“It’s a very good pop album” is Part II of Must Not Sleep’s epic trilogy also known as Neil & Erik had a lot to say on this one. In this part of the trilogy we discuss Travis Scott’s Astroworld. We express complete surprise (not really) at the album going number one & give our first impressions (2:00), consider how Travis made an homage to Houston (15:35) as well as his many references to Kylie Jenner and the Kardashians (18:05) [those two things actually relate!], and then finish Astroworld with a nice dive into the final song on the album “Coffee Bean” (21:15). We’re not gonna lie, just like Houston’s chopped & screwed movement we chopped a few beats off this one, but also like the movement we think it came out pretty good in the end. Props to our new sponsor Sueños (30:35) for sponsoring all three parts!
“Nooooo growth” is Part I of Must Not Sleep’s epic trilogy also known as Neil & Erik had a lot to say on this one. In this part we go in on Eminem and his surprise album release Kamikaze. We give you some first impressions (13:35), consider all of the things wrong with his song “Normal” (24:10) as well as if he’s shown any growth since “Kim” (hint: read the title of the ep), look at how Em chooses to show vulnerability in “Stepping Stone”(36:28), and wonder why he seems to be obsessed with Grammy’s (41:25) all of the sudden. There’s a bunch more and excellent career advice for Em from both of us. Give it a listen!
As promised, the first edition of “Must Not Sleep Rocks the Classics” is back with Part Two of our discussion of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. We introduce the categories we’ll be using each time we drop a “Must Not Sleep Rocks the Classics” and cover this album from all angles. There’s even a controversial rating at the end. You should definitely listen to this one. It’s like The Godfather, the sequel is even better.
It’s “Must Not Sleep Rocks the Classics”! In what will be a reoccurring theme, the Must Not Sleep Podcast does a deep dive on an album that is considered by most to be a hip hop classic. For the inaugural ep, we chose Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and we go so deep that we had to divide it into two parts. No time markers for this one, so just trust us and listen. It’s a good one…or two actually.
We tackle some important problems we had with our last episode (6:22), and Erik offers some loan advice. Then Neil describes his special relationship with R. Kelly (24:04) before we dive into R’s 19 minute manifesto “I Admit”(35:55). We think it’s a good episode, but we’re biased (that’s a joke…it makes more sense if you listen to the ep).
Now that it’s “over” we take a look back at the Drake & Pusha T battle (4:10) including unpacking Pusha’s dis of Drake’s Black identity (24:42). Later we consider if Kanye really was “cancelled” & how Ye scares us (43:29). We think it’s all pretty funny and thoughtful. You should listen!
There are six albums by The Coup. Boots Riley heads the group. There’s an explanation of what we’re doing here in the Part 1 piece. This is Part 2. Let’s keep it movin’.
REVIEW: “Look up “bonkers” in any good dictionary and the first entry should be Sorry to Bother You, the loony directorial debut from rapper Boots Riley (best known as frontman of political hip-hop group The Coup). It’s a live-wire comedy with a social conscience, a commentary on race, labor, and American capitalism that veers in so many directions that it’s best to just strap in and let it take you where it wants you to go.” — vox
SONG(s): “Pizza Man (Skit)”, “The Repo Man Sings for You”, “Underdogs”, “Sneakin’ In”, “Do My Thang (skit)”, & “Piss on Your Grave” from Steal This Album
I know, I know. I just figured if I began the last post with a cheat, why not do it one more time? So, we’re staying with Steal This Album AND adding multiple tracks for one more entry (it’s a multiple cheat)…basically, because we kinda have to.
Boots updates “Repo Man” from his previous album Genocide & Juice by taking the concepts in the original song and elaborating on them creating a “bonkers” adventure on Steal This Album that is stretched out over six tracks. Think James Baldwin taking John Grimes in his short story “The Outing” and creating the classic novel Go Tell It on the Mountain with the character. Boots does his best storytelling on Steal along with mastering his use of the humor/political revolution dichotomy, and it all comes together in this succession of tracks that are connected by individual skits and interludes in the beginning as well as end of songs. Be sure to read that movie review above one more time…
The “Pizza Man (Skit)” features Del the Funky Homosapien as a repo man posing as a pizza delivery man. Pretty sure most of the skit is ad-libbed as there’s a great moment when Del genuinely laughs after the woman he’s duping exclaims, “Hold on, Buster!” From there “The Repo Man Sings for You” as Del continues as the repo man for the first verse explaining he’s “just doing my [his] job” while Boots as a narrator in the second verse describes attempting to avoid the repo man in any way possible (“Bill collectors make my phone rattle. Tell my kids, ‘Don’t tattle!'”). It’s funny when it’s a tv but turns tragic by the end of the song when a woman begins crying over a refrigerator that’s been repossessed.
This transitions to our narrator proclaiming love and support for his “Underdogs” as well as calling for a revolution. It’s a really beautiful song. Hold on! It looks like the narrator was the woman’s partner, “This morning they repoed all our shit,” he tells a friend who has just called him at the end of the song. The friend invites him out to get his mind off the repossession: “How we gonna get in for free?!” This leads to tales of “Sneakin’ In” to different places (which apparently is nowhere to be found on the internet, so you can read the lyrics in that link).
After sneakin’ in to a movie theater in the “Do My Thang (skit)” the narrator and friend get kicked out and as they’re walking come across a funeral for a one “Filthy Richbanks” (Did you read that movie review excerpt above? You should really read that excerpt!). They sneak into the funeral by the narrator carrying his friend in his arms while pretending his friend is a paralyzed organ player who’s been booked for the funeral. This becomes a brilliant use of a looped organ chord in the next track (the narrator’s friend doesn’t know how to play the organ, so the narrator instructs him to just play the same chord over and over). As the organ chord is playing, we hear the narrator say, “I’d like to pay my respects.” And can you guess how “Piss on Your Grave” begins by this point? Heeeeeeeey,
The narrator pisses on Filthy Richbanks at the funeral and by the end of the song somehow ends up at Arlington National Cemetery pissing on George Washington’s grave.
It doesn’t matter that somehow we ended up in DC. It doesn’t matter that George’s grave is not in the Arlington Cemetery but in Mount Vernon, VA, with Martha. It DOES matter that we figure out how we went from someone’s things being repossessed to pissing on George Washington’s grave. It really does matter.
In case you didn’t scroll back to the movie review above, a reminder: “It’s a live-wire comedy with a social conscience, a commentary on race, labor, and American capitalism that veers in so many directions that it’s best to just strap in and let it take you where it wants you to go.” Word.
REVIEW: “And then the film unfolded…There’s nothing safe about Boots Riley’s film—nothing predictable, nothing derivative or generic, nothing routine..” — rogerebert.com
SONG: “Nowalaters” from Party Music
Alright, we’re now officially on to the second half of The Coup catalogue; it’s a new album and song. Some quick history, even before it dropped this album was considered unsafe with its symbolic album cover.
The crazy coincidence is that this was created BEFORE 9/11 with the album being scheduled for a September release in 2001. It was intended to symbolize The Coup’s music destroying Capitalism as Boots detonates an explosion with a bass guitar tuner and Pam the Funkstress (RIP) conducting the music with two drum sticks. After the tragedy, the album was delayed until November with a new album cover (seen in the youtube link for the song above) still ostensibly using the same metaphor but in a vastly different way.
With the story song on this album, Boots goes autobiographical with “Nowalaters” (How did you pronounce Now & Laters as a kid? Like this song? Noworlaters? I literally have never met anyone who pronounced it “correctly” or as separate words!). In the first verse we get a seventeen year old, virginal Boots with a girl who remains nameless and is much more experienced than him (“Well we was only seventeen // But you was older in between”). Boots continues his penchant for creating songs with humor that go against the grain of what’s common in hip hop. He’s not smooth or a player, and he doesn’t have a strong idea of what he’s doing: “goddamn, nigga, that ain’t how ya get it in” (I remember laughing and rewinding that line like 28 times the first time I heard it).
In the second verse, Boots finds out the girl is pregnant, and he decides to get a job to support her (twist 1). In the third verse, the girl informs Boots (twist 2) that he is not the father (damn, I hate that show; but, on the real, there should be more Black gymnasts in the Olympics). Is Boots pissed? Does he want revenge? Is this a warning to all the men out there to be careful or you might get played? Nope. Boots is empathetic (“I know you must have been scared”), says it would’ve been nice to see the kid grow up, and thanks the girl for being honest (“Thank you for letting me go”). Oh! Boots does have a request for the girl (and us?): “And ask my wife, I learned to fuck much better”…LOL, men are gonna men.
REVIEW: “A Wild, Hilarious & Stylish Comedy…it’s an irreverent comedy with a great deal of silliness to balance its more grounded themes” — Screen Rant
SONG: “Head (of State)” from Pick a Bigger Weapon
Remember making fun of kids sitting in a tree k-i-s-s-i-n-g? So does Boots who flips that old ditty for this irreverent and silly chorus:
Bush and Hussein together in bed//
Giving H-E-A-D head//
Y’all motherfuckers heard what we said//
Billions made and millions dead//
What proceeds is a one verse history lesson connecting Bush Sr., CIA, Standard Oil, and Saddam Hussein. By this fifth album, this is pretty classic Boots. He takes the humor of the nursery rhyme (as well as the imagery of that rhyme!) and applies it to give some stark morals. “In a land not very far from here” the very unfairy tale begins, and in just twenty-eight lines Boots supports the chorus with a little over a century of historical interpretation coming to the conclusion that “[w]ar ain’t about one land against the next // It’s po’ people dyin so the rich cash checks.” I guess the chorus isn’t that silly.
REVIEW: “The film industry loves to indulge actors who get the directing bug, for better or worse — you can look at this year’s (or any other) Sundance lineup for proof of that. Sorry to Bother You makes me wish that more musicians did. I’m not sure very many of them would look like Boots Riley’s rambunctious, surreal comedy, but you can feel the difference in a film whose director is listening to it with the same attentiveness that they’re watching it. While the front man of the Oakland funk-punk-soul collective the Coup has plenty of off-kilter visual ideas to serve up in his feature film debut, he always makes sure to keep our ears just as entertained.
…this is what I want out of revolution-minded cinema in 2018 — something loud, inventive, and absolutely impolite” — Vulture
SONG: “We’ve Got A Lot to Teach You, Cassius Green” from Sorry to Bother You
This is from the album Sorry to Bother You which was inspired by the screen play Sorry to Bother You. As Boots recently said in an interview with Terry Gross, “I finished writing the script. I got to the end the first time in 2012. And I needed a way to get a buzz going about the script because I didn’t know anyone in the film world. So I made an album that was inspired by the screenplay.” By this sixth album, Boots and The Coup have a bit less rapping, and the movie review is pretty accurate to call them a “funk-punk-soul collective.” I think every album is musical, but it’s very obvious that Boots is much more into musical exploration and experimentation on this album and song (Just peep the accordion finishing off the last minute of this song for proof!). In fact, the music is so good on this song, it’s to me one of the rare hip-hop songs in which the imagery pops more intensely by actually reading the lyrics as your listening.
We get “off-kilter visual ideas” immediately as Boots describes a corporate boardroom monster wiping blood off his fangs in the first two lines. Is this a metaphor? Is it a horror story? Is it all of the above? There’s a pile of corpses on the boardroom table. We don’t know if they’re human bodies or dead monsters, but we do know the head monster’s assistant leads to the chorus which doubles as the title of the song. Verse two continues the gruesome imagery with the assistant crouching “in a puddle of urine and meat.” We don’t know why, but there are screams outside of the building. The verse finishes with Cassius being welcomed into the room. The third verse gives us what hopefully you’ve come to expect from Boots after reading all of this (you have read every word in both posts, right? right?!)…the twist. Cassius, disgusted, turns to leave the boardroom only to be told, “You’ve forgotten. You’re one of us.” He turns down to discover his own monster tail aaaaaaaaaand cue chorus.
Is “We’ve Got A Lot to Teach You, Cassius Green” a movie spoiler? I honestly don’t know yet. All I know is writing these two posts has me that much more excited for the premiere of Sorry to Bother You and convinced that Boots is an incredible storyteller. Go watch the movie. Buy the albums. Talent’s gonna talent.
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.
I know, I know. There was this other video recently that received A LOT of analysis and attention and views and genius talk and backlash to the genius talk and…we’re going to skip all of that right now. As a matter of fact we’re bout to follow the immortal words and infinitely sampled wisdom of The Jimmy Castor Bunch
What we’re gonna do right here is go back, way back, back into time
—“Troglodyte” The Jimmy Castor Bunch
Back all the way to January 28, 2018, when The Recording Academy opened their esteemed (at least in their eyes) Grammy’s Awards show with a one Kendrick Lamar Duckworth. What’s that Buckshot?
Let’s take a sec to think back
—“Crooklyn” Buckshot in The Crooklyn Dodgers
Yeah, let’s do that because great art deserves to be considered, contemplated and appreciated again and again. And I don’t think this one got its just due. And, more importantly, K-Dot told us to (around 2:50):
I like to put a lot of different things and word plays and messages in my music because I want it to live further than 2 weeks…I want it to live for the next 20 years. So you have to listen to it over and over and over again to fully understand the direction and the message that I put in there and the execution of it. I want you to do that and challenge the way you think and the way you take in music.
So if you haven’t already done so, you should scroll back up and click on a master at his craft. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Cool? Let’s do this.
Did you catch that?! In the middle of all of that Organized Konfusion? Around one minute and forty-six seconds into Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance the music cuts off abruptly and the stage goes dark except for a solitary spotlight on the artist. He turns around to face the video screens behind him and stretches out his arms as a sentence is forming, “THIS….IS…A …SATIRE…BY” and now spinning back toward his audience his arms outstretch again as the sentence is completed, “KENDRICK LAMAR.” Before we go any further, we should remember that Merriam-Webster defines the word “satire” as…j/k, this isn’t a personal essay for college admission. Let’s forget the question “What is a satire?” and consider: “What is he satirizing?” The obvious answer (floating in the damn background as the performance begins as well as being the first word we hear) is America. But like a lot of good rappers, Kendrick Lamar loves double entendres. So, definitely a satire of America, but what if he also has another layer to the satire? What if Kendrick Lamar is asserting to over 19.8 million people, “Fuck the Grammy’s!”?
We open with the flag of the United States waving on the screens behind the performers, a chorus singing from Kendrick’s “XXX.”: “America. God Bless you if you if it’s good to ya/America, please take my hand. Can you help me unders…” Replace “America” with “Grammy’s”, and we are on our way. Kendrick begins to rap the verse (posted below) about a friend whose son has been killed. The friend is asking Kendrick to calm him down and provide a Christian answer to his problems, and Kendrick instead gives him an Old Testament eye for an eye mentality while he and the cast continue to march with the American flag continuing to wave in the background. Consider this sentiment in context of the Grammy’s. Sure, K-Dot smiled and was gracious when Macklemore won, but what if he plotted? What if he wanted some get back on the institution that would commit such an artistic injustice? What if that’s what this “satire” is? Also, to continue with the double entendre, check out the line “Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward” and substitute his baby, this life he spent nurturing and growing into creation being good kid, m.A.A.d. city inexplicably getting killed by choosing Macklemore’s The Heist (that title couldn’t be more perfect) over it for best rap album.
Yesterday I got a call like from my dog like 101 /
Said they killed his only son because of insufficient funds/
He was sobbin’, he was mobbin’, way belligerent and drunk/
Talkin’ out his head, philosophin’ on what the Lord had done /
He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?/
It been a fucked up day for me /
I know that you anointed, show me how to overcome.”/
He was lookin’ for some closure /
Hopin’ I could bring him closer /
to the spiritual, my spirit do know better, but I told him ,/
“I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel: /
If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”/
Tell me what you do for love, loyalty, and passion of /
All the memories collected, moments you could never touch/
I’ll wait in front of homey’s spot and watch him hit his block/
I’ll catch homey leavin’ service if that’s all I got/
I’ll chip at homey, then throw the blower in his lap/
Walk myself to the court like, “Man, I did that!”/
Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward /
I can’t even keep the peace, don’t you play with one of ours/
It be murder in the street, it be bodies in the hour /
Ghetto bird be on the street, paramedics on the dial/
Let somebody touch my momma /
Touch my sister, touch my woman/
Touch my daddy, touch my niece /
Touch my nephew, man, I promise/
You chipped at homey, then throw the blower in his lap/
Matter fact, I’m ’bout to speak at this convention/
Call you back—
Notice where he ends the verse. Every aspect of this performance is meticulously planned. As he told Rick Rubin in an interview (around 16:08), “I have to think about it and live it, know how my mannerisms are how I’m moving. All that [as he begins to emphasize hammering at his thigh] has to be dead on for me. From the hits and the licks to how we rearrange the ideas just to give the fans a new experience. It’s a process. The same way that I sit with mixes and mastering is the same way I sit inside that rehearsal room to make sure that everything is hittin’…” We’ve already seen a couple of these rearranged ideas, and this verse ends with another one. The convention in the album is Kendrick speaking to kids about gun control and gun violence, but here it’s the Grammy’s and its audience. This is the point when Kendrick informs us that he is presenting us with a satire with arms outstretched…and then he drops to one knee.
Enter U2—or more properly Bono & The Edge (sorry Adam Clayton & Larry Mullen Jr.)—who allow themselves to be props in Kendrick’s satire. This has been done in reverse before (thinking of you Nelly), but Kendrick flips the script having one of the greatest rock bands of all time (and the rock band with the most Grammy’s in history btw) give a 28 second cameo. It’s a nice statement on how “mainstream” music has changed. They gently pass down the middle of the stage, the Edge playing a few licks while Bono sings:
It’s not a place /
This country is to me a sound /
Of drum and bass/
You close your eyes to look around/
It’s not a place /
This country is to me a thought/
that offers grace/
for every welcome that is sought/
The last three lines here work really well in referring to the Grammy’s if you view it as the most famous and successful rock band of the last forty years (crazy!) declaring that if you make good music, you’ll be recognized by the institution. Aaaaaaaaaaaaand as that last word is sung and Bono and the Edge leave the stage, we have Kendrick’s reply to that sentiment:
Burn your life /
I live a better life, I’m rollin’ several dice, [repeat couplet 3x] /
This is my heritage, all I’m inheritin’ /
Money and power, the maker of marriages/
Tell me somethin’ /
You can’t tell me nothin’ /
I’d rather die than to listen to you/
My DNA not for imitation /
Your DNA an abomination/
This how it is when you in the Matrix /
Dodgin’ bullets, reapin’ what you sow/
And stackin’ up the footage, livin’ on the go/
And sleepin’ in a villa /
Sippin’ from a Grammy and walkin’ in the buildin’ /
Diamond in the ceilin’, marble on the floors /
Beach inside the window, peekin’ out the window/
Baby in the pool, godfather goals/
Only Lord knows I’ve been goin’ h.a.m./
Dodgin’ paparazzi, freakin’ through the cameras/
Eat at Four Daughters, Brock wearin’ sandals /
Yoga on a Monday, stretchin’ to Nirvana/
Watchin’ all the snakes, curvin’ all the fakes/
Phone never on, I don’t conversate/
I don’t compromise, I just penetrate/
Sex, money, murder—these are the breaks/
These are the times, level number 9 /
Look up in the sky, 10 is on the way/
Sentence on the way, killings on the way /
Won’t you tell them, I got millions on the way/
In this satire, Kendrick’s career (“life”) is better than U2’s, and according to Kendrick “You can’t tell me nothin’.” Even without Album of the Year, Kendrick asserts he’s won some Grammy awards (or GRAMMY awards according to their website…pretentious much?) and is having a successful career without compromise. Then, there’s a nice warning that if the Grammy’s continue things in the same way, they’ll only bring about an apocalypse (“level number 9 / look up in the sky, 10 is on the way”) which is consistently misunderstood throughout history. In the Biblical sense (and Kendrick’s music is littered with Biblical references), the apocalypse is meant not to the be the end of the world but the end of the world as we know it to be replaced by a new and better existence. Here, we could say he is prophesizing that institutions like the Grammy’s will crumble as we know it to set up new norms in which all genres are given equal influence.
Did you know prophets were considered dangerous and crazy? The stage goes dark, and just off stage a spotlight shines on Dave Chapelle to surprised & loud cheers: “Hi. I’m Dave Chapelle. And I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a Black Man be honest in America is being an honest Black Man in America. Sorry for the interruption. Please continue.” And you can hear the laughter in the audience (it’s a satire! Chapelle said something…Chapelle is funny!…Chapelle said something funny!) though only a little because I think some people got it. Go back and watch that meta moment again. Chapelle is talking about himself, sure, but he clearly understands what Kendrick Lamar is doing as well. In Chapelle’s interview of Kendrick for Interview, he asked K-Dot what he hoped “to accomplish with your platform,” and Kendrick answered, “The more and more I get out and talk to different people, I realize they [fans] appreciate that—me being unapologetic in whatever views and approach I have.”
Kendrick continuing his views in this Grammy performance delivers three quick excerpts from three different songs: “Big Shot” from Black Panther, “New Freezer” a song by Rich the Kid that Kendrick has a guest verse in, and “King’s Dead” also from Black Panther. Kendrick jumps to each song with the exclamation, “Yeah!” And as Chapelle just told us, Kendrick’s being unabashedly honest. Here’s what he raps:
Sir Duckworth or Kung-Fu Kenny /
Got juice, got work, got weight, got plenty/
Got them, got her, got more, got Benji, yeah/
Top off, gettin’ topped-off in the city/
Big Top Dawg and I dance on ’em like Diddy/
Pop off and I pop back like Fiddy, YEAH!/
…I gotta dance /
I Milly Rock when I get that advance /
How can I shop with like 64 Ms? /
Talkin’ to Top about business again/
He want a lot with new Bentleys again/
I want some top from like two sets of twins/
Twenty twin twins, yeah, YEAH!/
Red light, green light, red light, green light /
Red light, green light, they like we like /
Fast cars, fast money, fast life, fast broads/
Egotistic, goin’ ballistic, why God?/
Born warrior, lookin’ for euphoria/
But I don’t see it, I don’t feel it, I’m paraplegic /
Tapped in when I’m maxed in Comp-Town with the MAC 10s /
And the pumps in the background absent,/
Never OG’s handout,/
Lackin’ everything else but doubt/
Magnum holdin’ Magnums with a Magnum/
holdin’ ad-lib and I sing out loud /
Never had friends, never had ends, never had hope /
They was like, “Nope,” I was like, “Boo yaow, boo yaow”
It’s like Biggie’s “Money, hoes, and clothes; all a nigga knows” flipped with some incredible verbal gymnastics on live tv. It’s classic, unapologetic hip-hop, and it’s a bit of a different vibe from “Thrift Shop” (over a billion views? really?!). But! It’s also a comment on the perception of hip-hop. If you listen to any Kendrick album (and a lot of hip-hop in general), you know it’s so much more than materialism or misogyny or violence. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these themes are sandwiched between the other two sections of the performance that really do not touch on those themes. It’s an honest statement (what was Chapelle saying?) while also pointing to a larger reality that gets ignored.
I’m going to pass on interpreting the interpretive dance by the woman in all white with some dope white Nike Cortez’s, but I do like the war drum at the beginning of this segment. As she’s beating on it for the “Big Shot” and “New Freezer” lyrics, there is absolutely no other music. It’s a nice visual/sonic metaphor for the attack Kendrick’s putting on the Grammy’s and hip hop’s place in the awards, and it also serves as this nice intro to the music kicking in for the “King’s Dead” lyrics. Chapelle pops back up after “Boo yaow” to summarize what we just witnessed, “Is this on cable? this CBS? cuz it looks like he’s singin’ & dancin’, but this brotha’s takin’ enormous chances [quick tangent: nice couplet!!!]! RUMBLE, YOUNG MAN, RUMBLE!!!” Now Chapelle is directly telling us a double entendre is taking place right before our eyes. Kendrick (assuming Chapelle’s sections are under Lamar’s direction) invokes the tradition of minstrel & Black entertainment being for the enjoyment of Whites, and of course the tradition of the Grammy’s is that winners are mainstream (read: accepted by the majority) and flips the script (again). They are clearly letting us know that what we’re witnessing isn’t just simple singing and dancing and we’re not only meant to be entertained.
That command to “rumble” brings on the most memorable set piece, a group of Black men dressed in all red (even masking their faces that we saw earlier) with Kendrick in the middle of the sea of red (go ahead & make a parting of the Red Sea saving the chosen people inferences since Damn. and all of Kendrick’s music is littered with Biblical references), and Kendrick fucking rumbles:
Never had friends, never had ends, never had hope /
They was like, “Nope,” I was like, “Boo yaow, boo yaow” /
(Yeah, God) /
We off the day, know we off the, be off the, eat off your plate /
Throw me off, I be, “Off ya head”/
[note: the last couplet are probably a bit inaccurate]
Make more C4, I’m way off the edge /
Burn integrity, burn your pedigree,/
Burn your feelin’s, burn your culture/
Burn your moral, burn your family, burn your tribe/
burn your land, burn your children, burn your wives/
Who am I?/
Not your father, not your brother/
Not your reason, not your future /
Not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory/
Not your heaven, not your angel, not your spirit/
Not your message, not your freedom/
Not your people, not your neighbor/
Not your baby, not your equal /
Not the title y’all want me under/
All hail King Killmonger!
Beginning with “Burn integrity” (well, Dave, this IS still CBS as Kendrick replaces each “Fuck” heard in the original version with “Burn”), we hear a gunshot and see a red clothed figure dropping in supposed death until Kung Fu Kenny stands alone finishing with “NOT THE TITLE YOU WANT ME UNDER; ALL HAIL KING KILLMONGER!” There’s this brief five seconds of revelry and hellfire (hey! the red guys resurrected!), the music returns until they all fall again (damn! they died again!) and Kendrick is left standing alone with the flames slowly dwindling down and the crowd cheering while breaking into a standing ovation. The Statue of Liberty projects on the screen behind him which is a nice bookend as the performance began with the flag, and amidst the adulation Kendrick refuses to look at any of them.
Here’s what’s hella interesting and gets to the heart of the satire. Kendrick could have finished off with the lyrics to the song “Black Panther” and had his group of dancers exulting him in some way (idk, insert praise dance gif of your choice). That song has K-Dot assuming the voice of T’Challa (and occasionally interspersing himself with T’Challa) to proclaim rule over all in a generally beneficent manner. Not what we have here at all! Instead, Kendrick is rapping as Erik Killmonger (and just like in the song “Black Panther” there is definitely some Kendrick in these assertions) choosing the character that wants to usurp the throne of Wakanda to tear it down (and the world’s structure along with it) to remake the world order as he sees fit (you know, like an apocalypse).
The Killmonger verse is the apex of the character’s power in Black Panther. Killmonger in the movie has grown up separated from the paradise (that he rightfully belongs to) of Wakanda and instead has lived and seen the injustices to Black people throughout the world first growing up a United States citizen in Oakland and then as a U.S. black ops soldier. In Time’s piece on the film, it says of Killmonger: “Killmonger’s perspective is rendered in full; his rage over how he and other black people across the world have been disenfranchised and disempowered is justifiable.” We can at the very least sympathize (if not empathize) with Killmonger because the movie depicts a round character much in the same way that Kendrick in six minutes and some change presents different aspects of this thing called hip-hop and what it can do and say. So, no doubt, Kendrick Lamar’s entire performance and imagery is a statement on the United States, but go back over that list of burn’s and not your’s. Then consider Killmonger’s rage at Wakanda and its leaders over seemingly ignoring the disenfranchised, and consider the history of the Grammy’s.
This isn’t meant to take away from the strong critique of the United States as much as to illustrate that Kendrick Lamar is smart enough to assert more than one critique. He consistently throughout his career communicates more than one thing; and honestly in the time of Trump as well as the imagery the performance displays, the America part is pretty easy to see. However, I actually think the more brilliant aspect of the performance is the trolling of the Grammy’s. It’s a grand, bold statement hiding in plain sight: In a room full of people who are “supposed” to understand, accept and appreciate all forms of music, why is hip-hop still a sideshow when awards are handed out?
Earlier this week, the world received some conclusions in an incredibly important investigation. Let me clearly and boldly declare: I don’t buy it! Seems like a partisan witch hunt. Oh, sure, it makes sense that some Asian mother living in Vancouverthought she’d boldly innovate the “Take your daughter to work” day by amending it to “Take your daughter to work as often as you want and have her perform modern day minstrel Grams hopefully building a career and earning enough money to eat off your nine year old.” But, sorry, I don’t buy it…too easy…tooOccam’s Razor. Other possibilities are out there, and I think we’ve sliced them all away a bit too eagerly. So here’s a quick 3 which I am sure many would agree are just as plausible as a failed realtor amusing herself at her job by having her daughter perform digital blackface in the hopes of getting as rich as the daughter already purports to be:
Lil Tay Is a Cyborg This is a very simple math equation. Do we know how far A.I. has really gone? We know you can find a myriad of posts informing us that robots perform tasks better than us. We know cars are learning how to drive themselves though maybe not safely. We know Alexa and Watson are scary. Lil Tay does a lot of things better than us + Lil Tay is hella scary = Lil Tay is a Cyborg pretending to be human
Lil Tay Is Actually an Adult with a Pituitary Gland Disorder
This is very sad. Lil Tay could be 25 with anunfortunate growth hormone issue that makes her appear 9. Looking so young, it’s difficult for her to begin a career and be taken seriously. Bitter over years of frustration, she decides to get revenge on the world by bamboozling us and hopefully earning money from it. If you were treated like McGruff every day, would you care about any pain and suffering you caused others or just laugh to the bank once you got nearly 2 million followers on Instagram?
Lil Tay Is Pinocchio
This is a tale that could happen to any of us. Maybe there once was a nice little girl named Megan(?) Tian who was tricked by some adults into going to some cool sounding place called Pleasure Island. Once there, she followed what the other kids did and proceeded to get drunk, smoke some cigars, and play pool; but she didn’t know that all of her actions and being on Pleasure Island cursed her into becoming a jackass. Now in our world: the adults seem to be her mom, Pleasure Island is Instagram, the vices are all that cursin’ and stuntin’, and of course the jackass is Lil Tay. Poor puppet.
Quick tangent, Disney can be dark, yo. Ok, let’s finish this.
I vote Pinocchio. It helps me direct all of my anger at the puppet master and laugh pityingly at the jackass who will hopefully get some help one day.