Close listen: “Smoke Again” by Chance the Rapper

For more thoughts on Chance’s incredible 2013, read my end-of-the-year love letter to Acid Rap‘s “Pusha Man/Paranoia”.

Ever since it first hit the Internet back in April, I haven’t gone a day without listening to some or all of Acid Rap. Probably I’m so into Chance the Rapper because he’s a uniquely American character that hadn’t been properly represented in rap until he arrived: the black middle class slacker smart-ass. This kid was everywhere in the public schools I attended in Pittsburgh, and whenever I encounter him in my adult life (which is often) I’m instantly drawn to him. I usually try desperately to befriend him so that we can clown on whack motherfuckers together.

Anyways, the best evidence of Chance’s devious awesomeness is the song “Smoke Again”, which also features a guest verse by Top Dawg Entertainment’s AB-Soul that I could write pages about. But I’m gonna focus here instead on Chance’s second verse, because it makes my head spin – as all good acid rap ought to.

First thing to note about Chance: the kid is bright. He went to an arts high school. At one point in his senior year, he got suspended and made a breakthrough mixtape. That was the same year that he “did a ton of drugs and did better than all [his] alma maters” (“Good Ass Intro”). So I’m about to assume authorial intent for a lot of things that might seem questionable until you reflect on how mind-bogglingly sharp and well-read this guy is. Feel free to listen along with me (from about 1:51) on the embedded player below.

So let’s talk meter. Yes, meter – on a rap song. Combined with the distorted horns of the beat, which feel stoner regal, and his self-anointment as “young Sir Rapper” after, it fits that Chance raps the verse’s opening line – “Who’s sneaking in the club?” – in iambic pentameter. I bet you never thought you’d mentally associate iambs and marijuana. Well, count the beats yourself: “who’s SNEA-king IN the CLUB?” The emphasis is perfectly iambic. In fact, that’s just one high-art bookend in a verse with two of them.

Here’s the opening four in their entirety:

Who’s sneaking in the club? That’s that young Sir Rapper.
Un-saran wrap the purple. Wrap that blunt under after.
Smoke all out the window. Cops can eat a dick.
If you ain’t the hitter, you just might be the lick.

These bars establish a pattern of sonic and thematic unity that is carried throughout the rest of the verse. For instance, note the assonance (underlined) and consonance (bolded) of the second line: “Un-saran wrap the purple, wrap that blunt under after”. Taken together, we have the echoing “u” vowels of “un”, “sa-”, “the”, “blu-” and “un”; the echoing “a”s of “-ran”, “wrap”, “wrap” and “af-”; and the echoing “ur”s of “purp-”, “-der” and “-ter”. Thematically, we get a neat sequence of images of an experienced smoker doing his thing. In addition to being hilarious, “Cops can eat a dick” is a brilliant turn of phrase, because “dick” is an old-fashioned term for a detective. And “If you ain’t the hitter, you just might be the lick” is a deceptively meaningful little double-entendre about smoking and stealing. It suggests that Chance gets high to blend in and thus to avoid becoming a casualty in the Chicago gang wars that he grew up around.

All of that in just four measures. Let’s read on.

Flame on, flame on. I’m your bitch’s ringtone.
She like when I rap raps, but better when I sing songs.
No Drake but I get my Trey on. Killin’ in the hood like Trayvon.
Shoppin’ like I got a coupon. Savin’ like I got a cape on.

Here, Chance “flames on” – continues baking – while his haters “flame on” – continue hating. He raps raps and wraps wraps, which his haters’ girlfriends enjoy in equal measure, though they like it even better (thus, he “beds her”) when he croons. He distances himself from Drake but aligns himself with Trey Songz and Trayvon Martin, fitting in an implicit double-entendre of Trey and tray (the kind on which smokers roll blunts). With the Trayvon Martin reference, he actually achieves the rare triple-entendre: “in the hood” meaning, at once, 1. in a hoodie, 2. in the ghetto and 3. in a condom. (Jay-Z would be proud.) By putting space between the two syllables of “coupon”, he similarly stacks meanings on top of meanings. He’s shopping as though he clipped a coupon, which is precisely how he got his coupe on.

Cookin’ crack in my apron. Dressed like a nigga had 8 proms.
Tell shorty I may change, and I made it and I napalm.
Trippy shit to watch. Drugs while on the clock.
Acid on the face. That’s a work of art.

The verse lurches on, and Chance repeats the “coupe-on” trick with the word “apron”, playing on racial stereotypes and caricatures with the suggestion that a white person cooks in an apron but a black person “cooks” (crack, presumably) in an “ape-ron”. Finally, he compares the image of his own rise to success — his blowing up (“napalm”) — to the classic painting The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, claiming that it’s been just as “trippy” to “watch” as that surrealist piece.

The words “watch”, “clock” and “face” all echo Dali’s images, while Chance’s melodic inflection on those words plus “art” stitches his argument together sonically. By closing the verse with “that’s a work of art”, he naturally places the song itself within the context of history’s great tripped-out masterpieces — which no doubt includes The Persistence of Memory. The line “drugs while on the clock”, specifically, implies that the creation of “Smoke Again” was aided by substances. Altered or not, the mind of Chance the Rapper is a magnificent organ.

And if you’re reading this, we should totally kick it.

About Calvin Pollak

I studied Professional Writing and Philosophy as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University from 2007-2011. As a writer and researcher, I'm interested in rhetoric, politics, and popular media.
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4 Responses to Close listen: “Smoke Again” by Chance the Rapper

  1. First of all, this is an amazing write-up. *I* got here from the link on RapGenius :)

    I picked up this mixtape a few weeks ago and I haven’t been able to put it down since. I was instantly drawn to this track, but I haven’t been able to decipher why until now. I got into hip hop through lyric-heavy stuff, Food & Liquor was my first album that I couldn’t put down. So when I saw the simplicity of this song I couldn’t figure out why it had so much appeal. Many of the entendres were completely lost on me, but I knew there was more to them — I just couldn’t place it.

    I think the iambic pentameter delivery was a huge part of why I got hooked. Also the end of the first verse, just the nerdy drugged out intelligence of “Lean all on a square, thats a fucking rhombus” was the first stand-out line of the whole album for me.

    I look forward to any more dissections you want to do of this album! Especially the rest of this song and Chain Smoker, which I think is the most powerful track of the album. Lost feels more emotional, but Chain Smoker has really dark undertones beneath that amazing “This part right here right now –” hook :)

    I could talk about this shit for days. Also, don’t feed the trolls. You look mildly insane replying in such length and sincerity to someone who clearly will never come back to your blog.

    IGH!

  2. fred says:

    I think it’s important to note that “acid on the face/that’s a work of art” is also in reference to the album cover in which one half of his face is purple (acid) and the other is not. Also, the album art is…ya know…an amazing piece of artwork.

  3. Lou Gato says:

    Amazing write up, and impressive grammatical knowledge, anyone who states otherwise, is either jealous, or completely lacks any appreciation for intelligence.

  4. Pingback: 2013′s best rap texts, part four: Pusha Man/Paranoia by Chance the Rapper | Calvin Pollak

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