Sheck Wes Has His Foot on the World's Neck
Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Roc Nation
“There’s only one artist in the world who is unparalleled. Who can deal with the time that we’re in right now, who sees what needs to be seen,” a voice says, lurking with the slow pan of a refrigerator adorned with colorful alphabet letters. “It’s a dystopian time and the world needs a dystopian artist. The world is in a dark place right now. We need a dark artist to bring the light back out.” A young man in an oversized orange winter jacket crouches to open the refrigerator door embellished with multicolored magnets spelling “Live Sheck Wes Die.” “Sheck Wes is that artist,” the voice affirms.
That’s the introduction to the video for Harlem-born rapper Sheck Wes’s second single, “Live Sheck Wes.” A bit hyperbolic and premature? Sure. But now, the 20-year-old is using his debut album, MUDBOY, as a launching pad from a life of scarcity to one of abundance. The rapper is a fireball of both energy and rage who, like many, has been forced to find the joy in what was designated as an undesirable and frightening lifestyle. MUDBOY is what happens when you recognize the difference between fertilizer and shit is a matter of perspective.
In the slow burner of his breakthrough single about his childhood friend-turned-NBA draft pick, “Mo Bamba,” Wes revealed his superpower instantly: he could say “BITCH!” cooler than anyone else. His ad-libs across the summer smash were an array of “ching ching’s” and “ping ping’s,” but the fervor of his “BITCH!” was unmatched. Sheck reveals why the word is his default on “Gmail,” a menacing song mimicking a menacing song with synths that sound like the spacy stuff Tangerine Dream was using in their 70s film work. “Why I say bitch so much? Let me explain,” he raps. “It’s the only word where I can feel and hear my anger. It don’t got nothing to do with bitches. It’s just—BITCH! BITCH!”
In the past year, Sheck’s intensity bubbled over with “Mo Bamba,” “Live Sheck Wes,” and “Chippi Chippi,” the latest single about the fictitious jargon created by his friends about feeling so mad or anxious that you need a smoke break. Buried in his boisterous pleas to escape anxiety and dizzying screams of “BITCH!,” there’s an undertone of sadness in the rapper’s music. Sheck Wes packs “bitch” 216 times on the album’s 49-minute runtime. Whether it’s his observations about the lack of access to books or the racial profiling from the police force, Sheck has got a lot to be angry about.
“They just want the turnt shit / They don't like the sad music / Sheck Wes been in a sad state,” he raps on “WESPN.” “You ain't never had to do shit, huh? / You ain't never had to go through shit.” On MUDBOY, Wes recounts his adolescence—the moment where young inner city kids are confronted with the realities of their environment and grappling what that means for their survival. On “Wanted,” he recalls the subway shenanigans from 14th street to 116th that left a few of his friends incarcerated. “Where we from, they don't give, so we don't got shit / They leave us young niggas with no options / They leave us young niggas with the robbin' / But I was Robin Hood, when I was robbin',” he raps.
For Sheck, a first-generation American born to immigrant parents from Senegal, he’s made decisions his parents didn’t always understand. His mother sent him to Touba, where she grew up, and stripped him of his passport unable to return to Harlem without the approval of a religious leader. The story of his 100 days abroad is told on “Jiggy on the Shits,” the most introspective track we’ve received from Sheck Wes so far. He transports the listener to his 17-year-old self, where he even spits a verse in Wolof, a language of Senegal. By the tail-end of MUDBOY, there’s an overpowering nonchalance found on tracks like “Fuck Everybody” and “Danimals.” Both hooks are a middle finger to the roadblocks, both systemic and tangible, he’s still trying to overcome.
James Baldwin once famously said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a constant stage of rage every time.” At this point, quoting someone like Baldwin might read as cliche, but Sheck Wes seems to understand this mentality in a way that feels different than most in this new generation of rappers. There’s something to be said about growing up in New York City, and dealing with the misconception that because it’s a big city, there’s tons of access to everything—when in reality, most people, generationally, never leave their block—let alone their borough. To grow up in this “city of opportunity”—where people are living grand, lavish lives at the opposite end of your trainline—is a major disconnect. For many, this “dystopia” has existed long before a man named Donald Trump sat in the Oval Office.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.