The Art of Fragmentation in Rap Music

The art of fragmentation ensures that the poetry of a verse sticks to the listener.
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The Art of Fragmentation in Rap Music

“What you do, is you give every song a purpose.” —Mac Miller.

We are haunted in stages, swallowed organ by organ, and consumed only ever over time. The music that finds and travels with us—that engulfs us—often mirrors our mental and emotional states and burns us up bit by bit until we cannot parse where our feelings begin and the music ends. It’s a matter of distance: How close are you to this content, this sound, this minutia? There’s also an art to closing this distance, the art of fragmentation. This is the art of serving your poetry in microverse, boiling it down to its essential elements before ever serving it to the listener. We are often haunted by flits of language, but if the music is also a fleck of a thought, the haunting becomes a natural and symbiotic thing.

The art of fragmentation ensures that the poetry of a verse sticks to the listener, worms into and lives with the listener. It also mimics the listless thinking of someone clinging to poetry for solace. Fragmented music is crumbly and nebulous, and understanding. It appears as starried and beautiful as the breathless stream of consciousness of a tortured artist. It appears as disorienting as living with high functioning anything and having it nettle your mind as you attempt to trek through the day. It is heard and hearing music. This music breaks through and captures our attention because it moves with the flow of information. Not to be confused with accessibility, fragmented music satisfies our ravenous listening habits while delivering the most pertinent information. These are artists—Tierra Whack, Pink Siifu, Earl Sweatshirt—gaming the system, so to say. And it, resoundingly, works.

Tierra Whack gamed the system by embedding her incredible debut album Whack World into the system. Released as a series of minute-long videos on her Instagram feed, Tierra Whack commanded our attention by playing our lack thereof. Within her one-minute frenzies, Whack puts together several two-to-three word anthems for our greatest ills. On “Bugs Life,” it is the despondent way she delivers “Buggin’, like mosquitos” that makes it instantly catchy and true to life. She has that bone-tired quality to her voice, that “I’m not depressed, but I am unhappy with how unhappy I am” exhaustion. She brings us this depth of feeling in three words.

The undulation on “Flea Market,” and the image itself of a flea market—a commodified lost-and-found—make the loss of love sound transient and porous. She manages to bring an R&B flavor, and the point where the track cuts off—so wonderfully jarring—stays in our minds. The ghostly “Hope that you trust me” remains with us because Whack knows how and when to twist the hose. She has us on the edge of our seats for “Pretty Ugly,” which ends without either the listener or Whack getting the last word. “4 Wings” cuts off two bars into the hook and just moments after a bare verse. We can’t help but attempt to rush back, but Whack World bulldozes forward. Suddenly, we want answers, but all we have are the crumbs Whack leaves for us to feast on, and we feast and we spin the album back hoping to pick up the phantom limbs of these songs.

Yet, the fragmented nature of the album provides a nice sense of camaraderie between Whack and her likely equally frenetic listeners. As she told Billboard: “I was driving myself crazy, and then my engineer—who’s working closely with me—was like, ‘We got to find a way, ‘cause you’re so fucking moody, and doing something different every ten fucking seconds, or changing your mind up, or whatever.’ So we looked at Instagram, and Instagram is 60 seconds [max for a video]. We were like, ‘Yo, let’s do a song that’s a collection of 60 seconds, and just rock out.’ So I started to record 60-second songs, and just shut it off at sixty seconds.”

Her moodiness is a throughline from Tierra Whack the artist, to the person, to the fan. We see that Whack World was made out of necessity. Tierra could not simmer down, and we live in an era where the operative questions are “How much longer?” and “How can we go faster?” Caught in this web, she created her own. Thus, the backstory of Whack World makes it all the more resonant and catching. This was an album born from the same frustrations listeners feel, and with that common ground, the fragmentation does not puzzle us, it entices. We take each swerve to be precious and thoughtful; we do not resent Tierra, we only want to close the gap between us and Whack World. The beauty of her fragmentation, then, is that with her strict cut-offs, she only lets us get so close. What we desire is withheld, and so we keep coming back for more.

Not as strict with his cut-offs, but still delivering 25 tracks of which few break the three-minute marker, Los Angeles rapper Pink Siifu’s ensley is a tapestry of tired thoughts and trembling torrents of generational pain. There is a macabre whimsy to the fleeting quality of Pink Siifu’s music. How one moment we are deep in thought, contending with faith and family, our voice tucked behind a summering guitar loop (“skin made of gold”), and the next we are caught in the midst of shouting and allusions to materialism, the ugly ways generational trauma manifests, and what success could look like in that context (“tht bag”). Mind you, Pink Siifu does not utter a word on “tht bag,” and yet the song is one of the sobering centerpieces of his album.

Much like Tierra Whack fragments herself with time limits, Siifu fragments his meaning by taking himself out of the equation. As we search for him on “tht bag,” we find ourselves being sucked into the universe of the sample, taking it in and bracing the track where we might have otherwise skipped it. Siifu’s cutting in and out of his own album forces us to realize every second is essential, every sound has a purpose. He rewards our hunger for More and Next by packing meaning into the little microcosms he spins across 25 tracks’ worth of music. We search for him, but where he is absent, he still offers us gold. He is not as jarring as Whack, but he hooks us all the same. His album unfolds the same way a memory grips us, works in the same way as repressed thoughts rearing their heads. On ensley, Siifu remembers who he is and who his history has made him in the same turn. This is a time-bending album, the beauty of which comes from the fragmentation.

The Pitchfork review of ensley remarked that the album was starkly finished and unfinished. Not entirely untrue, what the review hits at is the compounding flux of working in fragments, the same way people grow in pieces. The fragmented nature of the album, the samples in place of Pink Siifu’s voice, all speak to the artist showing us his growth and demonstrating what he hopes to grow into. His choppy tracklisting is a show-and-tell of where he does and does not yet have the words to talk about his past and present. As we are simultaneously in flux, we find that Siifu has the words we need, and listening to and analyzing the samples, we may have the words he needs. That symbiosis can only come from fragmented music, from us working in tandem as one artist commune to fill in the gaps of a crushed history.

Then we have Earl Sweatshirt, whose 15-track album does not even run for half an hour, and is more consumed by dusty loops than Earl’s own voice. When Earl does center himself— “Shattered Dreams,” “December 24,” “Nowhere2go,” “Veins”—we are not treated to a sense of clarity and much of the music only washes over us in shorn strokes. Some Rap Songs often sounds like a picked scab, or more beautifully, as if Earl’s paintbrush were nearly dried out, but he could not settle until he finished his craggy portrait.

Some Rap Songs, by nature of the overpowering loops, imprints on us in specks of depressive dust. We carry these lines like fine grains nestled between the grooves of our fingerprints. The obsessive “I ain’t know that I could leave” on “Red Waters” sounds robotic and broken as if once the idea crossed Earl’s mind, he shorted out. These fried moments make Some Rap Songs an enduring record. We get the same again on “Nowhere2go,” where the singsong—for Earl Sweatshirt—admission that he has been depressed his whole life sticks out as one of the sunniest and purest moments on the album. There is a tight cranking to his delivery, like a jack-in-the-box jumping out to announce the good news: these raps will be with you forever.

Earl’s voice is chopped and made mealy on Some Rap Songs. The longest track barely scrapes three minutes and the shortest is sub-one. The album very well could be an unfinished scrapbook of Earl Sweatshirt’s healing process. Yet, it’s piecemeal structure gives weight to Earl’s stepping into himself and creating selfishly. He gives credence to the truth that growth is procedural, confusing, tiring, and nonlinear. He validates the flux much like Pink Siifu. Unlike Siifu, there is no place for us to fill in on SRS, but we are enticed in much the same way Tierra Whack hooks us. Earl’s music does not sound unfinished, but he himself sounds incomplete in the best possible way. He sounds en route to a better place, far from his peak, and healthier than ever. The humor of the cover, another fragment of the full Earl Sweatshirt story, tells us as much.

The art of fragmentation is such that it strikes us over and over again, when we least expect it and when we most need it. To hear some of these heavier bars throughout the day, because they stick because the music is free of lyrical clutter, may well be the best speed-dating rendition of group therapy. Fragmentation holds our attention when we might be too scattered to tune in to our own healing, and it validates our not-too-shabby growth. By moving with the tides, Tierra Whack, Pink Siifu, and Earl Sweatshirt actually rip us away from the current. We become consumed by pinpricks of their poetry, and out from those brief flashes of truth we carry with us, we find our own. 

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