Chance The Rapper
fear · paranoia · violence · trauma · segregation · compassion·
Hidden after thirty seconds of silence at the end of an upbeat track called Pusha Man, this song is unsettling from the start. It opens with blurry, subdued notes, starting slow and rhythmic before finishing with an anxious dart upwards and repeating. Similarly unpredictable drumbeats hit on the offbeat, mixing fast and slow tempos. The two come together to give a sense of tension, of being on the edge. Quietly, almost casually, Chance The Rapper sings as though to himself:
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 lot of niggas dyin', so my nine with the shits, igh!
Set against an unsettling backdrop, these lines paint an evocative picture. We imagine Chance, restlessly driving his car around his neighbourhood so late into the night the sun is rising again. An unattended blunt of weed habitually smokes at his mouth, failing to calm him. He is acutely aware of his gun: he has seen so many deaths while growing up that he is always vaguely on edge. He extends this volatility to his weapon with a grotesque metaphor: his 9mm pistol has 'the shits' and could go off at any moment in his hands. As he repeats the chorus, his trademark ad-lib yelp igh! interjects here and there. Normally an expression of joy, the context turns them into worried, jumpy yaps that betray his inner state even while his voice remains calm.
For a moment, the drums disappear, leaving the hazy notes floating unsupported in the air like unfinished thoughts. They pop and wink blearily, and then gently crescendo as the beat skitters back to support the melody. Chance begins the first verse with a sardonic joke about a new family moving into his troubled area:
Move to the neighbourhood; I bet they don't stay for good, watch
Somebody'll steal Daddy's Rollie — call it the neighbourhood watch
The wordplay is deliberately cheap, the tone cynical: there is no real neighbourhood watch, no community of people looking out for one another; mostly there is just a sense of entitlement. Robbery is everyday, expected — especially for those naive enough to enter the hood from outside. Chance prays that he makes enough money to move somewhere safer, both for himself and to motivate his peers still stuck in the cycle of violence: he dreams glumly of being a symbol of the way out: 'Captain Save-a-Hood, hood saviour'.
The reality still seems very far from the fantasy, however, as Chance gives us emotive glimpses of the mundane: looking so young he is still asked for identification when he buys tobacco products; his mother lovingly washing his clothes; looking out for his friends he makes music with. These lines are delivered in two voices, one smooth and warm, the other a snappy staccato. The latter voice finishes the verse, his voice rising as his frustration at his social gridlock rises to its peak:
Trapped in the middle of the map
With a little-bitty rock and a little bit of rap
That, with a literary knack and a little shitty Mac
And like literally jack
Chance's flow kicks into another gear here, the rhymes stacked quickly on top of each other to mimic the injustices and inadequacies closing in on him from every side. The social system is stacked against him, both as a young artist of the counterculture and as a black man in a genuinely dangerous city. His eclectic music taste and his raw talent as a wordsmith are supported by an old computer and not much else — how is he to grow and develop creatively? As if in desperate attempt to escape, the agitated voice in the background yells in an elongated crescendo before being met by the chorus from earlier; the loops of established life in Chicago keep Chance going around and around in circles, anxious and paranoid but unable to break out for more than a moment.
Once more, the listener sits in Chance's passenger seat as he rolls around his city night after night, the hazy dawn hurting his eyes, the blunt on his lips, the gun alert at his side.
Just as before, the beat drops out to leave the melody unsuspended, precarious, before the second verse opens with matter-of-fact horror:
They murking kids; 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 fuckin' hurricane here
Ultimately, this song is about real empathy, and Chance's pain at the lack of it. He calls out Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, representatives of the (overwhelmingly white and privileged) news media in the US, prominent correspondents from big-news warzones. He riffs bitterly on the regular ‘Where is Matt Lauer?’ segment from The Today Show: violence among the youth in Chicago has been at worrying levels for a while, but few in the news media pay the proper attention because it is not flashy or exciting and mainly involves young black men, a group many outside of those communities either fear or are eager to ignore. He draws a parallel with Hurricane Katrina, in terms of both the physical damage to his home and the woefully inadequate response mounted by the white establishment.
Chance notes the normalisation of gun violence in Chicago: shooters act brazenly, in broad daylight, for they feel the penal system is stacked against them anyway. Gunplay permeates society deeply: he quips drily that 'down here, it's easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot'. He continues:
No love for the opposition, specifically a cop position
'Cause they never been in our position
Getting violations for the nation, correlating, you dry snitchin'
Chance reflects on the vicious cycle of racial prejudice amongst police. Instead of protectors, they become the opposition because they do not empathise with the plight of being black in Chicago's hoods. Instead of putting themselves in the shoes of those caught in destructive social patterns, they disproportionately escalate minor violations out of a sense of civic duty because they correlate blackness with criminality. In doing so, they indirectly incriminate ('dry snitch' on) all other black people, perpetuating the loop of prejudice. Chance references similarities with the Folk Nation here, too, a coalition of gangs in the Chicago area who have a system of laws all their own, and strong punishments for violating them. The corruption of racism decimates communities from the inside with gang warfare, and from the outside with imprisonment and unjust arrest.
One last time, we join Chance in the chorus as he drives, almost semi-conscious, through the broken streets of Chicago.
The beat disappears, isolating the woozy melody, which winds around the air before transforming with a shudder to something sadder, more despairing. The weather has changed. Mournfully, Chance sings lines that capture the essence of the whole song:
I know you scared; you should ask us if we scared too
If you was there and we just knew you cared too
White people are scared of black people in America: scared of their perceived violence, scared of the enormity of dealing with racial injustice entrenched over centuries. The fear of the unknown dehumanises black people - but they are scared too. The problem is difficult and painful to solve, and neither side has all the answers. But Chance says that surely, the starting point has to be empathy, solidarity.
And now his attitude is sincere - gone is the grim sarcasm, replaced by an earnest fear. In colder months, inclement weather forces people to stay in their houses and off the streets; but summer is coming, and with it the promise of more bloodshed. Chance finds himself wishing, almost like a child, for the weather to change so that his pain can be postponed.
It just got warm out - that's the shit I've been warned 'bout
I hope that it storm in the mornin', I hope that it's pourin' out
His trauma manifests itself in irrational, associative fear: he loathes crowded beaches and the sound of fireworks as they remind him of warm weather and gunshots. He wonders: is it worse to live knowing death is just around the corner, or simply to die early? In a sing-song voice that does not hide his melancholy, he reiterates the connection between season and sorrow as the spectre of death hangs ever over them:
Everybody dies in the summer
Wanna say goodbye? Tell 'em while it's spring
I heard everybody's dying in the summer
So pray to God for a little more spring
He repeats the refrain about being scared, begging one last time for empathy and understanding between communities. He is joined by a faint but beautiful male voice singing his words underneath him, in an echo, far away as if trapped in a cell. Without ceremony, the beat and melody twist into nothingness.