From out of the depths of Chi-Town's fruitful underground, Pivot Gang have staked their claim for domination on the incredible "You Can't Sit With Us."
Within the genre’s circles, the term “slept on” is banded about to an extent that verges on overuse. Employed time and time again as a means to justify an artist’s critical or commercial shortcomings, its ubiquity in cultural dialogue also means that it can be utterly meaningless. Yet rather than portray themselves as victims of the industry politics or consumers’ short attention spans, the Chicagoan collective known as Pivot Gang have made themselves undeniable with You Can’t Sit With Us. A full six years on from their first project, the West-Side based collective that encompasses Saba, Joseph Chilliams, MFnMelo, Frsh Waters, production virtuosos Daoud, SqueakPIVOT, DaedaePivot and others have shaken off any youthful haphazardness or inexperience and are operating at the peak of their powers. Comprised of 13 songs that exceed all conservative expectations, the group’s first major release harnesses their independent spirit to create a project that exudes ingenuity from every pore.
In a stark contrast to its moribund title, the album’s opening volley of “Death Row” fills all the criteria for getting off to a flying start. A thoughtful reproach of systemic injustices-- "Need an Oscar award for livin' in black skin, they wasn't tryin' me back then"-- and the West Side collective’s misalignment on the fringes of success, MFnMelo flouts the laid-back ambience of its instrumental to deliver a statement of intent that may just foreshadow their meteoric rise: "I need what's owed like reparation, feed my soul like education. Get my check up, in need of patience, weird flex, but okay, we made it." From there, the satisfaction of succeeding on their own terms permeates throughout the project. Whether it’s their prodigal son Saba treating his modest new apartment like a palace on “Mortal Kombat” or Joseph Chilliam’s insisting that you “run the check like Usain Bolt,” the sense that each member has put in their 10,000 hours and then some to perfect their craft and have made wider acclaim a certainty is embedded in each syllable or optimized knock of an 808.
Given his recent run, Saba’s boastful claim that “I’m the best alive, Lil Wayne, Carter III” on “Bad Boys” is permitted to pass without incident and, should this upward trajectory continue, could be granted newfound credence in years to come. Just like he did on Chance The Rapper’s “Angels,” the group’s breakout star proves himself to be a veritable master of hooks on “Colbert,” “No Vest” and “Hero” to name a few while keeping up the lyrical acerbity that turned heads on 2018’s Take Care. Laden with nods to cult films, memes and all manner of pop culture phenomena, each MC is blessed with a referential vernacular that exceeds your average hip-hop artist. Based around an endless spree of witticisms that manages to sidestep obnoxiousness, they possess the sort of innate chemistry that recalls similarly loquacious crews of the past such as Jurassic 5 and Dilated Peoples. As showcased on “Mortal Kombat” and “Edward Scissorhands” among others, their in-house producers’ strengths lie in bridging the gap between the unrelenting trap beats that populate hip-hop’s commercial marketplace with the lo-fi spaciousness and scope of an MF Doom or any number of Rhymesayers alumni. A welcome reprieve from the templates that we’ve gotten all too accustomed to, the penmanship of its rappers and their production teams’ outlying wares allows for even the sharpest lyrical left-turn to co-exist with the sonics with almost perfect harmony.
Viewed in conjunction with the record’s title, “Studio Ground Rules” could be construed as off-putting elitism but it is more an acknowledgement of keeping your circle small rather than having your vision diluted by hangers-on. Built from a self-sustainable manifesto that shares DNA with Brockhampton-- right down to the fact that they constructed most of the album in the span of a week-- the track speaks to the strength in artistic synergy that makes this project such a refreshing gust of originality. Far from an impenetrable bubble, guest stars and Pivot Gang affiliates enter and exit their orbit throughout its 40-minute-plus runtime. All based in and around their hometown, appearances from Kari Faux, Femdot and Jean Deaux provide worthy airtime to an overlooked undercurrent of Chi-town talent while features from Smino, Benjamin Earl Turner, Sylvan Lacue and the revered Mick Jenkins provide a supplementary dash of colour to “Bad Boys,” “No Vest” and “Carnival” respectively. Although he isn’t physically heard, the abundant talents of the late Pivot Gang member John Walt are tastefully eulogized by Saba as he references 2014’s "Pineapple Wildwood." A notable absence throughout, this ode to the man otherwise known as DinnerwithJohn is a bittersweet reminder of what could’ve been.
A track that was eight years in the making, "Jason Statham Part 2" doesn’t just live up to the legacy of the original team-up between MFnMelo and Saba, but far exceeds it. Built around a sinister foundation from Daedae and Squeak, it’s the sort of laser-focused posse cut that highlights all of their unique selling points and could become a totem for their legacy in the vein of a “Scenario” or “Affirmative Action.” Bolstered by a wavy, Dilla-tinged backdrop from Daoud, “Carnival” is an unrepentant victory lap that rounds the album off on a jubilant note. Self-assured by the wealth of skill on display, Saba infers that they can “drop a classic like I’m Dr. Dre around the chronic smoke” with a nonchalance of a man that’s been granted a window into the future and is uniquely aware of its longevity. What’s more, it provides context for his claim from Care For Me’s“Grey” that, above all else, “I keep it thoroughly, PIVOT the legacy.”
An album that’s tailor-made for immersion, You Can’t Sit With Us pays no mind to the pressures of living up to Chicago’s rich heritage and instead keeps its sights honed in on a prosperous future. More than an endless stream of punchlines, the record is a thoughtful examination of life’s trials and tribulations that’s delivered with wry humour, emotion and blistering production. Much like the rallying cries of “slept on,” hyperbole around proclaiming a project to the “best of the year” is redundant until you’ve got the entire 12 months’ worth of records laid out in front of you. With that said, it’s hard to imagine anyone cementing themselves on the map with as much as authority as Pivot Gang have on this astounding collection. If you didn’t know of this squad beforehand, prepare for them to encroach into every corner of the hip-hop sphere from here on out.