Sammus: The Voice of Anxious Smart Girls Everywhere
When I saw indie female rapper Sammus live, one thing immediately became clear: she is tireless. At the end of her set, I felt exhausted, elated and overwhelmed by the density of puns, references, and undisguised emotion. Onstage, she switched in seconds between making clever puns, bragging about having a PhD, and talking soberly about her mental illness, making me feel like I’d just read through her entire social media history.
The format even resembles an essay; each song builds to a thesis statement which Sammus defends with copious examples.
Sammus’ albums are not as intense an experience as her live show, but it still feels like Sammus’ path to fame is simply to out-charm, out-smart, out-feel and out-work the rest of the world. Listening to her album “Pieces in Space” reminded me of reading a compilation of best college personal essays – many songs feel like attempts to explain, define and justify Sammus to the world in 500 words or fewer. The format even resembles an essay; each song builds to a thesis statement which Sammus defends with copious examples.
Sometimes Sammus provides a few too many examples, “Childhood” is a feel-good anthem for people of our generation, who grew up associating warm childhood memories with specific shows, books and games. Too often, though, the song feels like a list of references that act as a shorthand for nostalgia, think Ready Player One: the song. There’s nothing wrong with writing a song that brings listeners back to a specific cultural moment – we’ve had plenty of those, from the film Mid90s to the TV show Stranger Things. But transporting listeners back to childhood requires not just listing the books, shows and games kids played with, but describing how kids thought about, identified with, and built meaning around that media. The details Sammus drops about her family playing games together – which radiate warmth – communicate infinitely more about her childhood than the long list of brands she interacted with. While the lyrics don’t always hit home, Sammus’ production on the track (and, for that matter all of the tracks) shines, the old school, catchy beat flowing seamlessly into a well-placed sample.
Sammus’ emotions translate better when she pulls poignant moments from her own unique experiences, instead of trying to speak for a generation. In “Perfect Dark,” Sammus discusses the effects of not seeing black girls like her portrayed in the media. The description of seven-year-old Sammus picking up a pen and unthinkingly drawing pictures of white superheroes says more about how a lack of black role models affects children than the long list of white shows and characters that she spiels off in the first verse. “Comments Disabled” leads the listener through Sammus’ moment-to-moment thought process as she reacts to a hostile, troll-ish social media comment. The way Sammus reasons her way through the situation – in turns curious about the commenter’s motivations, sad about the rage and hate implicit in the comment, and determined to focus on caring for herself – displays Sammus’ personality more clearly than any big statement of identity. My favorite lines of the song come when Sammus disguises her discomfort and sadness with witticisms like, “I think you should invest in a best friend/who won’t let you press send.” It’s details like this that make Sammus’ raps come alive.
Both the flaws and strengths of the album feel like outgrowths of Sammus’ personality: a hyper-intellectual, observant overachiever who’s insecure and concerned about proving her worth. When I listen to “Pieces in Space,” I feel the need to reach through the screen to comfort Sammus, just as she so often tries to connect with her listeners. Although I have mixed feelings about her lyrics, I come away from the music feeling empathetic towards someone who’s so obviously putting all of herself into her music.
My suspicion about Sammus’ personality is confirmed on the song “Qualified,” an open, straightforward, and in-depth account of her struggles with Imposter Syndrome, and one of the best songs on the record. Here, we finally see Sammus confront her own insecurities, instead of issues in the larger world. Many of the young rapper's traits remind me of the youngest generation of plugged-in liberals: opinionated and creative, but also deeply insecure and stressed. I’ve heard several younger liberals (many who are female POC) express an attitude which might seem selfish at first glance: that you can’t explain yourself and your ideas to every well-intentioned person who engages you in conversation. That it’s completely understandable, and not rude, to refuse to justify yourself to others. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of this, but Sammus’ raps made me understand: how can you have the energy to justify yourself to other people, when it takes so much to justify you to yourself?
Illustrator: Seb Westcott