They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.
— W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
Sometimes I really can’t believe this shit happened
Who woulda thought I’d make it rappin’?
I almost lost my life when I was trappin’
Numb the pain with the money, numb the pain with the money
Numb the pain with the money, numb the pain with the
— 21 Savage, “Numb”
For Lil Snupe (1995 – 2013), L’A Capone (1996 – 2013), Chinx (1983 – 2015), Bankroll Fresh (1987 – 2016 ), Lor Scoota (1993 – 2016 ), Da Real Gee Money (1995 – 2017), the many thousands gone.
The beat, when it drops, is thunder, and causes the steel rods in whatever you’re riding to groan, plastics to shudder, the ass of the seat to vibrate right up into your gut. The hi-hat, pitched like an igniter, sparks. Snare rolls crescendo in waves that overmaster like a system of finely linked chains snatched up into whips, cracking and snapping across the hull of a dark hold.
It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.
— James Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone”
Rubber band man, like a one-man band
Treat these niggas like the Apollo, and I’m the sandman
— T.I., “Rubber Band Man”
Howard “Sandman” Sims had a standing gig at the Apollo for decades as a tap performer who would “sweep” failing acts off the stage. It’s stuff like this that makes up what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “motivated signifying,” the inside joke that’s on you before you know it, the razor wit — always the weapon of the underdog. The pleasures of dialect, hotly pursued by the holders of capital, the clout chasers of Madison Avenue, enclose a self-referential universe, a house of belonging in sound and word. A statehouse of language for a stateless people. Trap is an extension, a ramification of that vocabulary of radicalized homelessness: people creating a living out of a few grains of sand, hustling, sweeping anything that can’t compete out of the way.
Trap, some definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary:
A contrivance set for catching game or noxious animals; a gin, snare, pitfall: cf. mantrap, mousetrap, rat trap.
transf. and fig., and in figurative expressions. Often applied to anything by which a person is unsuspectingly caught, stopped, or caused to fall; also to anything which attracts by its apparent easiness and proves to be difficult, anything deceptive.
A concealed compartment; spec. (Criminals’ ), any hiding-place for stolen or illegal goods, etc.; a ‘stash.’ U.S. slang.
I just wanna get that money
I just wanna get that money — flip that money
I just wanna stack them hundreds,
I just wanna spaz out — cash out
— Kodak Black, “Spaz Out”
Q. What is the subject of trap?
A. Money, a.k.a. skrilla, paper, green, gwop, currency, stacks, bands, bundles, racks, currency, fetty (confetti), ends, dead presidents, bankrolls, $100,000 in just two days, fuck-you money, fuck up some commas, money long, run up a check, fuck up a check; a master signifier in falling bills, floating, liquid, pouring down on bitches in the proverbial rain, exploding like cold fireworks, screen-printed or projected onto surfaces human and otherwise, occasionally burned, often tossed into the impoverished streets left behind, kids trailing the whip their arms outstretched, often bricked up in bundles held in a grip, or cradled to the ear like, say, a call from the highest authority in the land, or fanned out in a masking screen, or caressed, the cold frisson of Franklin morbidly displacing the erotic potential of sexual attraction.
An attitude toward luxury. Brands of old-world “foreign” opulence sound better in the escaped slave’s mouth. The “Go-yard” bag, the “Phi-lippe” watch, “the Lambo” supercar pronounced like a Creole dish, every accoutrement of inaccessible lavishness smashed into pinball frenzy, a world where everything is always dripping, VVS diamonds are always dancing, every swatch of color given the player’s ball touch, the planet WorldStarHipHop, a black satellite circling around a diamond white sun where the Protestant work ethic is always being converted into its rhythmic opposite, “You get the bag and fumble it / I get the bag and flip it and tumble it” (Gucci Mane feat. Migos, “I Get the Bag”). From the SoundCloud backpacker to the superstar trapper, the ideal of a supremely luxurious attitude toward luxury. “I’m spittin’ fire like an arson / Hop out the Lam and don’t park it” (Migos, “Forest Whitaker”).
Nigga: as rhythm, a trochee (from the Greek for running, at root a runaway) coursing through the verse marking soundings, like a heartbeat; the nasal occlusive a vocal withholding, a negative that releases into a velar plosive, a voiced relief; as person, a real one; as word, a neologism indigenous to the American crucible, the umbilical cord of blackness: raw, intimate, original, word as bond.
Trap is the only music that sounds like what living in contemporary America feels like. It is the soundtrack of the dissocialized subject that neoliberalism made. It is the funeral music that the Reagan revolution deserves.
The musical signature embedded in trap is that of the marching band. The foundation can be thought of, in fact, as the digital capture and looping of the percussive patterns of the drum line. The hi-hats in double or triple time are distinctly martial, they snap you to attention, locking in a rigid background grid to be filled in with the dominant usually iterated instrumental, sometimes a synth chord, or a flute, a tone parallel that floats over the field. In this it forms a continuum with the deepest roots of black music in America, going back to the colonial era and the Revolutionary War, when black men, typically prohibited from bearing arms, were brought into military ranks as trumpet, fife, and drum players. In the aftermath of the War of 1812, all-black brass bands spread rapidly, especially in cities with large free black populations like New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York. During the Civil War, marching bands would aid in the recruitment of blacks to the Union. At Port Royal in the Sea Islands, during the Union Army occupation, newly freed slaves immediately took to “drilling” together in the evenings in public squares, men, women, and children mimicking martial exercises while combining them with song and dance — getting in formation. The popularity of marching and drilling was incorporated into black funerary practice, nowhere more impressively than in New Orleans, where figures like Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet would first encounter the sounds of rhythm and trumpet, joy and sorrow going by in the streets of Storyville. This special relationship, including its sub rosa relation to military organization, persists in the enthusiasm of black marching bands, especially in the South, where they are a sonic backdrop of enormous proximate importance to the producers of trap, and to its geographic capital, Atlanta.
But closer to home, Traplanta is saddled with too much of the same racial baggage and class exclusion that criminalizes the music in the eyes and ears of many in power. The same pols who disgrace their districts by failing to advocate for economic equity find themselves more offended by crass lyrical content than the crass conditions that inspire it . Meanwhile, systemic ills continue to fester at will. It’s enough to make you wonder who the real trappers are in this town.
— Rodney Carmichael, “Culture Wars”
Trap’s relation to hip-hop retains the construction of a song around bars and hooks, but the old-school chime and rhyme, the bounce and jazziness of Nineties production, is gone. Instead, empty corners space out patterns that oscillate between compression and distension. The drum machine popularized by the (black and gay) “jacking” sound of Eighties Chicago and Detroit is put to use in a way that is less mechanical than its forebear, more syncopated, wavy, elastic. But it retains the overall flatness of effect, the orientation toward the (strip) club, a music to obliterate self-consciousness and the boundaries of the self. Bass is the place and when the 808 drops, or one should say detonates (an effect imitated in the proliferation of amateur dance videos by a jagged shake of the camera), the signature is quickly established and the pattern rolls over. Songs don’t develop or progress. Sometimes, as in an iconic track like Future’s “Stick Talk” or “Wicked,” the song appears to materialize and dematerialize out of a vacuum. A squealing siren pops out of the ether. His roving, overdubbed voice rides slightly off or apart from the pattern playing off a few variations. The track begins, then ends, like weather.
How will cultural history come to grips with the fact that the era of the first black presidency is also the era of trap — a metaphor for a suckering, illusory promise one falls for, only to realize things are worse than ever before?
I’m ’bout to fuck this cash up on a new toy
’Bout to fuck this cash up on a new toy
You can’t understand us cause you’re too soft
Taliban bands, run ’em straight through the machinery
—Future, “Stick Talk”
Trap indexes the fever dreams of a declining imperial power. It irrupts within a wounded unconscious, seeking scapegoats, boasting, lashing out, categorically refusing any sense of responsibility for its actions. The frustrations and failures of military adventurism on the frontiers and borderlands are internalized; they find sites for expression in the fractured, neglected wastelands at the periphery of the power capital, in the ghetto, the hood, the slums, the bricks, the barrio, the mud, the bando, the trap house. The metaphors of imperial fantasy, of limitless power and wealth — and its nightmare, endless, and pointless wars without issue — cross-pollinate and mutate. In rap of the Nineties, the memory of Vietnam still resonated; Capone-N-Noreaga (C-N-N) gave us The War Report of the Persian Gulf War years. By the mid-’00s the war abroad and the war at home would fuse into the hard edges of a bloody portmanteau: Chiraq. The pressure of the proliferation of high-powered weapons, the militarization of everyday life, an obvious and pervasive subtext in trap, is also one of the most obvious transformations of American life at the close of the American century: the death of civilian space.
That music, which Miles Davis calls “social music,” to which Adorno and Fanon gave only severe and partial hearing, is of interdicted black social life operating on frequencies that are disavowed — though they are also amplified — in the interplay of sociopathological and phenomenological description. How can we fathom a social life that tends toward death, that enacts a kind of being-toward-death, and which, because of such tendency and enactment, maintains a terribly beautiful vitality?
— Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness”
Trap is social music.
Consider the voice of Meek Mill. The inscription of dreams and nightmares in the grain. Its breathlessness, always on the verge of shrill hoarseness, gasping for air, as if the torrent of words can’t come fast enough — as if there might not be enough time to say the things that need to be said. Every syllable eked out through grit, the cold facts of North Philly firing through a monochromatic hollow, like a crack in a bell.
Trap videos for obvious reasons continue an extended vamp on the visual grammar developed in the rap videos of the Nineties, a grammar that the whole world has learned to read, or misread, producing a strange Esperanto of gesture and cadence intended to signify the position of blackness. In the “lifestyle” videos, the tropes are familiar, establishing shots captured in drone POV: the pool party, the hotel suite, the club, the glistening surfaces of dream cars, the harem women blazoned, jump cuts set to tight-focus Steadicam, the ubiquitous use of slow motion to render banal actions (pouring a drink, entering a room) allegorical, talismanic, the gothic surrealism of instant gratification. In the harder, street-oriented version, luxuries are replaced by what one has, which is only one another: gang signs interlock, boys on the verge of manhood huddle and show they have one another’s back. Women occasionally appear in an accessorizing role, but more often are simply absent. In the video for L’A Capone’s track “Round Here,” the indication is blunt: “Whole block got cane / But stay in your lane / Cause niggas getting changed.” Like David Walker’s graphic pointers in his Appeal, one of the key punctuation marks of this gestural grammar is the trigger finger, pointing into the camera — through the fourth wall — into the consuming eye. The very motion of the arm and finger are perversely inviting and ejecting. You are put on notice, they say. You can get touched.
Trap is the sound track to America in the years of the “opioid crisis.” The drug crisis initially thought to be merely a breach in the hull of the underclass confined to the black ghetto spilled out into white rural America with meth and prescription painkillers, segueing to black tar heroin as the pill mills (but not Big Pharma) finally came under legal scrutiny. It now exceeds, as all great social disasters do, the class boundary. The hyped-up drug war of the 1990s and early ’00s began to morph under the tenure of the great campaigner of hope into a normalized social fabric, a generalized landscape of dope. For the middle and upper-middle classes, Molly became a favorite, whether consumed casually at unabashedly corporate festivals or in warehouses not yet colonized for gentrification at the edge of town. An antidepressant, it could be said to provide the softer psychiatric analogue to the morphine class of painkillers that relieve the body or allow relief to occur passively with limited consent (its popularity being closely associated with the allure of sexual willingness).
For the ambitious children of the bourgeoisie, high achievers raised on Adderall, Xanax, and a raft of discreet legal narcotics, drugs are the norm just to get to sleep, to deal with anxiety, to avoid crushing bouts of abjection and the relentless pressures to exceed and excel. In the hood, promethazine, the syrup of Houston, became the fashionable coping agent for those living in the free-fire zones of America, where turf wars regulated with cheap handguns cut down lives in a vicious spiral. From so many points of view, then, one looks out into the Trump era with a prevailing numbness, nihilism, cruelty, ambient anxiety, disarticulation seeping in from all sides.
The music records all this. It sounds like this. Future’s lyrics are mocked for their lack of sophistication, but the veritable pharmacopeia in his verses is not dishonest or inarticulate about an affect that is pervasive, or its origins: “Percocet keep ’em motivated / Good drank keep a nigga motivated / Lortabs on my conversation / Talk a lot of bands then we conversatin’ / I was on my way to Rice Street in the paddy wagon and it had me numb / The pain from the slum had me numb” (“56 Nights”). A preoccupation with depression, mental health, a confused and terrible desire for dissociation: this is a fundamental sensibility shared by a generation.
Just past the sliding doors in a Rite Aid in Manhattan about 2 am, Mike WiLL Made-It’s producer tag and the familiar melancholy two-tone of Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type” announces that soon Swae Lee’s Floydian vamp on the trap sound will remind you of what you don’t need to hear: “I ain’t living right.” The bored cashier there to assist you with self-checkout murmurs the chorus lightly tapping at her side as she assists you: “I make my own money, so I spend it how I like.” Among other things, it’s clear there has never been a music this well suited for the rich and bored. This being a great democracy, everyone gets to pretend they, too, are rich and bored when they’re not working, and even sometimes, discreetly, when they are.
Imagine a people enthralled, gleefully internalizing the world of pure capital flow, of infinite negative freedom (continuously replenished through frictionless browsing), thrilled at the possibilities (in fact necessity) of self-commodification, the value in the network of one’s body, the harvesting of others. Imagine communities saturated in the vocabulary of cynical postrevolutionary blaxploitation, corporate bourgeois triumphalism, and also the devastation of crack, a schizophrenic cultural script in which black success was projected as the corporate mogul status achieved by Oprah or Jay-Z even as an angst-ridden black middle class propped up on predatory credit loans, gutted by the whims of financial speculation and lack of labor protections, slipped backward into the abyss of the prison archipelago where the majority poor remained. Imagine, then, the colonization of space, time, and most importantly cultural capital by the socially mediated system of images called the internet. Imagine finally a vast supply of cheap guns flooding neighborhoods already struggling to stay alive. What would the music of such a convergence sound like?
Trap is a form of soft power that takes the resources of the black underclass (raw talent, charisma, endurance, persistence, improvisation, dexterity, adaptability, beauty) and uses them to change the attitudes, behaviors, and preferences of others, usually by making them admit they desire and admire those same things and will pay good money to share vicariously in even a collateral showering from below. This allows the trap artist to transition from an environment where raw hard power dominates and life is nasty, brutal, and short to the world of celebrity, the Valhalla of excess, lucre, influence, fame — the only transparently and sincerely valued site of belonging in our culture. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that insofar as you’re interested in having a good time, there’s probably never been a sound so perfectly suited to having every kind of fun disallowed in conservative America.
A social life strictly organized around encounters facilitated by the transactional service economy is almost by definition emotionally vacant. Hence the outsize importance of the latest black music (trap) in selling everything: Sweetgreen salads prepped and chopp’d by the majority minority for minimum wage, real estate roll-outs, various leisure objects with energetic connotations, the tastefulness of certain social gatherings. In the city of the mobile user and their memes, signs, processed and recoded desires, the desperate energy and beauty produced by the attempt to escape the narcocarceral jaws of death becomes a necessary raw fuel, a lubricant for soothing, or rather perfecting, the point of sale.
“Mask Off”: an inaugural processional for the Trump years. Some were inclined to point to Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” as signaling the bad feeling, the irruption of a nasty, petty, and reactionary whiteness willing to bring everyone down, to debase everything, including oneself, in order to claim victory. But Metro Boomin heard something more. He went back to the Seventies, to Tommy Butler’s “Prison Song,” a soulful chant intended to accompany the marchers in Butler’s 1976 civil rights musical, Selma. The counterpoint of Future’s openly vacuous and nihilistic pursuit of power and the undercurrent of an unbroken spirit of black resilience, resistance, and hope — the old news meeting the news of today — creates an intoxicating, gothic aura, the sound of a nation not under a groove, but underwater, trying to hold onto the shores of light, but decidedly heading out into dangerous and uncharted depths. “Fuck it, mask off . . .”
The game of polite power politics is up. The veneer is gone. America will show its true colors; Amber Rose and Future will drive a Terminator-chrome Bentley through streets where “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” It is the hour of radical disillusionment. As Walter Lee says in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, “There ain’t no causes — there ain’t nothing but taking in this world, and he who takes most is smartest — and it don’t make a damn bit of difference how.” The grand years of the Obama masque, the glamor and pageantry of Ebony Camelot, is closed. Les jeux sont faits. The echo of black resistance ringing as a choral reminder to hold out is all that stands between a stunned population and raw power, unmasked, wielding its cold hand over all.
Raindrop. If the mark of the poetic, of the living force of lyric in the world, is the ability to change the inflection and understanding of a single word, to instantly evoke and move speech into song, then what better example do we have than the poetics of Migos and their breakthrough album, Culture? “Like a wreath, culture is a word we place upon the brow of a victor,” William H. Gass once wrote. As the title attests, Migos crowned themselves, like Napoleon. Their trap trips off the tongue, three steps to get it poppin’, three more to get it started. Everything done in triplets. Quavo, Offset, Takeoff, their supergroup a triad. The message of the massive hit “Bad and Boujee” is simple and, thanks to its lullaby-rocking lilt, irresistible: the cosmopolitanism of the underclass is good enough for them. In this, everyone wins. The fetish of class and racial transgression is given a smooth membrane across which to exchange approving glances. Hence the appropriateness of Donald Glover’s role in assisting the song to the top of the charts. No figure better represents the amphibious role of blackness slipping back and forth across lines of class, taste, and career.
The Migos lyric, with its love of onomatopoeia, annotating itself like comic speech bubbles, offers itself up as a kind of doubled, mirroring space for ludic play. The drug world of the streets is sublimated, neutralized as a background of merely referential content that has no bearing on the tenor of life that has been achieved. In the video for the single “T-Shirt,” Migos are figured as “trappers” — the hunting and gathering kind — on a supermodel-clad Siberian steppe. It is the linguistic turn applied to the Atlanta music machine. Opening an entirely new horizon for expression. An attitude might be expressed with just a shift in emphasis, a teasing chiasmus: “Raindrop, drop top” (“Bad and Boujee”). The language of the corporate record label exec slashed with the syntax of the trapper blossoms into the office catchall phrase you never knew you needed but now can’t stop murmuring under your breath: “Hold up, get right witcha (I’ma get right witcha)” (“Get Right Witcha”); “Bitches need to call casting” (“Call Casting”). The flavor of the South, the sauce, the endless capacity for flow, reimagines the bourgeois subject — even makes being one, under this conception, seem badass.
I have always heard him deal with death.
I have always heard the shout, the volley.
I have closed my heart-ears late and early.
[ . . . ]
The red floor of my alley
is a special speech to me.
— Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Boy Died in My Alley”
It’s a lot of violence round here
So a lot of sirens round here
A lot of people dying round here
A lot of people crying round here
— L’A Capone, “Round Here”
The connection between martial drilling, funeral drilling, and recreational drilling finds a haunting but fitting contemporary expression in the so-called drill scene, a more aggressively bleak subgenre of trap that emanates from the post-Cabrini-Green teardown of the housing projects in Chicago. Drill trappers like Montana of 300 refer knowingly to the streets as “the slaughterhouse.” They celebrate the same qualities that Sandburg did when he wrote, “I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again,” and that he found the Windy City’s inhabitants “proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” Only they are not so optimistic or romantic about the implications of living in the maws of lawless, unregulated industrial capitalism. There is nothing uplifting about G Herbo’s view of the season of violence, which is the only season his city knows. In “Red Snow,” a strident song with thundering and throbbing orchestral groans, he denounces the staggering cost of violence in his hometown:
I know I rap a lot ’bout being dead or dead broke
But my city starving, it’s the ’Go, that’s just the way it go
They stealin’, robbin’, living heartless, never hit they target
The summers long and winters harsh cause we got red snow
Red snow, red snow
The summers long and winters harsh cause we got red snow
A track like “Everyday,” by S.dot, is typical: simple and alluring, conflating fraternity and fratricide, a bass line boosted like a massive heartbeat ready to give skinny boys in jeans toting weapons the courage to keep going outside, to step off the relative safety of the porch, to numb oneself to fear, to ready oneself for the repetitive and cyclical encounter with fatality. The hook slams down the facts of life like dominoes connecting an inevitable pattern to a breaking point:
Gangbangin’, chain snatchin’, card crackin’
Closed caskets, trap houses, drug addicts
Chiraq, everyday somethin’ happen
Bodies droppin’, red tape, guns clappin’
The deep patterns of the funeral drill, the bellicose drill, the celebratory drill overlay each other like a sonic cage, a crackling sound like a long steel mesh ensnaring lives, very young lives, that cry out and insist on being heard, insist on telling their story, even as the way they tell it all but ensures the nation’s continued neglect and fundamental contempt for their condition.
Trap is invested in a mode of dirty realism. It is likely the only literature that will capture the structure of feeling of the period in which it was produced, and it is certainly the only American literature of any kind that can truly claim to have a popular following across all races and classes. Points of reference are recyclable but relatable, titillating yet boring, trivial and très chic — much like cable television. Sports, movies, comedy, drugs, Scarface, reality TV, food, trash education, bad housing: the fusion core of endless momentum that radiates out from an efficient capitalist order distributing itself across a crumbling and degraded social fabric, all the while reproducing and even amplifying the underlying class, racial, and sexual tensions that are riven through it.
Riding through the city, windows tinted, AC blast
I got bitches wanna fuck me, so so wrong, do me bad
I got cash in my pants, I got cash on her ass
AP dance, bitches glance, cause my diamonds look like glass
— Young Thug, “With Them”
When young black males labor in the plantation of misogyny and sexism to produce gangsta rap, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy approves the violence and materially rewards them. Far from being an expression of their “manhood,” it is an expression of their own subjugation and humiliation by more powerful, less visible forces of patriarchal gangsterism. They give voice to the brutal, raw anger and rage against women that it is taboo for “civilized” adult men to speak.
— bell hooks, Outlaw Culture
The emo trap of Lil Uzi Vert, his very name threading the needle between the cute, the odd, and the angry, might be thought, given his Green Day–punk styling and soft-suburban patina, to be less invested in the kind of misogynistic baiting so common to trap. But this is not the case. Like the unofficial color-line law that says the main video girl in any rap video must be of a lighter skin tone than the rapper she is fawning over, there is a perverse law by which the more one’s identity is susceptible to accusations of “softness” (i.e., lack of street cred), the more one is inclined to compensate by deliberate hyperbolic assertions of one’s dominance over the other sex. When Lil Uzi says of a woman who has given herself to him —
Suckin’ me up, give me brain now she dumb
Tell her it’s repercussions
Play her just like a drum
Make in a night what you make in a month
(“Erase Your Social”)
— the percussion lands on a cymbal crash aimed at a “you” that is really “us,” the audience, who are invited to voyeuristically watch his performance (wordplay as foreplay), of which the unnamed woman is the desensitized object, but “we” are ultimately the target, the losers in the winner-take-all game of life, the suckers who work for a monthly paycheck who can’t possibly compete with the value the market has bestowed on the speaker.
The quirky particles coming out of the cultural supercollider of trap prove the unregulated freedom of that space: that in spite of its ferocious and often contradictory claims, nothing is settled about its direction or meaning. The hard-nosed but unabashedly queer presence of Young M.A; the celebratory alt-feminist crunk of Princess Nokia; the quirky punkish R&B inflection in DeJ Loaf; the Bronx bombshell of Cardi B: to say that they are just occupying the space formerly dominated by the boys doesn’t quite cut it. They are completely changing the coordinates and creating models no one dared to foresee. The rise of the female trap star is no longer in question; an entire wave of talent is coming up fast and the skew that they will bring to the sexual and gender politics of popular culture will scramble and recode the norms of an earlier era in ways that could prove explosive in the context of increasingly desperate reactionary and progressive battles for hearts and minds.
The boys are not quite what they were before, either. Bobby Shmurda’s path to “Hot Nigga,” before landing him in prison, landed him on the charts in no small part because of his dance, his fearless self-embrace, and his self-love breaking out in full view of his entire crew. People sometimes forget that for the latter half of the Nineties and the early Aughts, dancing for a “real one” was a nonstarter. Now crews from every high school across the country compete to make viral videos of gorgeous dance routines to accompany the release of a new single. The old heads who grumble about “mumble rap” may not care for dancing, but the suppression of it as a marker of authentic masculinity was the worst thing about an otherwise great era for black music. Its restoration is one of the few universally positive values currently being regifted to the culture by trap.
Young Thug enacts a Charlie Parker theory of trap. Virtuosity, drugginess, genius, vulnerability, an impish childishness almost as a compensation for the overabundance of talent, the superfluidity of imagination. A Cocteau from East Atlanta, he teases the beat, skipping off it like a yo-yo, yodeling, crooning, blurting, squawking, purring, working his game on you, finessing, playing ad libs like Curtis Mayfield worked strings, or scatting and growling low like Louis Armstrong if he were sweating it out in a freestyle battle with James Brown, bouncing back and forth between personalities. His polymorphously perverse sexuality is so insistently graphic and deadpan that it has virtually zero erotic charge, au courant pimp talk channeled through a kind of private board game of his own imagination, a Candyland fantasia slimed in promethazine. By contrast, his persona oozes sex. In leather jackets, ultratight jeans and Janet Jackson piercing arrangements, he’s a Mick Jagger–ish rake on the make who is also shy and easily wounded, suddenly open for a hug. A favorite and telling picture posted to Instagram account thuggerthugger1 (5.2 million followers) captures him with his arm around Sir Elton John, posing like a polite politician in photo-op mode (Obama-alt) next to Sir Elton, who is dressed in a gold-trim Adidas tracksuit and a black thugger cap.
If the outlandish persona were all there was to it, he might be written off as a variant to Weezy that went nowhere. But the music really does, somehow, sound like the future, like something that’s never been tried before, a radical experiment. His concern for innovating, like his persistent concern for his kidney health, is a marker of identity, not just a lifestyle. The boundaries he pushes are only partly for our benefit; his chameleon love affair with the frisson of the louche, the lawless elasticity of language, and the plasticity of the self-fashioning body in motion is all of a piece. He insists on being the soloist and chorus all at once; his is an orchestral impulse, a surround sound lyricizing every inch of space on the track. Words aren’t about what they mean, but, in the spirit of Baraka’s “Black Dada Nihilismus,” only how they sound. They are rhetorical and lyrical ammunition, raw material to freak like Jimi, not satisfied until the instrument wails, weirds out, trips over itself with a surplus that is no longer within respectable or even recognizable bounds — hence Thugger’s fundamental queerness in the most capacious sense of that word. Free spirit from day one: “When I was 12, my feet were so small I wore my sisters’ glitter shoes. My dad would whoop me: ‘You’re not going to school now, you’ll embarrass us!’ But I never gave a f — what people think.” The music critic for the Washington Post writes that “if he lived inside a comic book, his speech balloons would be filled with Jackson Pollock splatters,” which is halfway there (why not Basquiat?). Thugger is more exciting than Pollock, who never wore a garment described by Billboard as “geisha couture meets Mortal Kombat’s Raiden” that started a national conversation. Thugger’s work is edgier, riskier, sans white box; if anything it is closer to Warhol in coloration, pop art without the pretension. It is loved, admired, hated, and feared by people who have never and may never set foot in a museum of “modern art.”
He . . . loved that he could look out of his window and see an open horizon over the water, where the waves from the Gulf quietly lapped the shore, where the oak trees in the median stood witness over centuries to wars, to men enslaving one another, to hurricanes, to Joshua riding along the Coast, blasting some rap, heavy bass, ignorant beats, lyrical poetry to the sky, to the antebellum mansions our mother cleaned whose beauty we admired and hated.
— Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped
The opposition to seeing the next man get ahead, the zero-sum game, crabs in a bucket, colors, gang gang, the division of self against other, the envy that breeds envy, Girard’s triangle of mimetic desire, the division of self against self. Everyone has the wants that they want, and so everyone universally has opposition. Generic, unspecified in name, number, location, or time. A condition of belonging. Opposites attack. Those who you don’t fuck with. Who don’t fuck with you. The opposition. Opps.
I grew up in the projects which is one room
So I had to sleep on the floor in the front room
Me and my cousins on the block tryna thug
Nigga you a school boy, nigga we was sellin’ drugs
I grew up in Jonesboro, it was straight wildin’
I hung out with the older cats, so it was straight violence
And the niggas I looked up to was hustlin’ or robbin’
So I hopped up off the porch too and started gettin’ it popping
— Lil Snupe, “Rap Battle”
Came up with jack shit up out that wishing well
Left with this black skin and a digital scale
I pray I be okay when I grow up a little bigger
If I don’t, tell my babies daddy was a real nigga
— Chinx, “Die Young”
DJ SMALLZ EYE
Now, why is there always beef, especially amongst rappers — and this has been going on for years and years and years, from what I can see — it’s always beef amongst rappers, and I’ve been to Baton Rouge before, it’s a very small town — city — whatever you want to say, but it just seems always like a lot of animosity, a lot of hate between different artists — not all the artists hate each other, but there just always seems to be something in the air, right? Why is that?
DA REAL GEE MONEY
See, that goes exactly back to what I was saying, like — don’t nobody want to see the next man ahead of him, so like . . . it really be hate for no reason. Like, if you just get to doing your thing, like if you just get to moving forward, it’s going to be uninterested in beef coming from anywhere, because this man might be rapping and you then passed him up, so now he got all this kind of animosity built up . . . Just be real on something like that . . . 99 percent of the beef . . . don’t have no real, real street meaning behind it. It be like, something, you know, something like that.
DJ SMALLZ EYES
So it’s competitive?
DA REAL GEE MONEY
Basically, it’s like, it’s like basically competitive.
DJ SMALLZ EYES
Now, let me ask you this. Can this be stopped? Can this be fixed? Do you see this ever changing? Like, from what I’ve known of Baton Rouge, it’s always seemed to be some sort of beef.
DA REAL GEE MONEY
Right . I always, I used to feel like, me personally, I always used to feel like maybe one day . . . they’ll just stop and maybe we can all get money together, you know. But like, the way it’s going? Like, the way it’s been going for years? It looks like it ain’t going to change, you know. I don’t know. Me, I just stay in my own lane, though.
(Da Real Gee Money, YouTube interview with DJ Smallz Eyes, April 9, 2017)
RIP to Eddie B wish I could bring you back
Swear I smoke a thousand Black and Milds to bring you back
My nigga used to smoke them bitches like they cigarettes
My trap buddy every morning first ones on the trap
We used to fuss about who get to hit the first pack
Do any thing to bring ya nappy head ass back
— Lor Scoota, “Perks Callin Freestyle”
They killed my lil nigga Snupe
My lil nigga was the truth
And all he wanted was a coupe
All he wanted was a coupe
— Meek Mill, “Lil Nigga Snupe”
I love my niggas unconditionally
I just wish that they was present with me physically
— Mozzy, “I Love My Niggas”
Black-boy blues articulated pitch-perfect
If nothing else your words make the whole world worth it
— Joshua Bennett, “16 Bars for Kendrick Lamar”
What if this music, Future’s DS2, the Drake/Future What a Time to Be Alive, Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06, Kanye West’s Life of Pablo, the numerous individual points that are sounds and words that emerge from laptops, artists who live within this surround, the formation that is trap music. . . . Let’s call it “possibility” — let’s call it now, cracked time of where we are and where we are going now. We don’t have the words for how broken. And yet we are warned.
— Simone White, Dear Angel of Death
The problem of the overdetermination of blackness by way of its representation in music — its tar baby–like way of standing in for (and being asked to stand in for) any number of roles that seem incongruous and disingenuous to impose upon it — is the central concern of Dear Angel of Death, by the poet Simone White. Her target is the dominantly male tradition in black literary criticism and its reliance on a mode of self-authorization that passes through a cultivated insider’s knowledge of “the Music,” which is generically meant to encompass all forms of black musical expression, but in practice almost always refers to a canonical set of figures in jazz. It’s clear that she’s right, also clear that it’s a case of emperors with no clothes. It may have been obvious, but no one had the courage to say so. Take these notes on trap, for example: they neatly confirm her thesis, and fare no better under her sharp dissection. Though she could easily not have, White makes her point in a spirit of care and generosity. “We must agree to think about the work we have asked the Music to do,” she writes, “whether it is still able to do that work, and how that work might be done elsewhere.”
What would that elsewhere be? I ask seriously, even as I agree with the urgency of alternatives. Could black intellectuals abandon wholesale our favored set of metaphors, drop our reflexive turns to improvisation, to discursive riffs meant to signify a kind of mimetic relationship to the sound? Could we begin our conversation over again, at a tabula rasa of black creative freedom, and, importantly, one that would avoid the circle jerk that Simone White correctly implies? Surely the answer is yes, especially in terms of who is talking to whom and about what. And yet part of me thinks the answer is also partly no — or at least not without what I would think is an irresponsible and even decadent relationship to the very cultural forces that have guided black thinking, feeling, and interest, much of it informally political to be sure, but a form of talking about all things, including formal politics nonetheless. Who, after all, should be in a place to characterize and define the daily grind of contemporary life under the post-Reagan US internet tech empire to which we have set the musical tone? Would we consign that sprawling undertaking to the ash heap, would we accept the view that the white bourgeoisie holds of it? That it is cheap, trashy music, useful for frat parties and little else, the usual jitterbugging of “the blacks” who can’t help themselves, the great sly replacement of minstrelsy by an even better show, to which the only prohibition, and this not even necessarily followed, is that one mouth along all the lyrics except for that one — passed over in thrilling hum?
Let’s be clear: White’s larger point stands. Looking to trap music to prepare the groundwork for revolution or any emancipatory project is delusional and, moreover, deaf. If we start from the premise that trap is not any of these things, is quite emphatically (pace J. Cole) the final nail in the coffin of the whole project of “conscious” rap, then the question becomes what is it for, what will it make possible. Not necessarily for good or ill, but in the sense of illumination: What does it allow us to see, or to describe, that we haven’t yet made transparent to our own sense of the coming world? For whatever the case may be, the future shape of mass culture will look and feel more like trap than like anything else we can currently point to. In this sense, White is showing us the way forward. By insisting that we abandon any bullshit promise or pseudopolitics, the project of a force that is seeping into the fabric of our mental and social lives will become more precise, more potent as a sensibility for us to try and communicate to ourselves and to others.
Trap is what Giorgio Agamben calls, in The Use of Bodies, “a form-of-life.” As it’s lived, the form-of-life is first and foremost a psychology, a worldview (viz. Fanon) framed by the inscription of the body in space. Where you come from. It never ceases to amaze how relentlessly black artists — completely unlike white artists, who never seem to come from anywhere in their music — assert with extraordinary specificity where they’re from, where they rep, often down to city, zip code, usually neighborhood, sometimes to the block. Boundedness produces genealogy, the authority of a defined experience. But this experience turns out to be ontology. All these blocks, all these hoods, from Oakland to Brooklyn, from Compton to Broward County, are effectively the same: they are the hood, the gutter, the mud, the trap, the slaughterhouse, the underbucket. Trappers, like rappers before them, give coordinates that tell you where they’re coming from in both senses. I’m from this hood, but all hoods are the hood, and so I speak for all, I speak of ontology — a form-of-life.
The peculiar condition of being ceaselessly co-opted for another’s profit could arguably point to an impasse, to despair. But here’s the counter: the force of our vernacular culture formed under slavery is the connection born principally in music, but also in the Word, in all of its manifold uses, that believes in its own power. That self-authorizes and liberates from within. This excessive and exceptional relation is misunderstood, often intentionally. Black culture isn’t “magic” because of some deistic proximity of black people to the universe. Slavers had their cargo dance on deck to keep them limber for the auction block. The magic was born out of a unique historical and material experience in world history, one that no other group of people underwent and survived for so long and in such intimate proximity to the main engines of modernity.
One result of this is that black Americans believe in the power of music, a music without and before instruments, let alone opera houses, music that lives in the kinship of voice with voice, the holler that will raise the dead, the power of the Word, in a way that many other people by and large no longer do — or only when it is confined to the strictly religious realm. Classical European music retained its greatness as long as it retained its connection to the sacred. Now that it’s gone, all that’s left is glassy prettiness; a Bach isn’t possible.
Meanwhile, in the low life of blackness, there is a running fire that even in the midst of its co-optation exceeds the capacity of the system to soak it up. Mozzy is not a tragedian for the ages, but he is closer to the spirit of tragedy, as Sophocles understood it, than David Mamet.
The people who make music out of this form-of-life are the last ones in America to care for tragic art. Next to the black American underclass, the vast majority of contemporary art carries on as sentimental drivel, middlebrow fantasy television, investment baubles for plutocrats, a game of drones.
Coda: What is the ultimate trap statement?
Gucci Mane: “I’m a trappa slash rappa but a full-time G.”