So, here’s a question for the Recording Academy: On what version of the planet Earth did Travis Scott not deserve any Grammys for “Sicko Mode?” I’m open to arguments for why it couldn’t win Record or Song Of The Year, but all must begin with the assumption that whatever creative circumstances would lead to that conclusion take place on an alternate earth.
The winner of the 2019 Grammy Awards for Record and Song Of The Year turned out to be Childish Gambino for his song “This Is America.” This is a fine, serviceable pick. The song had its moment — and what a moment it was. The rap internet overflowed with effusive praise and breathless analysis for days after the song’s release. Parodies and remakes cropped up to capitalize on the moment and many ended being criticized and think-pieced right off the web — rightfully so, in some cases.
So, no, this isn’t just sour grapes or a takedown of the massively celebrated, possibly overhyped Childish Gambino song. An argument can be made that the song deserved the history-making awards — the problem is, it was still the wrong choice. Yes, it was impactful, but its impact overshadowed the fact that the song itself flamed out just as quickly as it blew up, while the reverberations from “Sicko Mode” are still being felt 27 weeks out from its own detonation. “This Is America” was a moment, “Sicko Mode” is a movement. Travis Scott was robbed and there are two main reasons why.
The first reason requires we point out the big ol’ elephant in the room. While the truth could likely only be whispered in the DMs of the internet rap intelligencia, it’s plain and simple: All the hype surrounding “This Is America” actually circled its brainy, surreal video, not the song itself. The video was like a puzzle that needed solving; it had all the look of a capital-I Important work of art, an allegory that really stood for a deeper meaning. Critics and pundits had a ball unraveling its esoteric symbolism, from the South African dance moves to its passing references to Abu Ghraib and Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was artsy and confusing, so it begged for dissection rather than consumption and those of us who dissect art for a living saw it as the Wakanda vibranium mound of content and dug in greedily.
But the song, “This Is America?” Some rumbly faux trap, a homey homage to slave folk music, and some Dr. Seuss-ish gestures toward conscious rap do not exactly make it one of the deepest songs rap has ever produced. “Police be trippin’ now” is hardly Mos Def’s “Mr. N—a” in hindsight, is it? Even Kanye delivered stronger political commentary previous to his MAGA hat days, remarking that “the system’s broken / the schools closed, the prisons open” on his widely acknowledged masterwork My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. “Power,” the song that gave us the above lyrics, had not only a moment of similar caliber to “This Is America,” it was a huge banger, with an absolutely bananas King Crimson sample no one could have expected that still has it blasting out of sports arena PAs and seemingly every new movie trailer nearly a decade later.
The second reason Travis Scott was robbed is simply this: “Sicko Mode” is a 100 megaton bomb that absolutely destroys every venue it gets played in — and it’s one of those songs that will get played, no matter who you came to see. Aside from the retroactively problematic “Mo Bamba,” it’s the most ubiquitous rap banger currently in circulation. Rappers with no relation to either Travis Scott or “Sicko Mode” guest feature Drake play it in the middle of their sets, to cacophonous responses. ASAP Rocky played it at his Forum stop on his Injured Generation tour and the audience went apoplectic.
When Drake actually came out to perform his verse, pandemonium broke out. When Childish Gambino played “This Is America” at his own show, it got the sort of polite cheer normally reserved for bougie sports like tennis and golf. “3005,” “Bonfire,” and “Sober” all got way bigger responses. Just by way of direct comparison, both rappers played their respective hits on SNL… Travis Scott played his on Ellen. There’s levels to this.
Travis Scott performed “Sicko Mode” at the Super Bowl; all the politics and potential boycotts aside, that’s incredibly impressive. Travis Scott came to Donald Glover’s city and performed his own breakout hit with an intro inspired by a wildly viral meme featuring Spongebob Squarepants. The most notable meme generated by “This Is America” was “This Is America: Women’s Edit.” It and its creator were practically laughed off the internet for their tone deafness. Spongebob’s creative team thought so highly of the mashup “Sweet Victory/Sicko Mode” meme they made it part of the Super Bowl during a medley of songs that had nothing to do with Travis Scott.
If nothing else, the numbers tell the tale: “This Is America,” for all the hullabaloo caused by its wake, peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, hung around for 17 weeks, and dropped off without a batted eye. “Sicko Mode” has remained somewhere in the chart’s top 10 since August and is currently chilling squarely at No. 5 at the time of writing. The song does more than fiddle with trap tropes and sleepy woke metaphors. It’s a joint you feel in your body more than you think about, and sorry if this is old-fashioned, but I always believed just as art should make you think, it should also make you feel something first and foremost.
But if you want to take it apart and see what makes it tick, you will see loving homage to Travis’ hometown via its chopped and screwed Big Hawk sample, quirky, quotable one-liners from the song’s guest, from the responsible, as-directed-by-your-physician prescription drug usage to its subtle nod to gender equality (“Wet like I’m Lizzie” being a reference to sharpshooting WNBA baller Elizabeth Cambage). And then there’s that whiplash beat switch, like walking out of an impending natural disaster and finding yourself three steps deep in an active minefield in the middle of a firefight. Then there’s another one, out of nowhere, a rhythmic lightning strike on the battlefield. Oh and the video is pretty is cool looking too, if a little less obviously didactic.
By any stretch of the imagination, “Sicko Mode” is a better song, a more popular song, a more interesting song, and a more successful song than “This Is America.” None of that makes “This Is America” a bad song, but it does demonstrate that the competition between the two for Record and Song Of The Year shouldn’t have been one. If 2019 is the first year a rap song wins either of those awards, let alone both, “Sicko Mode” is the better representative of where rap is now and where rap is going.
It’s the song of the two that best exemplifies what rap has always been; an abrasive, raspy primal scream, a punk rebellion against convention and tradition, a living testament to being young, Black, and angry in America — and finding a way to seek joy out anyway. “This Is America” may paint a portrait of a nation at war with itself, but “Sicko Mode” is the sound of the boots on the ground.