Fade to Mind producers like Nguzunguzu (“Bubbles”, “Gimme Life” and “Hate2Wait”) and Morri$ (“Go In”, “Lavandin”).

The man himself said it best: “I am gay, and I’m proud to be called a gay rapper, but it’s not gay rap. That’s not a genre,” he told Fader last year.  “I’m not preachy. The best thing a song can be called is good.”

Nevertheless, identity is a fascinating place to start when analyzing Le1f’s texts. My favorite track from his excellent 2013 ‘tape Fly Zone is “Coins”. Let’s take a close listen, with an ear toward textual identity construction. Press play below.

To my mind, Fly Zone is sharper, funnier and more concise than Dark York. Its beats are even more experimental, curated by various obscure, L.A. bass-influenced geniuses from all over, including LOLGurlz, Shy Guy and Drippin. The latter (with the help of Souldrop) fashioned the “Coins” instrumental, which sounds like if Pink Floyd’s “Money” were filtered through a mish-mash of bassy EDM and Bangladesh-style synths-and-808s trap. It’s fantastic. Between Dark York, this tape and the more recent (and even weirder) Tree House, Le1f is rapidly establishing himself as the rapper with the best instrumental taste in the game.

More interesting to me is how, through his discursive choices, Le1f establishes his ethos as a powerful and populist voice within modern rap. This is no more visible than on “Coins”, Fly Zone’s most cocksure and acerbic track, in which he presents himself as a witty and sympathetic outsider (due to his sexual orientation, his liberal arts education and his roots in New York’s vogue-ball culture) navigating the world of ego-driven hip-hop. His persona permits him to satirize and critique the genre while also claiming membership — perhaps even leadership — within it.

But just what do we mean when we use the term ethos like this? You probably learned about ethos in your English composition or public speaking class as one of the three modes of persuasion identified by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, with the other two being logos (appeals to reason) and pathos (appeals to the emotions). BYU’s Silva Rhetoricae resource provides the following useful definition of ethos: “the persuasive appeal of one’s character, especially how this character is established by means of the speech or discourse”. That entry goes on to say that language use serves to “increase the ethos or credibility of the speaker” so long as it “appeals to the kinds of proofs or authorities that are seen as authoritative to one’s audience”.

Broadly, “Coins” establishes Le1f’s ethos by appealing to the most authoritative “proofs” — the various instrumental and linguistic tropes as well as performative skills that encode identity — in contemporary rap. With his ethos established, he is able to achieve the significant feat of being the first-ever popular, credible rapper who is openly homosexual.

Above I noted that the song’s instrumental is fantastic: the drums are incredibly trapped-out and the synth line is catchy. The thing self-evidently knocks, which serves to demonstrate Le1f’s ethos during the initial seconds of the track. At the same time, the rapper’s performance — the deep and booming quality of his voice; the way he deftly maneuvers through the syllabic structure of lines like, “I’m a freaky deaky god in the pantheon” and “I bring a zest haters cannot test”; his diction and tone and overall flow — all of this, too, validates his hip-hop ethos.

But it is in the song’s lyrics that the most fascinating ethos proofs are constructed.

Based on the title “Coins” and the song’s overall concept, it’s apparent that Le1f is appealing to what is perhaps ego-driven rap’s most sacred proof: “got money”. If rap is a culture, it must have ideographs (McGee 1980). “Money” and its variants (“paper”, “stacks”, “racks”, “bands” and “gwap”, to name a few) are certainly among this culture’s most treasured value terms. So, the proof “gettin’ my coins”, the song’s thesis statement, is primarily meant to encode Le1f’s membership within the rap community.

Lines like “my jokes are funny but my money’s not”, “I hope I smell just like money smell”, “laughing out the bank, yeah yo, I’m getting money” and “empty out my pockets – all you see is 50s” accomplish the same.

Meanwhile, “cops” (“ops”, “po-po”, “pigs” and so on) is one of rap’s key negative ideographs — terms that denote what the culture is not, what it reviles, what it seeks to destroy — and Le1f similarly establishes the correct positioning there: “Fuck they mean by the block is hot?” he spews. “I’m on the Internet and I don’t fuck wit cops”.

Later, in the chorus, he goes: “In school I used to trap, now I rap”. This, too, is a well-worn ethos proof within hip-hop: the notion of progressing from selling drugs to rapping about selling drugs (and often doing both simultaneously). For a great recent example, see Young Scooter’s “Before Rap (feat. Trouble & OG Boo Dirty)”.

Because he constructs these standard proofs, Le1f is permitted to recontextualize rap within a queer/vogue-ball milieu, and these instances are where the track really lifts off.

From the first verse’s first line, “I’m that prince that you slept on”, Le1f’s peculiar perspective shines through. Notice how “that you slept on” is both an ethos proof — “slept on” is one of the most commonly-rapped linguistic strings because rappers are always narrating their struggles to become known — and a cleverly suggestive double-entendre. A bar later, he takes us further down the queer/vogue rabbit hole:

I’m a freaky deaky god in the pantheon
Tell your nigga when he see me keep his panties on
‘Cause I might just read you backwards like the Holy Qu’ran

Note the flamboyance of the imagery there, with Le1f as a reigning deity in Rome’s Pantheon. Ancient imagery is similarly employed in the second verse in the line “watch how my eyes do the dead sea scroll right over you”. It’s also interesting how, in the above stanza, the “get your girlfriend took” rap trope — as in Young Thug’s “Picacho”: “your ho suck it without passion, she lavish” — is recontextualized, with “your nigga” presumably meaning “your boyfriend”. And the reference to “reading”, again, addresses the vogue-ball community exemplified by Zebra Katz’ “Ima Read”.

I also get a visceral rush from hearing a male rapper with such standardly legit rap ethos pick up the term “basic bitches” from people like Nicki Minaj and Kreayshawn to use on a hook, as in: “Basic bitches see me / they think I’m acting funny.”

But the most brilliant line that Le1f has ever penned appears in the chorus:

Me and money match, we’re attached
Gettin’ my coins

There’s no better example than that for showing why Le1f matters. That line serves as an ethos proof for two communities at once — the rap community and the vogue community — because he’s both embracing the rap ideograph of money and affirming his own fashion sense. He has so much money that it’s an accessory in his top-notch wardrobe. He’s pretty much just voguing with his coins, and reading “basic bitches”, all day long.

This is totally revolutionary rap discourse, but Le1f is only able to satirize and transgress so effectively because he also shows that he belongs. As Aristotle well knew, there’s no better way of changing a community than that.

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2013′s best rap texts, part two: Black Skinhead by Kanye West

Previously in this series: Picacho (feat. Maceo) by Young Thug

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.

Kanye-West

“Black Skinhead” – Kanye West, Yeezus

It’s pretty much settled science that Yeezus is one of the best albums of the year. Of course, in my opinion, no one made a better argument for it than yours truly, in my epically-long rhetorical criticism Yeezus: the Resurrection and Redemption of the Infinite Self.

A few months ago, I became embroiled in an extended bar room debate with a fellow who just can’t stand Kanye West — hardly a controversial opinion — and in the course of defending ‘Ye and his work I cited several observations from that essay. The West hater then suggested that essays with titles like mine are the very reason that a lot of people find Kanye West so pretentious. But I believe that’s an improper use of that word. In fact, Yeezus, and my criticism of it, are not pretentious at all, because they don’t aspire to anything that they cannot actually achieve — they possess the skills to pay their respective bills.

The debate then became, “who is the better role model for young black Americans, Jay-Z or Kanye West?” To me the answer is obvious, but I think it’s best to remove race from the question. Kanye is a much better role model for young Americans than Jay-Z because unlike Jay, he has stayed true to his artistic and political principles throughout his career. While Jay-Z is busy hanging out with the President of the United States, Kanye is focused on making revolutionary pop art and social criticism, directing the crowd rather than following it.

Many read ‘Ye’s public behavior as egotistical, but I find it inspiring: he’s one of the select few celebrities who seem totally liberated from the concerns of corporate spin artists, who speak and act according to conscience rather than commerce. The late, great Lou Reed was enlightened in a similar way, so it’s probably not a coincidence that Yeezus was one of the last albums that he gushed over before his death: “If you like sound,” Reed concluded, “listen to what he’s giving you. Majestic and inspiring.”

As ‘Ye himself raps on “New Slaves”: “You see it’s leaders, and it’s followers / but I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.” That’s probably the purest statement of his political and artistic vision that appears on the album, and it encapsulates why his voice is so much more vital than Jay-Z’s nowadays.

Overall, Yeezus is such a whirlwind of aesthetic and rhetorical transgressions that it feels inadequate to choose just one song as its exemplar. But if I had to pick one it would have to be “Black Skinhead”. Feel free to listen along with me on the embedded player below.

One concept from Rhetoric that I turned to over and over again in the aforementioned Yeezus essay was enactment. I defined enactment as “the action, scenically or narratively depicted, that displays behavior” (Kaufer & Butler 23), which is basically an academic phrasing of the cliché “actions speak louder than words.” West directly voices a transgressive political and aesthetic orientation throughout the album, and this orientation is confirmed by what he does in the music – as rapper, producer and curator. These actions are the loci of enactment in the text. Let’s unpack the song’s direct claims first (with links to references):

My “by any means” on

The general argument of this track could be summarized as, “I am more radical than your favorite rapper; I’m actually prepared to start a revolution,” and the above line states it baldly. He’s got his “by any means” on, indicating that he is prepared, like Malcolm was, to do whatever it takes to achieve freedom from oppression. That’s essentially the definition of radicalism: advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs”.

Elsewhere, on “New Slaves”, Kanye laments the fact that “the DEA teamed up with the CCA”, so he is clearly well-aware of the need for fundamental change in today’s American society. “Black Skinhead” amounts to an intervention intended to start that change.

I keep it 300

Here, West aligns himself with Chicago drill rapper Chief Keef, who came of age in the murder capital of the Global North. A few bars before this one, he raps “[they're] claiming I’m overreacting like the black kids in Chiraq, bitch”. West’s hometown is Chicago, after all, so he has the necessary ethos to forge this alliance. And given Chief Keef’s spirited appearance on “Hold My Liquor”, it seems that Sosa is on board. Indeed, West was the first artist with a national platform to rep Keef, when he remixed the latter’s drill mission statement “I Don’t Like”.

I’ve been a menace for the longest,
but I ain’t finished. I’m devoted.

It would be overly arduous to recount, exhaustively, the litany of Kan-troversi-yes over the course of the artist’s career. Suffice it to say that he has indeed been a “menace” to pop culture for some time. Yet as the years go by, his most controversial statements and actions are increasingly vindicated, which is probably why he’s warning us that he “ain’t finished”.

In the most telling example, recall the truly embarrassing media reaction to his astute comment, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”, at the Hurricane Katrina relief fundraising telethon in 2005. Throughout the AP story I just linked, West’s voice in the (crucial) debate about the government’s response to the disaster is delegitimized through blatantly biased vocabulary. For example:

[...] a heartfelt and dignified benefit aired on NBC and other networks Friday night took an unexpected turn thanks to the outspoken rapper Kanye West [...] then, to Myers’ evident surprise, West began a rant [...] while allowing that ‘the Red Cross is doing everything they can,’ West — who delivered an emotional outburst at the American Music Awards after he was snubbed for an award [...]

The story amounts to a self-righteous hit piece against West, treating his behavior as objectively illegitimate despite the fact that he was well within his rights to do what he did and that, perhaps most importantly, he was voicing opinions that a large proportion of the country shared at the time.

When faced with elitist media coverage like that — something that has dogged West throughout his career — is there any question why he’s become “devoted” to radicalism?

I’m aware I’m a wolf
Soon as the moon hit
I’m aware I’m a king
Back out the tomb, bitch.
Black out the room, bitch
“Stop all that coon shit”
These niggas ain’t doing shit
Them niggas ain’t doing shit
Come on, homie, what happened?
You niggas ain’t breathing you gasping
These niggas ain’t ready for action.

In these lines, the crux of the text’s argument reveals itself. If we keep in mind his legacy of controversies, the phrase “soon as the moon hit” emerges as a temporal reference to the moment when he developed a pop culture platform. What did he then decide to do with that limelight? Instead of becoming the meek, little lamb that dominant culture (as exemplified by the news stories cited above) desired, West became a wolf. 

From there, we get a crucial piece of the text’s broader metaphysics: “I’m aware I’m a king / back out the tomb, bitch”, a reference to the Christian Resurrection. I’ve already written a lot about West’s empowering metaphysics. Jesus Christ is one of the most sacred icons of dominant American culture, so misappropriating it in this way is consistent with the broader theme of “Black Skinhead”.

The remaining lines feel like genre criticism to me. They argue for rap to get wilder, more transgressive and, indeed, blacker – because even in 2013, black is still subversive. The line “stop all that coon shit” feels like West adopting the persona of a racist reacting to Top 40 hip-hop — “I sure wish you’d turn off that coon shit!” he scolds his son, perhaps — and responding by pointing out that actually, “them niggas ain’t doing shit”. They aren’t taking the artform into their own hands or advancing the conversation; they’re simply surviving, “gasping” for air. They certainly aren’t ready for the direct “action” to bring about change that West is proposing.

So just how does Kanye enact his argument that he is a radical? He does so both musically and linguistically.

The sonic elements of “Black Skinhead” enact radicalism: various critics have described the track’s sound as “punk-rap”, “industrial glitter-rock stomp” and “more frayed and lacerating than anything an army of horrorcore rappers has mustered”. It’s safe to say that a sound that can be characterized in these ways is radical in 2013 hip-hop.

Instrumentally, the track is minimalist, emphasizing attack drums, distorted guitar, synth bass and layered vocal samples. The various tremolo’d screams, and the repeated “black!” sample, achieve the rhetorical effect of grabbing the audience by the scruffs of their necks, compelling their attention. The overall sonic palette is in a different universe from the rest of mainstream music in 2013. Yet this is a major label hip-hop album, one that went gold back in August. To force such a sound into popular consciousness is a radical act in and of itself.

On the matter of Kanye’s radical use of language I risk repeating myself, so I’ll attempt to be brief. A great deal of the rhetoric excerpted above is obviously subversive. But here are some other, equally representative bits:

They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor
They gon’ come to kill King Kong
[...]
If I knew what I knew in the past
I would’ve been blacked out on your ass.
[...]
Stop all that coon shit
Early morning cartoon shit

Kanye’s insistence on using vocabulary like “coon”, on comparing himself to a classic Hollywood gorilla, on simply using the word “black” so many times (combined with the repeated “black!” vocal sample, which almost becomes part of the track’s rhythm section): all of this, like the track’s production, enacts radicalism. It is a direct rejection of PR, spin, political correctness, branding and so on. He rejects all of that because his discourse is not intended to be sold; it is simply intended to be heard. It is intended to force “Middle America”, who are “packed in”, who “came to see” Kanye in his “black skin”, to reflect on their culture’s glaring, desperate problems.

“Black Skinhead” is the clearest mission statement yet from an artist who has made a career out of enacting cultural change. Future generations are likely to look back on it as a classic. For now, it’s a booming call for radical change, an admonition to start “doing shit”. It’s not only directed at rappers or the black community, but at everyone privileged enough to have a voice in global society — it’s past time that we got “ready for action”. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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