There's an iconic scene in the Sidney Lumet film Network, when the film’s main character Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch), a manic news anchor on the brink of hysteria after being fired, barges in on a live television broadcast and demands his audience’s undivided attention. Beale, delivering a Shakespearean monologue about the world’s chaos with fiery pathos, a worn trench coat, and hypnotic hand-waving, is tired and distraught. His inflection is uncomfortably shaky, his eyes blurred in rage, and yet his speech is coherent and lucid. He’s a man who's reached his wit's end, yelling into the screens of millions about gun violence and the chemical poisoning of food, refusing to let the people of the world shield themselves from their own evils. This isn’t a public service announcement; it’s a rallying cry to wake the fuck up. In Beale’s words, “I’m not going to leave you alone; I want you to get mad.”
Toward the end of Bobby Sessions’ music video for “Like Me,” a dense, four-minute tirade on the injustices done to black Americans over the course of history, a similar moment occurs. Sessions, shirtless and covered in blood, stares deeply at the camera. His face is stone cold, breaking character only to aim lyrics like “You changed my fuckin' name!” at his audience. Much like with Beale in Network, watching Sessions is simultaneously unnerving and heartbreaking, and magnetic. He's refusing to leave us alone until we are as mad as he is.
RVLTN: The Divided States of Amerikkka, Bobby Sessions' major-label debut project on Def Jam, revels in the discomfort its author wants you to feel. At its epicenter, the project is an examination of what real revolutions entail, and whose participation is required in order to succeed, establishing the enemy for which they must be fought against. Sessions' content is wide-ranging in narrative but laser-focused in perspective. His concepts—which leap from police brutality to the responsibility of black Americans on TV to a detailed recreation of Black neighborhoods—seamlessly intertwine without ever feeling shallow. Fearlessly, Sessions dives head first into the profoundly intense and disconcerting black experience.
Often brutal and puncturing, RVLTN carries the weight of Kendrick Lamar’s GRAMMY-winning opus To Pimp a Butterfly and exudes the energy of Kanye West’s Yeezus, yet never compromises its central purpose by injecting the levity of the former nor the sonic ambitiousness of the latter. Sessions doesn’t seem concerned with commercial appeal or easily digestible content—though “Like Me,” “Politics,” and “One Less” all maintain an undeniably entrancing quality—if it means drowning out his intent in the process. RVLTN isn’t positioned as a talking point to argue against racism; it’s the only fight that remains when you feel boxed into a corner.
Where RVLTN succeeds, beyond Sessions' lyricism, is how methodical it feels. It’s world-building if only to establish Sessions’ anger in the first place. Opening track “Because You Can” isn’t as melancholy as its soothing narrator or piano instrumental may portray. In essence, it’s an earnest examination of one’s place in the world in which, “They kill black people because they can / People walk and take things from other people because they can,” while contrasting that with the untapped power that lies inside. It’s a frank realization that, when traced through each of the following tracks, a person’s sheer will to fight back is often as powerful as the forces aimed at taking that will away.
“Like Me,” much like tracks that directly follow, including “Politics” and “One Less,” is aimed directly at the idea that to form a revolution one must first understand their enemy. For Sessions, that list begins with staple institutions like big banks and law enforcement, as well as a music industry willing to prop up black acts no matter the cost. It’s the chants of “All Lives Matter” drowning out the movements of Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick.
Lyrics like “Never trust a bank, no, tuck it under mattress / Never trust a pig, fuck 'em, bustin at the badges," which are found on “Like Me," or “Democrat, Repub, ya / We don’t give a fuck, wanna lock us up / It is what it is, politics,” which are found on “Politics,” aren’t as hopeless-sounding as they may read. Sessions' distrust of the world, and his disdain for the powers that, in his purview, poisoned Jason Whitlock and Ray Lewis and who infiltrated black neighborhoods with the “usual” gun, liquor, and shoe stores, is purposeful; he wants to always remember what he’s up against. Betrayal, especially at the hands of your home country, can be the ultimate lesson.
In order to understand your enemy, you also must know yourself, which explains why RVLTN spends time analyzing the role of black men and women in this revolution. On “Pick a Side,” in which he raps, “What you know about shaking hands with the man that’ll hang your kin? / Breakin' bread, no relationship to kin / Taking break, taxin' n****s, Uncle Sam / Uncle Tom, treat another culture like the fam,” Sessions challenges the meaning of blackness, especially in how it relates to a white culture that looks to invade and infect it at various levels. It’s a powerful question, if not at the very least an uncomfortable one, which Sessions, at a fairly early point in his career, isn't afraid to ask.
Even tracks like “Black Neighborhood" and “Unchained” question many of the same philosophies of what an effective revolution should look like.
On “Black Neighborhood,” Killer Mike—in an absolutely fantastic guest verse—lambastes the hypocrisy of black power that doesn’t recognize the influence of black women in the evolution of that power: “They try to tell me Mikey but your papa was a coppa / I tell 'em suck my dick because my auntie is Assata (Shakur) / And then I double down and tell 'em something twice as hard / Jesus is a fraud, the black woman is God.”
On “Unchained,” Sessions weighs the usefulness of corporate boycotts and voter turnout as revolutions versus, as he puts it, “killing the oppressor.”
Sessions’ political views are complicated, inspiring, and, at times, imperfect. Yet, perfect solutions often don’t exist in the beginning stages of real advocacies for change. “First,” as Howard Beale once lamented, “you’ve got to get mad.”
While Sessions' anger is mostly aimed at the system at large, as the project unfolds it becomes clear that his own backyard of Dallas, Texas is firmly in his crosshairs. Dallas, a city that I call home, is a highly diverse metroplex, overshadowed by the looming, old money conservative ideals too removed from nationwide social movements to find a footing in the fight. As a city neatly divided by scantier, rural Eastern and Western portions, a financially driven suburbia in the North, and an overlooked and poorly financed Southern half, Dallas too often feels like a large town of so many moving parts that it ceases to be a stabilized entity for any one of its marginalized citizens who need it most.
You don’t have to drive far to come across “Back the Blue” and “Blue Lives Matter” bumper stickers and T-shirts, most of which are in remembrance of the fallen police officers during the July 2016 mass shooting during a community organized anti-police brutality protest. Yet, it remains much harder to find that same support for the black lives lost that those same protesters were striving to remember. Sessions is quite familiar with this feeling, remembering his cousin, James Harper, an unarmed man killed by police in South Dallas, on Harper's aptly-titled interlude.
It’s no wonder Sessions' vocals are often fighting through highly distorted, amplified mixing; he’s just trying to be loud enough to get a word in.
Bobby Sessions hasn’t created the start of a conversation on RVLTN; he’s the result of what happens when conversations never happen in the first place. RVLTN is a powerful yet uncomfortable inevitability, one that sounds so dense in lyricism and ideology that it deserves the attention it commands even if you haven’t totally processed or accepted the reality it presents. Whether you’re ready or not, Sessions is no longer interested in waiting for change to happen by someone else’s hands. He’s just hoping you’ll get mad enough to either stop him or join in the fight.
Correction: In a previous version of this article, the July 2016 protest in Dallas was incorrectly referred to as a "Black Lives Matter protest." It was, in fact, a community organized anti-police brutality protest.