Over the last twenty years rap has become increasingly self-referential. It’s a trend that reaches its peak on Pivot Gang’s debut album, You Can’t Sit With Us. Soundtracked by lo-fi boom-bap and buttressed by wordy rhyme schemes and abstract song concepts, the Chicago crew’s group debut plays out like a rap reference scavenger hunt, an extra long cipher session in which the members try to impress each other — and the listener — with unexpected pop culture callbacks and off-the-cuff double entendres.
There’s a lightweight, easy joy to the thirteen-song project that evokes the kickback vibe that must take place in the studio whenever the group records together. The overarching themes, if there are any in this avant-garde punchline rap extravaganza, are those of brotherhood, of sticking by your team through thick and thin. It’s a philosophy that the group lives by.
In fact, the original core of the group actually consists of two brothers, Saba and Joseph Chilliams, as well as their cousin John Walt and high school friend MFn Melo. The remainder of the roster — daedaePIVOT, Daoud, Frsh Waters, and SqueakPIVOT — is made up of other close friends and collaborators with whom the group has worked for years. With the loss of John Walt, who was killed in a stabbing in Chicago in 2017, the group could have fractured, but instead was galvanized by the tragedy, a point Saba takes care to make on “Studio Ground Rules”: “Since Walt was sended up, that could’ve just ended us / Instead, we protected, now it’s multi-dimensional.”
Walt’s presence is felt throughout the project, but doesn’t hang as heavily on the proceedings as on Saba’s own solo project Care For Me in 2018. On that album, Saba carefully unpacked his emotions about the loss and the larger trauma inflicted on him by his upbringing on Chicago’s west side. Here, he sounds looser, less burdened, and the raps are less complicated by the implications of the violence he and his group grew up around.
Instead, there’s a playfulness to the rhymes that comes from the ease the various collaborators have with one another. They’re more abstract than cerebral, touching on elements of hip-hop past and present (“Back again, Fabo, D4L, ayy, what’s happenin’?” from “Bad Boys”), ‘90s movies and sitcoms (references to The Steve Harvey Show and Star Wars peppered throughout verses), and juvenile sexual exploits. The whole thing could be one long freestyle session because aside from “Studio Ground Rules,” “Mathematics,” and “Bible,” very few of the tracks hang on anything like a structured concept. The production is the most consistent aspect of the album and helps keep the rappers from getting too far into the weeds.
The beats employed throughout are largely provided by daedaePIVOT, the group’s go-to producer, and make extensive use of jazz and classical samples over snaky snares and sparse kicks. They balance on the narrow ledge between “beats to study to” channels on Youtube and the woozy trap production of Atlanta hitmakers like Wheezy and Turbo, which helps keep the Pivot rappers from edging too far into self-indulgent backpack rap — or at the very least, keeping it from sounding like it, even if it occasionally is.
Of course, no cipher is complete without inviting in new voices every so often, and despite its title, You Can’t Sit With Us is absolutely excellent at highlighting Pivot Gang’s illustrious list of friends. Jean Deux and Kari Faux both deliver standout verses on “Mortal Kombat” and “Edward Scissorhands,” respectively, while Smino makes the most of his “Bad Boys” hook and Mick Jenkins drops one of the most crushing bars on the tape on “No Vest”: “N—-s say they Curry, n—-s say they Ron Artest / N—-s really shoot like Dion Waiters, it’s a mess.”
Punchlines fly fast and furious throughout the album’s runtime, but its lack of conceptual focus does make it feel as ephemeral as the sort of freestyle party it intentionally mimics. The high from the bars spit during a living room cipher only lasts as long as the house party does. When it’s all over, nothing really sticks in the backs of heads, haunts listeners, or has a profound impact on them for days, weeks, or months after. The “Hey, I know that reference!” lightbulb that goes on really only goes on the first time, and it’s diminishing returns after that.
Fortunately, there are enough of them that the astute listener can catch a new one each time, which lends You Can’t Sit With Us a little more replay value. It’s lightweight breeziness does make it perfect house party music, especially since a more lively atmosphere can help cover up some of the albums overly goofy moments, like the ill-considered hook on “Edward Scissorhands.” Nothing here is particularly deep, but nothing has to be. Pivot Gang let us know their mission statement right up front: You can’t sit with us. This is for them, for their brotherhood, for their shared entertainment. If you can’t get with that, there’s plenty of room at another table.
You Can’t Sit With Us is out now. Get it here.