It all started with two chords.
I was at camp for the summer and had begrudgingly decided to take up piano (again) to pass the time. My teacher for those few weeks—a British dude whose name I don’t remember—saw how indifferent I was to the experience and pulled out a tin can speaker and an iPod. “Have you ever heard this song before?” he asked before pressing play on “Us Placers” by Child Rebel Soldier.
I was mesmerized by the chords but had my entire wig blown back when I heard Lupe Fiasco begin to spit over them. Then Kanye West. Then Pharrell Williams. Back to back to back.
I didn’t play anything else all day.
I spent those two weeks playing the song over and over in my head. It was waiting for me on the business end of a mouse click when I got home and followed me to school and everywhere else I went. For the last 10 years, I’ve been vibing out to “Us Placers.”
Ye, Lupe and Skateboard P were all on the verge of watershed moments in 2007. Kanye was five months away from completing his golden trilogy with Graduation, Lupe was gearing up for the release of his now Gold-certified sophomore album The Cool and Pharrell was riding high off of his solo debut In My Mind, which included “Number One,” a single that had already solidified Ye and P’s chemistry. All three artists were popular enough on their own and heralded when together, but the formation of Child Rebel Soldier was a hip-hop Voltron the likes of which our generation had never seen before.
“Us Placers” first appeared on Kanye’s Can’t Tell Me Nothing mixtape, but it was spearheaded by Lupe; created for a mash-up tape supposedly called Us Placers based around songs from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s solo debut The Eraser that never came to fruition. According to a 2008 interview Lupe conducted with MTV, UK rapper/musician The Streets was to be the third artist on the track, but Pharrell stepped in when The Streets didn’t answer Lupe's outreach, and CRS was born ("Pharrell came up with the idea — 'Let's do a group, Child Rebel Soldiers.’). Even if the song was one missed call away from being a different experience, the hefty sample from Yorke’s title track set the stage for CRS to go nuts with just those two ominous chords.
What did three of the most talented, popular names in hip-hop at the time have to say as a group? Lupe hit the ground running with a checklist of things he copped with all his money; a big house, pinky rings, “color commissions from some high paid painters” and even a fall guy to take the rap for his crimes. It isn’t until the end of his verse that we learn all these material items are merely filling a hole in Lupe’s life—or hermetically sealing himself inside his own fame (“Ups and the downs, the sames and the changes / All the money in the world don’t make it painless”). A chilling example of how Lupe can turn a whole story around in two bars or less.
Kanye’s verse revereses the lens on pre-viral reality stars closing in on their 15th minute: “Long for they shot on the TV screen / American Idol never seen these dreams / Just last week, they wanna see I.D. / Now they got you in VIP” turns to “Hey, didn’t you play in…? / No it couldn’t be, quit playin’” in the blink of an eye. “Touch The Sky,” this was not. The best of Kanye and Lupe’s social commentary was on display throughout “Us Placers,” but that vibe was disrupted when Pharrell began the third verse.
While P's delivery is smooth and easy on the ears, lyrically it’s all over the place; temptation and karma, grip pimps and water whipping. And a then-topical reference to the Virginia Tech massacre that had happened less than a month before the song’s release capped a bumpy finish to an otherwise solid 16.
With just one song—and the va$htie directed video that came with it—the potential of this accidentally formed hip-hop group was crystallized. The gauntlet had been thrown down and 15-year-old me was ready for CRS to storm the gates.
But it never happened.
Lupe toldBillboard that their respective labels were trying to split the difference on an album that August. Lupe and Pharrell and Chad Hugo’s group N*E*R*D joining Kanye on the Glow In The Dark Tour and a remix of N*E*R*D’s “Everyone Nose (All The Girls Standing In The Line for The Bathroom)” rekindled hope in 2008. Four more songs had allegedly been made by 2009 and in 2010 “Don’t Stop” was released through Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Fridays lead up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Even then, the writing was on the wall; by 2013, Lupe announced that CRS’ album had been canceled. Yet another Lupe supergroup lost to time.
As a fan, I was disappointed. Sitting here 10 years wiser, however, I know now that it was a different time. The group formed before Lupe’s battle with Atlantic Records (and later his own fans) began, starting with Lasers and ending with retirement threats and convoluted album rollouts. The group came to be before the passing of Kanye's mother Donda West, a moment in time Kanye has, to this day, never fully recovered from creatively. The group was born before Pharrell coined the term “New Black” in an interview with Oprah as a misguided attempt to describe Black people who “don’t blame other races for our issues.”
All this to say: the initial formation of CRS came at a time when I failed to realize how all three of these men were—just like the rest of us—complex, at times disappointing and complicated individuals. While all three went on to create and release incredible work and make even more amazing contributions to the world, Child Rebel Soldier had fought a losing battle against the sands of time and change; Turbo Grafx in a Playstation 4 age.
I’ll always have that one moment, though. That one eerily transcendent moment where (almost) everything slid into place. The more I try to erase Child Rebel Soldier from my head, the more I hear those two chords.