It’s almost 10 o’clock, see, I gotta ball of lint for property//
So I slip my beanie on sloppily//
And promenade out to take up a collection//
I got game like I read the directions//
I’m wishing that I had an automobile//
As I feel the cold wind rush past//
But let me state that I’m a hustler for real//
So you know I got the stolen bus pass//
Just as the bus pulls up and I step to the rear//
This old lady look like she drank a 40 of fear//
I see my old-school partner, said his brother got popped//
Pay my respects, “can you ring the bell? We came to my stop”//
The street light reflects off the piss on the ground//
Which reflects off the hamburger sign as it turns round//
Which reflects off the chrome of the BMW//
Which reflects off the fact that I am broke//
Now what the fuck is new?
“Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” — The Coup
This might not exactly be the lyrics that were chosen for “Hip Hop Quotable” in The Source; but I know “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” (here’s the entire uncut song…and lyrics) from The Coup was chosen, and I know Boots’s masterful breakdown of the US economy in four reflections was in the selection, and I know that shit rocked my world. I remember reading this over and over being amazed at the imagery (though I didn’t really use that word yet) and insight (nor that one) packed into five lines. I just knew it was deep, and I had to find out who the hell The Coup was. Over twenty years later, and every Coup album (and the Street Sweeper Social Club) is still in rotation (I’ll admit…not heavy rotation any more but definitely still in the mix. Damn there’s a lot of hip-hop to keep up with!). So I got hella excited when I came upon this:
And then I got even more excited when I saw the Sundance buzz (apparently people “fucking love this movie”) and New York Times profiles and what amounts to general consensus now (usually). Honestly, even if there was no hype, there would be no doubt in my mind that Sorry to Bother You is going to be a good movie, a work of art with incredible story telling that will require multiple viewings and even more discussion. Why? Because Boots Riley the rapper has been throughout his career an incredible story teller writing rhymes that require multiple listens and even more discussion.
With that in mind, let’s take some snippets of movie reviews for Sorry to Bother You and link them up with Boots’s best storytelling songs. We’re gonna do this chronologically in the order that the albums were released…because I want to.
REVIEW: “And so, our first album…was kind of like…a pamphlet on record and…it was pretty mechanical…And as I went on, I became more of an artist, and I decided I was an artist and got better at it.” — Boots, Democracy Now! interview (around 2:30)
SONG: “The Liberation of Lonzo Williams” from Kill My Landlord
I know, I know. I just said I was going to pair movie reviews with songs. I am…how do you saaaay….cheating here, but I have a good excuse. As you can see from the quote above, Boots understood that he was basically trying to find his voice on this album. As he states, it was mechanical. You do get traces of what later becomes a full attempt to use humor and irony as a weapon, but he just wasn’t there yet as an artist. In fact, he was just learning how to be an artist. So no movie review quote here because none of them fit (because, you know, he’s a full fledged artist now), but Boots’s assessment absolutely does fit. There is not any particular artistic flair with this song. You get a straightforward tale of a kid who becomes a drug dealer when he hits puberty (12? 13? 14?) in the first verse, hits it big in the second verse but is arrested by the end of that second verse, and in the third verse The Coup gives him books to read as Lonzo learns that he’s just been contributing to government sponsored oppression and decides to become a revolutionary. Honestly, Boots’ use of “mechanical” is dead on. Boy does wrong, learns “the truth”, and now wants to fight the man. On all future albums and songs, Boots uses similar themes but much better storytelling and creativity; but it’s hella fun to see the beginnings on Kill My Landlord. It’s not The Coup’s best, but it’s an important starting point to see how artists and art can grow.
REVIEW: “Sorry to Bother You wants to fuck with you…Yes, this movie will fuck with you…Riley would likely have benefitted from a good editor. But excess tends to be a byproduct of vision, and here Riley’s proven himself to be a confident, gutsy storyteller.” — SXSW Film review
SONG: “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” from Genocide & Juice
Quick tangent, Genocide & Juice, is a great fucking title for a Coup album. If you had never heard of them and didn’t know what a coup was and then opened a dictionary and looked at the album cover, you’d have a clear idea you weren’t getting a Snoop album (take a look). Also, it’s definitely not a Snoop dis as much as using Snoop recognition to raise awareness. Check out “Santa Rita Weekend” with Spice 1 & E-40 to see Boots collab with artists to mess with audience expectations.
Anyway, “Fat Cats, Bigga Fish” fucks with you as the film review says. We get a pickpocket who thinks he’s pulling one over on everyone else around him, “a hustler for real.” He steals bus passes, scares old women (40 of fear!!!), pickpockets, and gets hooked up with free fast food. You’ve seen this movie and heard this song before, the hustler gettin’ over. And then he ends up hustlin’ his way into a fancy soirée serving drinks to the elite and overhearing a conversation between land developers, the mayor, and business execs discussing the planned gentrification of a Black neighborhood. Instantly, he realizes “I’m gettin’ hustled only knowing half the game.” It’s a great left turn, the individual realizing there’s a greater system pulling the strings. It’s also a great left turn of your typical hip-hop songs at the time (and still?). What good is your individual comeup, when there’s no systemic change?
The excess mentioned in the film review? Don’t know if I need to hear Boots change into a tux (zipper sound included), and maybe the sampled chorus could be chopped in half? It’s nitpicking. It’s a great song from a gutsy storyteller. Boots took the themes from Lonzo and created an actual story with humor, pathos, and a tragic ending. No preaching, just facts.
REVIEW: “Nearly as deranged as it is politically engaged, Boots Riley’s sui generis Sorry to Bother You is the kind debut feature that knocks your socks off, tickles your bare tootsies with goose feathers for a while, then goes all Kathy Bates in the final stretch, ultimately taking a sledgehammer to your kneecaps. What, there’s no category on Netflix for movies like that? Too bad.” — Variety
SONG: “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night” from Steal This Album
“Nearly as deranged as it is politically engaged” did you say? Did you peep the title of this song? How about the image of a pimp named Jesus (Spanish pronunciation but everybody just uses the English one) with a plastic prosthesis for a hand? Does that tickle you? By this third album, Boots is at the top of his storytelling game (as a matter of fact, this song actually inspired someone to write a novel based on it…please scroll down to the author’s bio in that link because I love her tee shirt).
We get humorous images in the first verse, but Boots again flips the script on hip-hop. Where pimps at the time of this song (and still?) were glorified, we get a pimp who has grown old with a potbelly as the narrator picks him up from prison. We also are forced in this verse to consider the consequences of pimps and prostitutes as we discover the narrator’s mom “worked” for Jesus AND that Jesus is the narrator’s father. If those twists and turns weren’t enough, the narrator and Jesus kept in contact during Jesus’ bid. Then, amidst these interesting plot points, Boots introduces some great and uncomfortable foreshadowing (hallmark of any good storyteller) along with nice use of wordplay (or diction for you academics) when the narrator reflects on “philosophy that he [Jesus] spit in my memory chips… ‘Don’t be Microsoft. Be Macintosh with a Hard Drive.”
Boots doesn’t wait till the final stretch to go “all Kathy Bates” in this song but hits us in the kneecaps in the second verse. Great storyteller alert: we get a flashback, a very beautiful and sweet flashback of the narrator at six with his mother. We see her efforts to form a strong, loving bond with her son while also working the oldest profession in the world. Then, that funny prosthesis becomes a lot less funny in this verse when we encounter the visceral images of it being used to beat the narrator’s mom to death in front of her son: “She was dead by the time the ambulance got on the case//But I never will forget the plastic hand stuck in her face.” (You almost want to laugh until you consider the grotesque image before a crying six year old boy…then you kind of never want to laugh again.) The mother’s great offense? She paid the rent instead of Jesus. End flashback and the verse back in the ’79 Granada.
The third verse does a great job explaining why the narrator would eventually accept Jesus as a mentor before finally coming to the decision to get revenge shooting Jesus at the end of the verse. I wrapped that up quickly to mention two fantastic bits of storytelling in this verse. Boots has a great allusion to the Madonna-whore complex: “to me women had to be saints, whores or skeezers.” Then, to depict the climatic act of revenge, Boots uses a fantastic call back to his foreshadowing computer lines in the first verse: “This trip is over, we ain’t finna ride on//This is for my mental and my momma that I cried on//Microsoft motherfuckers let bygones be bygones//But since I’m Macintosh, I’mma double click your icons.” (gun shots)
Excuse me. I have to go listen to that song again. (Btw, the above video cuts some parts of the song. Here’s the full version.)
As a matter of fact “Me and Jesus the Pimp in a ’79 Granada Last Night” is a great place to stop for now. Tomorrow is the premiere of Sorry to Bother You in limited release. I’m going to copy that and limit my post to the first half of The Coup’s six albums. Next week, I’ll drop the next post of the second half of the catalogue when Sorry to Bother You has its full release. Don’t be Microsoft.