“I got a war zone inside of my head / I made it on my own, they said I’d be in jail or dead / I’ve seen my brothers fall, over and over again / Don’t stand too close to me, I got PTSD” —Juice WRLD, “PTSD”
Florida rapper YNW Melly made his Billboard Hot 100 debut as a solo artist with “Murder On My Mind” two years after the melodious single first appeared on SoundCloud. Although popular among fans, the song didn’t make chart-topping news until February 2019, precisely a week after Melly, born Jamell Demons, was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder.
As Billboard reported:
“Murder” jumps with large help from its massive streaming totals. The single clocked 35.3 million U.S. streams in the week ending Feb. 21, according to Nielsen Music, up 132 percent from the prior week. The flurry generated a 41-3 surge on the Streaming Songs chart, the seventh-biggest gain by one song in a single week since the chart began in 2013.” –Trevor Anderson, “YNW Melly’s ‘Murder on My Mind’ Blasts Into Top 20 on Billboard Hot 100”
Controversy and allegations aside, there are no gunshots heard on “Murder on My Mind. ” It’s a song without malice; violence without the noise; a silent killing that peaked at No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100, placing Melly’s 4x Platinum single in the lexicon of hit rap songs that illustrate murder without sounding dangerous.
We must examine the relationship between American rap music and the concept of murder in audio format in contrast to America’s relationship with gun violence. Although he delivers his critique of gun laws in America without facts, numbers, or statistics, Chance the Rapper makes a remarkable point on 2013’s “Paranoia,” when he raps, “Down here, it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a fucking parking spot.”
The “here” Chance refers to on this Acid Rap selection could be his hometown, Chicago, Illinois, but the “here” could also be a country with more mass shootings in 2019 than days in a calendar year. In that case, “Paranoia” represents Chance’s life in a pistol-toting, bullet-riddled country.
“They murking kids, they murder kids here, why you think they don’t talk about it?” –Chance the Rapper, “Paranoia”
But they, the rappers, do talk about it; the murder is in the music. Rap music isn’t the only genre that fills songs with smoking guns and dropping bodies. Yet, rap is a rare genre illustrating this evil and the many dimensions of what a particular lifestyle can sound like. In July 2019, I wrote “Every Summer We Dance to Murder Charges,” an article that breaks down the many ways life and art intersect as if they are one. There’s no separation between the headlines and the hit songs. One you read, and one you hear, but they both tell the same story.
On his recent, chart-topping single, “Toosie Slide,” Drake toes the same line as multi-Platinum rap star Nelly on his 2000 breakout single, “Country Grammar (Hot Shit).” Two catchy tunes that allude to drive-by shootings without the loud bang of a pulled trigger. In 2009, the year the rapper born Aubrey Graham broke out nationally, he famously rapped, “Diss me, you’ll never hear a reply for it.” From that perspective, Drake came into the game from Toronto as a pacifist. Eleven years later, Drake is a global warmonger hunting his adversaries on the charts from inside his ivory palace.
“Other than the family I got, it’s either you or me / That’s just how I think, it’s either you or me / This life got too deep for you, baby / Two or three of us about to creep where they stayin’ / Black leather glove, no sequins”—Drake, “Toosie Slide.”
“Light it up and take a puff, pass it to me now / I’m going down, down, baby, your street, in a Range Rover / Street sweeper baby, cocked, ready to let it go” –Nelly, “Country Grammar (Hot Shit).”
Verbalizing his desire to hunt is the most American trait found in the Canadian superstar’s discography. Oddly enough, the American consciousness doesn’t perceive Drake as a dangerous man. No amount of rumors or allegations have changed how the world hears Mr. Rogers when he speaks. Kendrick Lamar once rapped, “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me?” a question that, to this day, is still unanswered.
Rap isn’t always complicated, but do you know what is? Rappers. As a whole, the entire entertainment industry is complicated. The business is built upon a sensational foundation, one that sells scripted fantasies as real stories. In that regard, rap is akin to reality television. Rappers remove the script. You never know who is acting. You never know if the gun is real.
“I’mma keep shootin’ ‘til the bullets all gone / Nigga, I don’t really care who say stop / There’s four niggas walkin’ up and it’s just me / Now it’s just three / Now it’s just two / Now it’s just me” –3oh Black, “All Talk”
Three gunshot effects ring out throughout the quote, and they sound as real as the violence the Capitol Records signee depicts in his music. Funnily enough, “All Talk” and “Toosie Slide” are cut from the same perspective. Drake teases his threats. 3ohBlack wants you to know; I will shoot you. Is 3ohBlack a shooter? An artist? It doesn’t matter. Rap only cares if the content hits.
Rappers are real. Their lives are real. Their families are real. The guns are real, too. But the music can be make-believe. It only makes sense, with the advent of trap and drill music, that a new duality in rap would be born: the hunter and the hunted. We find this duality on Pink Siifu’s latest album, NEGRO. Told through a bone-chilling lens, the rapper born Livingston Matthews recorded a picture-perfect nightmare of the hunter-hunted duality, except, unlike the other artists mentioned in this essay, Siifu makes killing or being killed sound as terrifying as it should be.
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“Siifu sounds nearly ready to explode,” Pitchfork’s contributing writer Sheldon Pearce writes in his excellent album review of NEGRO.
“The album grabs from hardcore punk, free jazz, and noise music across songs that are fleeting and fervent; 14 of the 20 are under two minutes. In bursts, he performs in defense of looting, in opposition to police violence, and in support of black solidarity. Where ensley was nuanced and interior, NEGRO is intense and riotous.” –Sheldon Pearce
My first listen of NEGRO happened in my car, 40 miles South of Atlanta in Butts County, Georgia. I made the drive a few weeks into the mandated social distancing because of an itch to explore. I got in my Nissan Maxima and went down the 675-S expressway toward Tanger Outlet Mall in McDonough, Georgia.
As a Georgia resident, I’m familiar with Tanger. I drove past it, searching for unfamiliar land. The next exit, 205, was Butts County. As I headed toward the American flag that was waving in the distance, I noticed the Werner truck directly in front of me, and in a bright yellow font, their slogan read: “We keep America moving.”
Off the exit, the road diverges, forcing you to choose left or right toward Jackson or Griffin. I pressed play on NEGRO as I made a left for Jackson. On my right-hand side, I noticed a Marathon gas station with a Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, and Subway attached to it. A big gas station fitting of the big trucks that crowded the parking area. I thought about the late Nipsey Hussle as Pink Siifu blared in my ear:
“I don’t know why I ain’t shot ya.”
Reading that quote does not do justice to the music. The Jeremiah Jae-produced “SMD” is aggression shouted from deep-seated pain. Sonically, it’s at an overbearing octave. I felt chaos in my ears. The noise grabs your spirit and weighs you down. Pink Siifu wants you to hear him, not just lyrically, but literally.
As Pink Siifu shouts, “Tell the pigs they can eat a dick,” I drove past a sign with Sheriff Gary Long’s face on it. Other than the water tower, churches, and a few homes, there wasn’t much to see beyond the signs. This deep into south Georgia was a long, unchanging road and endless planes of green pastures. It felt like an infinite stretch to nowhere. I kept straight, driving the speed limit with a few other cars on the road.
One month later, I’m still unable to remove the Pink Siifu’s album NEGRO from my reality as a Black man in the south. NEGRO isn’t passive about race. Sonically, the album takes the elephant in America’s living room and straps a bomb to its stomach. Not only is there an explosion, but it’s also constant. A chain reaction of bombs exploding in your eardrums.
With chaos come pockets of calmness. The song, “FK,” for example, begins as a heavy-metal war cry but concludes with a beautiful beat switch. The soft affection of “We need mo’ color” is angelic compared to the murderous bark in the striking “run pig run.” The lyrics are a poem about the Black American man’s ongoing conflict with police officers.
“You have to shoot a pig, before they shoot you. Pig shoot, we shoot. Pig killer! Pig Killer!” the Alabama-born, Los Angeles-based artist recites into a void of noise. “You gonna have to kill me, you gonna have to kill,” he says twice, letting us know that, in this war against his life, he’s both the hunter and the hunted.
As I reached track nine, “DEADMEAT,” I pulled into the Livestock Auction house in Jackson, Georgia. That’s how I knew I was in the middle of nowhere. I turned around and headed back to the expressway. Pink Siifu’s Yeezus-esque yelps sound like police sirens. Admittedly, I looked back to see if I was being pulled over. I wasn’t.
Two tracks later, I’m on “Chris Dorner,” and once again, I see the sign of the sheriff. I can’t escape him. That’s how NEGRO sounds, like being under constant surveillance by your oppressor. “I’m tired, can’t fall, asleep,” Pink Siifu sings on “Nation Tyme,” track 12, a gentle tune that begins with a fever pitch message. Even at the most serene moment, NEGRO doesn’t allow the listener any peace.
By the time I made it past the Marathon gas station, I had considered going back home. My adventure was beginning to feel heavy. Being quarantined in the house is one thing, but driving around an unfamiliar part of Georgia felt risky. Even though nothing happened, I couldn’t shake that “Get home” tickle.
I make a right turn off my straight path. Nothing changed immediately. The road was still long, the pastures still green, and the occasional home appeared on my left and right. Suddenly, the trees bent, and the branches hunched forward as if they’re reaching out to me.
I kept driving down the road as track 13, “homicide/genocide/ill die,” played. The sound is jarring; it climbs into your shoulders, but not to shimmy. It’s more like talons stabbing into your flesh. Imagine being confined in a room with an imprisoned tiger clawing at your stomach, but the nails never sink in. That’s one side of paranoia. It’s a vicious feeling—a suffocating sensation. On track 19, “ON FIRE, PRAY!” the tiger entered my car and began to play.
I stopped the album. I could feel the anxiety in my throat as I saw a sign that read: “dangerous interaction.” If you could vomit fear, my car would’ve been a mess. Not because I was afraid of this particular moment, but because of a realization that something bad can happen at any time. Anywhere. If something had happened to me, no one would have heard my screams.
NEGRO isn’t a “traditional” rap album, but across 20 tracks, Siifu understands and conveys how fear, anger, and violence are deeply rooted in this country for Black Americans. He draws from the same inspirations, the plight of the disenfranchised, that birthed hip-hop. The music is a direct reflection of all the artists mentioned in this article. Chance The Rapper. YNW Melly. 3ohBlack. The rapper reality is the American reality, as a nightmare and as a dream.
As Siifu hits his stride on the superb outro, “Black Be Tha God, NEGRO. ( wisdom.cipher),” I turned around, heading back to the expressway. Before making the turn onto 675-N, I spot another Werner truck. I read the bright yellow slogan once more. I pulled out my phone and typed a note that summed up my thoughts on NEGRO:
Christopher Columbus discovered America, home of the murderer, land of the dead.
In loving memory of Ahmaud Arbery, another black man unloved by a country and countrymen who must pay what they owe.