The Art of Emotional Tricks

Emotional tricks work because they fuse the catchy with the cathartic.
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The Art of Emotional Tricks

“We're all being tricked by our favorite rappers, and we love it.” —Yoh, “Kanye, JAY-Z, Drake & an Industry Full of Tricks

These rappers are playing with our feelings, again. In 2016, fellow DJBooth scribe Yoh exposed the music industry for its use of “tricks,” little moments on songs meant to involve the audience, giving them a note to hit when they sing along. He cited Kanye West’s feature on “THat Part,” Drake’s hit “Pop Style,” and Trinidad Jame$. Certainly, his list could have gone on, because tricks are part of the fun of pressing play then finally catching a live show.

Tricks are an essential and thrilling part of the music game, but they are not confined to hype-inducing moments and perfunctory phrases to be yelled across packed venues. Tricks can have a depth and emotional resonance, can unfurl quietly and bring us in for endless listens. Emotional tricks, we’ll dub them, are essential to establishing the potentially everlasting quality of an album. Savvy artists—Vince Staples, 6LACK, Smino, SZA, and countless others—know this well, and lace their music with these personable moments to the point of building a human-to-human connection with their fans.

Emotional tricks work similarly to regular tricks. For one, they’re sticky moments that impress upon us the gnawing feeling that we love something about a song or an album. Emotional tricks are a lure like any other, but the way in which they coax listeners in is wonderfully wholesome. Unlike plain tricks, these emotive moments are a touch more striking because they are a touch more human. We get a glimpse of the artist sans persona, often emoting in a way not dissimilar from our own reactions to their music. The wall between creator and consumer is briefly made porous. Emotional tricks are often the most fleeting yet personable moments on an album. They consequently become the minutia that inspires us to run back entire albums just to satisfy our itch for a two-second clip where we felt heard by our favorite artists.

Vince Staples

Vince Staples knows the value of personality better than most rappers in his class. Between his “Get the Fuck Off My Dick” single and GoFundMe campaign, and his troll-marketing tactics for his third studio album, FM!, Staples is an artist built on emotional tricks, with emotional range. Tricks permeate his career, the most cutting of which can be traced to his 2015 debut, Summertime ‘06, where the title track finds Staples gasping for air as we would be gasping in the wake of trauma and heartache. The trick of “Summertime” is in the set-up-payoff format of the hook, where Vince subverts common rap tropes to shock us to attention. “This could be forever, baby / I never seen you wetter, baby / Than when the tears fall / Soakin' up your sweater, baby,” Staples drones. The expectation with “wetter,” in hip-hop, does not summon images of tears, and our poor assumptions leave us with a tinge of shame. In tandem, Staples’ brief pause between bars ensures we fill in the blanks only to be proven wrong. That pause and payout is an example of a highly emotional trick, but not all emotional tricks have to be so mournful to work.

FM! is packed with attention-grabbing and personality-forward moments that break character only to enforce character and our relationship with Vince Staples. We can look first at the bouncy and inviting call-and-response set-up of “Outside!,” aptly used to critique white consumption of Black art, as Staples has so thoughtfully done across his commercial releases. On its own, call-and-response is a standard trick, but in the context of a chilling song dealing with gang violence, that dissonance turns this bouncy segment into a heavy emotional trick. We feel the cloud of anxiety as we sing along; something is awry. Out from this juxtaposition comes the humanity of the moment: glee and ignorance are toxic, yes, but they are also methods of survival.

Eventually, the ricocheting hook becomes a necessity as “Outside!” concludes with a rabid flurry of “I'mma, I'mma, I'mma, I'mma, I'mma” declarations. Staples goes from confident to sputtering, consumed by the endless trauma he catalogs on FM!. He sounds enthused, but only momentarily. More than anything, Staples sounds disturbed to the point of frenzy. This, too, is an emotional trick. We cannot deny, and Vince would never let us deny, that his unhinged delivery is catchy as all hell. We are hooked, and we are moved. His mania mimics our own natural elation when tuning in to a banger, but when Staples takes it a step further to break down the damage to his psyche, we once again get that human connection. “Outside!” is not a cry for help, but an artful reporting-live moment that both strikes us down and summons so much excitement, we’re moved to run it back.

6LACK

Certain albums’ replay value rests on emotional tricks. Plenty of records are slow-burning, and the relationships we form with these albums are beautiful, but they would not be possible without the initial hook of a compelling trick. 6LACK’s sophomore effort, East Atlanta Love Letter, may well be subtitled: Emotional Tricks: The Album. Be it the lilt and wonderful syncopation of “Got this pretty brown-brown, watch her go wild / Found her confidence, so she a pro now / Your man a clone, quick, come down to Zone 6” breaking up the moody haze of “Loaded Gun,” or the quick, spiraled delivery of “She a Kirkwood baby, puttin' in work little baby,” 6LACK extends his emotive reach to its honest end on EALL.

Where 6LACK operates in a subgenre that equally demands and rewards vulnerability and emotional transparency, he goes above the call with a series of faint yet precise tricks that expand the overall ethos of the record. Take “Pretty Little Fears,” one of the sweetest love songs of the year. 6LACK presses his heart to wax, for sure, but the song sinks in during the wordless hums. The splendor and tenderness of “Girl, you on my best side, mm / Say she from the West Side, mm, mm” captures a spooling love just now finding its footing. Brief as it may be, “mm, mm” boasts such a pure honesty and gleeful anticipation of the future. Two held syllables, but they sound like a promise all the same. There’s a knowing quality to the humming, an understood depth of emotion that mirrors the listener’s when they are met with thoughts of their own love interests between 6LACK’s bars.

A majority of EALL sees 6LACK as a scorned and yearning loverboy who wants for nothing more than a supportive partner and forgiveness. Yet on “Pretty Little Fears,” he drops his power fantasy act to relish a flowering love. These sweet and downy hums extinguish the fire 6LACK summoned first on FREE 6LACK, and carried throughout a majority of his sophomore effort. Love quite literally takes his breath away, which is a beautiful thing and one with which listeners consequently identify. Act as hard as you want, no one is too good to feel smitten by the potential of finding The One.

Then we have the subtle audacity that drives much of the album but exists at its core on the title track. While 6LACK is more in touch with his emotions on EALL, we still turn to his music for that irreverence and upturned energy in the face of heartbreak. 6LACK’s spunk and refusal to be victim to his own hurt are what makes “It's an East Atlanta Love Letter / Who gon' love better? / Nobody, because I say so / And my words hit like a Draco (Draco)” such a satisfying four-piece. It is damn near impossible to not feel on top of the world singing along to such a declaration.

Nobody, because I said so” is the pinnacle of the power fantasy 6LACK’s music offers, and the no-frills delivery makes this moment all the more punchy. Where power plays can obscure the man behind the music, the ease of this hook keeps 6LACK grounded, truly in the trenches with us as we bemoan breakups in concert. That’s the emotional trick here: 6LACK delivers the music we’ve come to expect from his persona, with the same flippancy, but without a mask. Much like the hums, the tender delivery of the hook absolves 6LACK of any fronting accusations. This is an artist with his heart on his 6alenciaga cap, and we tune in because participating is all too cathartic.

Smino

Of course, neither Vince Staples nor 6LACK are the only artists to employ emotional tricks. With his impish aesthetic and vocals, Smino’s music is packed with emotional tricks that amplify his charisma and hook us for repeat listens. His blkswn standout single, “Netflix & Dusse,” is built upon a verse of tricks all bubbling over with the cheeky: “She said:Smino, boy, I get it already.’” Delivered on a bed of toyish high notes to underscore the camp of the situation, Smino’s fawning over a woman is wonderfully playful.

Much like 6LACK, Smino has the appearance of a steely bad boy who will make you swoon just as quickly as he will be on to the next. His power fantasy plays exist in the same realm as 6LACK’s, yet the quick and coy rejection on “Netflix & Dusse” presents Smino at his most approachable. Taken down a peg, down into those same trenches to which 6LACK descends, Smino’s emotional trick is one of showing the chinks in his armor. Smino has us quickly realize that the best emotional tricks toe the line between catchy and refractive, halving the persona so we can see the artist for who they are and who they wish to be.

SZA

SZA does much of the same on Ctrl standout “Anything,” where her stutter on the verse makes her all the more emotionally available. This is, of course, a feat when we consider the point of order for all of Ctrl is to make SZA as vulnerable and open as possible. Yet the trembling fear and outrage of “Do do you even know I'm alive? Do do you even know I, I,” mimicking the fight to speak through tears, presents SZA as fallible. Though on Ctrl she is bare, she also sounds sage. Certainly, Solana has gone through it all, but to make this album, she must have paid her emotive dues and been rewarded with a fresh wisdom. Such is the nature of such a reflective album. “Anything” is thrilling, then, because it is a glimpse into SZA’s faltering. Not only do we connect with the emotional trick, but we also find her journey across the album all the more fulfilling.

Emotional tricks work because they fuse the catchy with the cathartic. These are lyrics that feel good to sing along to, that also capture our emotional peaks and valleys. Emotional tricks play off quietly, but they pay off in spades. A plain trick will get you excited and tire you out, but an emotional trick will lull you into a deep relationship with a song, and eventually an album if you’re persistent in that way. When you find yourself seeking out an album because of one precise and knowing bar, you’ve been tricked, but you’re also likely on your way to growing with yet another favorite album. 

These artists are playing with our feelings, but it is absolutely worthwhile. 

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