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.
“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.