Who Killed It: Don't "Sleep" On Black Thought

Touré breaks down one of Black Thought's verses from The Roots' Undun album.

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Image via Complex Original
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The dumbest canard in hip-hop is that Black Thought is underrated. He most certainly is not: hip-hop heads know he is one of the very best MCs alive, a technician with a mastery of flows, diction, breath control and every other aspect of MCing as well as the possessor of a wonderfully textured, beautiful-sounding deep voice.

I have never heard anyone who knows hip-hop say Black Thought is not one of the greatest, most intelligent, most complex MCs of his era. So where are all these people underrating Black Thought? Well, sure the average mainstream hip-hop fan—those who like hip-hop as opposed to those who live for it—may not pay much mind to Thought’s work because he’s too complex for them or because he’s not consumed with image and marketing and limelight or because he doesn’t wear his ego on his sleeve and demand all eyes on him or some other lame reason.

Average mainstream hip-hop fans may not pay much mind to Thought's work because he's too complex for them or because he's not consumed with image and marketing and limelight or some other lame reason.

Fine. But since when did people who don’t know hip-hop get to define hip-hop? They don’t.

Never again say or agree that Black Thought is underrated because those who know and love hip-hop are unanimous in their belief that Thought is a super-elite MC. If you don’t think so, you should turn in your hip-hop card and exit the building.

The Roots’ latest release, Undun, continues Thought’s incredible career with a concept album about the life and death of a street hustler. “Sleep” is the album’s first song and the one that paints the portrait of the moment the character dies.

Written by Touré (@Toure)

“To catch a thief /Who stole the soul I prayed to keep?”

To Catch A Thief is a legendary Alfred Hitchcock film from 1955, so the line will spark some distant memory in many minds. But Thought is setting us up for the story told by the song: the final moments of the 25-year-old hustler Redford Stephens—or the capture of his life/soul.

The line can be read two ways—is it Thought saying “We’re about to tell the story of the capture of a criminal” or is it Redford saying someone stole his soul and he needs to catch that thief? I think it works both ways—the first line signals the capture of Redford, the second shows him wondering where it all went wrong and why.

He doesn’t know who or why because he doesn’t know everything there is to know about the institutional systems and the street-world traps that dragged him down, that could drag any working-class brother down. But he knows that his failure in life isn’t completely his fault.

Redford knows that his failure in life isn't completely his fault.

When I was a kid my grandmother would have us say the Lord’s Prayer before going to bed. I wonder if Redford had to do that, too. In any event the way Thought flips the line has Redford wondering who stole his soul.

Once he was pure and innocent but somewhere along the line he was ruined. He’s surely to blame, at least in part, but there are so many lives like his that never really had a chance. He knows that some force bigger than him guided him to this corner in which he’s now trapped.

Also note that throughout this whole verse Thought relies on one rhyming sound—that “eee” sound of thief, keep, sleep, deceit, eventually, incidentally, memory—except for one couplet where he switches to rhyme “awake” and “stake.”

“Insomniac, bad dreams got me losin’ sleep/I’m dead tired/ My mind playing tricks/Deceit.”

We just learned that he’s lost his soul and we know he’s about to lose his body, but here we see he’s losing his mind. Redford is crumbling, piece by piece.

“A face in the glass/Unable to admit defeat.”

He’s lost all connection with himself—he’s just a face in the mirror, disconnected from his own image. What a portrait of disintegration. Redford is a man who’s losing every part of himself, who can’t relate to himself, who can’t deal with the truth that he’s been defeated by life, that he’s 25 years old and close to death with no grip on his soul or his mind.

This is a very sad song. Can’t even call it a blues because the blues usually has some note of hope somewhere within it. This is a man who’s lost and fading away right before our eyes. Physical death is a foregone conclusion it seems—there’s no hope within him—and now he’s like the walking dead.

Redford's already been shot and is telling this story while lying helplessly on the ground, bleeding out as the Grim Reaper hovers over him, looking impatiently at his watch.

“All that I am, all that I was, is history/The past unraveled adding insult to this injury/I’m fighting the battle for the soul of the century /Destiny is everything that I pretend to be/Look, and what I did came back to me eventually.”

The mention of history and injury signals that Redford’s already been shot and is telling this story while lying helplessly on the ground, bleeding out as the Grim Reaper hovers over him, looking impatiently at his watch. Redford’s seeing his life unravel before his eyes and he doesn’t like what he sees—it’s an insult, it wasn’t lived properly, it was a waste.

He’s fighting to save his soul, but the way he lived his life has already damned him—the last line speaks of the massive karmic debt he racked up coming back to sink him. “Destiny is everything I pretend to be” is a crucial line, especially the word “pretend,” which says he acted as if he had a future but knew he didn’t. Tragic.

“The music played on and told me I was meant to be awake/It’s unresolved like everything I had at stake/Illegal activity controls my Black symphony/Orchestrated like it happened incidentally.”

I love the way Thought plays with the idea of music as a way of looking at a life throughout these lines. The music that told Redford what his life was supposed to be is unresolved—it doesn’t finish, just as the story that is his life completes with nothing but loose ends.

The next two lines may be the best in the whole song—criminality controls the life that is his symphony, and that symphony is orchestrated, conducted, and made to look as if that criminality happens by accident.

“Oh… there I go. From a man to memory.”

This is the moment he passes from life. No longer a man, he becomes just a thought in other people’s minds. Deep. And deep that the song finishes speaking from the perspective of someone who’s in the grave—we see that occasionally in art, but rarely in hip-hop where it can be used so meaningfully.

Redford is unique and yet also an everyman. There are so many Black men—and some women, too—for whom this could be their story. Many of us are captured before we begin, stuck at birth on a conveyor belt to a place at the bottom of the system, doing the grunt work and getting little pay. Unless you refuse all that and turn to crime—which puts you on a separate conveyor belt headed directly toward jail or death.

"Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me."

Maybe his parents (if they’re still in the picture) and siblings (if he has any) and his crew will think of him in the future. Maybe they’ll all want to forget him. Maybe he’ll get a mural on a wall somewhere in his hood. Maybe not.

Also check out Black Thought on Complex TV's Combat Jack Show Ep. 1 below. 

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