Saba & Joseph Chilliams' Pivot Gang is a Restructuring of the Rap Syndicate
Evan Dale // April 22, 2019
The term supergroupis polarizing. People have a tendency to conjure images of teams that sacrifice pay and ethics for wins. But in no way sacrificing victory of any kind, Saba and Joseph Chilliams’ Pivot Gang is a very different story. Much more on par with Black Star than the Golden State Warriors, the Chicago supergroup is a powerhouse collective of everything the city and its friends are doing right in hip-hop music: low-fidelity production, meaningful lyricism, experimental deliveries, and stylistic transcendence. Drawing into the fold an absurd list of collaborators – MfnMelo, Frsh Waters, Kari Faux, Smino, Dinnerwithjohn, Mick Jenkins, Jean Deaux, Femdot, Sylvan LaCue, and Benjamin Earl Turner – Pivot Gang emerges as the most dominant and experimental collective to come together over such a short period of time in hip-hop history. Though more or less the entire list of featuring artists have solid solo careers, have collaborated before, and have built lasting friendships that go deeper than music, Pivot Gang’s first single release in half-a-decade, Blood, came only late last year. Now, just a few months and a trio of singles later, their debut album, You Can’t Sit With Us, is the latest music project that proves meaningful hip-hop is centered around the Chicago skyline.
Amidst a wave of modern Chicago artists – many of whom are included in the project – keeping the tradition of conscious hip-hop alive and thriving, You Can’t Sit With Us is in no way an unexpected step. But it’s still a very unexpected project altogether. Its direction is inescapably dark, certainly owing its tint to the creative brothers at the helm who throughout their lives working with one another, have developed very different but very complimentary sounds. Both Saba and Joseph Chilliams are unrealistically creative lyrical masters fond of taking risks with their music to push forward their experimental movements. But Saba, with the release of 2018’s CARE FOR ME, has shown himself a more digestible source of dark, lyrically-endowed rap, while Chilliams is fond of developing humorous projects like last year’s Mean Girl’s conceptual experiment The Plastics. Both share an equal influence over You Can’t Sit With Us, which is at a titular level another reference to Chilliams’ favorite film.
Truthfully, the project is more an exhibition of what Chilliams is capable of than it is for Saba. In no sleight towards the latter because we’ve always known what Saba has been able to do with a pen, it’s enticing to hear Chilliams flexing a similar skillset, effortlessly going bar for bar with every other lyricist on the project. And that’s saying a lot.
Mick Jenkins tears apart No Vest in the kind of form we expect from him. Smino delivers his signature, one-of-a-kind approach and unpredictable cadence to Bad Boys. Jean Deaux summons a dark and fast-paced verse on the topically hilarious Edward Scissorhands. Sylvan LaCue continues his under-the-radar conscious run on Carnival. And that’s the bar set and met by every other verse on the album. Not a singular bar gets wasted. You Can’t Sit With Us is an exhibition of lyricism and cadence not only unmatched in the modern scene, but rare throughout hip-hop’s illustrious and celebrated lyrical past.
But it’s not to say the project is in some way not the work of the modern sound. Lo-Fi production ties it into the dark and lyrical movements of modern Chicago. Joseph Chilliams dots every verse with his signature sense of humor (just listen to the opening set on Clark Kent), and each individual artist, though working within the boundaries of the group’s greater sound, brings their own experimental deliveries to the forefront. It’s a brash display of rare creativity from a group even larger than the sum of their already massive parts. And it’s raw, uncut modern hip-hop at its finest.
Much of it feels like a casual, smoky freestyle session in the den if you and all your friends were volatilely talented poets. And that’s likely how this project came together in actuality. Above anything else, Pivot Gang is proof that the best collaborative performances come from a lot of practice and genuine friendships. If they all find more time to take out of their solo careers and collaborating with one another on that front, be on the lookout for them to do some seriously innovative and powerful things that lead them down a path akin to that of a a new-wave, conscious, Chicago-centered Wu-Tang.
Long live John Walt.