Anatomy of a Shift: Get After That Paper
Music criticism’ scores pretty highly in the world rankings of ‘Least Meaningful Input.’ What I mean is, an album review by so-and-so music writer at a big name blog doesn’t really tell you if you’ll like the album or not. In fact, it might surprise a reader to learn that the person writing that review is in no way at all connected to his/her life or musical palette! So a music review is not information on whether you’ll like the songs or not, but rather a set of arbitrary and baseless value judgments from the writer that try and gauge the inherit worth of the music. A practice which, many of you will agree, is fruitless, because the value of music is relative, and just because I can’t personally get down with Metalcore doesn’t mean the genre doesn’t speak volumes to its intended audience. The best we can do is try to determine the amount of emotion a given artist has put into a song, and the level of effectiveness with which that emotion is conveyed. It’s important to remember that all music criticism is, at its heart, meaningless to the individual listener. So, on that note, let’s get into some music criticism.
After listening to, or ruminating on, Yin Ts’ang’s decidedly lacking single Zai Beijing, a die-hard hip hop head might be tempted to give up on the efforts of the Chinese rap community altogether. The song’s banal content asks zero emotional commitment from the listener, and both the rap and the beat have aged poorly, coming across today as simple and corny. But for every wack record out there, there is an equal and opposite hot one that’ll push some juice into your veins and force your eyes open a little bit. This brings us to Chengdu native Fat Shady’s local dialect trap triumph, Get After That Paper.
Get After That Paper’s Chinese name is 票儿吃起走 (piào ér chī qǐ zǒu), which translates essentially to "Money to Go Eat", and carries with it a connotation of struggle. The song comes off Fat Shady’s new album People, Society, Money, maybe the first dedicated Chinese trap offering. Trap music is a subgenre of hip hop that comes out of the American south, especially Atlanta, and gets its name from a slang term for drug houses. But Fat Shady sees parallels between the problems in his home country of China and the class and crime struggles of the American trap community. In an interview with The Huffington Post’s Matt Sheehan, Fat Shady explained:
“China is full of these low-class, dirty millionaires, and they live the same way. They don’t give a shit. They might have people killed, or a bunch of their workers might die on the job, but they’re still rich. Thirty workers die? No problem. They just cover up the news about it. To me, China is one big trap.”
Now the fact that China has begun dealing with trap music is already a groundbreaking step. Trap is, to sum it up, maybe the most accessible area of rap for current Chinese artists to explore. That’s because in trap music, the meaning of the lyrics is secondary in importance to the hardness of the beat and the flow of the words. It’s less about what you say, and more about how you say it. Repetition is a big theme and the level of lyrical complexity is generally much lower. All these things make the subgenre of trap easier for an international audience to grasp than certain previous iterations of hip hop. For proof, look no further than Keith Ape, Korean trap sensation whose viral Korean-language trap banger It G Ma led to a successful American tour and collaborations with American artists. Is the same success story within reach for a Chinese rapper? Fat Shady thinks so, and I’m inclined to agree, because his track absolutely bangs.
When I first heard Get After That Paper, my face immediately scrunched up in response to the nastiness of Fat Shady’s flow. He opens on a repeated hook of the song’s title (literally, “Go get my money to eat”) and then takes the energy right into what is probably the most in-the-pocket Chinese verse I’d heard at the time. The flow (hip hop terminology for the cadence and rhythm) of Fat Shady’s lyrics fits perfectly into the spaces between the booming 808 kick drums and spacy synths, two characteristic sounds of the trap genre. His ability to shoot off rapid fire lyrics and still land a rhyming syllable on the correct count makes his rapping style dynamic and almost hypnotic. The rhyming syllable tends to jump out of the rest of the phrase and make itself known, in a way that is understood early in the track but still manages to catch your ear off guard each time. The lyrical flow doesn’t just work with the beat, but compliments it in a way that grows in strength with each progression.
Compare this with the offbeat shenanigans of early Chinese MCs and the difference is clear. Most were trying way too hard, squeezing in an unnecessary amount of syllables into places where there really wasn’t room. The results were unpalatable, and the tracks were almost difficult to get through. Hearing them next to a track like Fat Shady's is a harsh indicator of the difference between those who “get it” and those who don’t, and also maybe an indicator of some of the changing currents in Chinese hip hop. Ten years ago, every rapper sounded the same. That’s an overstatement, but what I mean is that during that time, in the worldwide echo of the Eminem effect when an MC’s machine gun lyrical complexity was among his most highly-valued traits, a lot of Chinese MC’s overreached and did stuff that was really fast or rhymed a lot without having any kind of groove or musical purpose. Rappers like that are still around (let’s be real, there are still rappers like that in America), but ten years ago an MC like Fat Shady would’ve been hard to imagine. The rapper’s flow is casual and offhanded but still full of energy. The way he uses his voice makes trap music and his native Chengdu dialect seem like a match made in heaven. But perhaps most importantly, he’s interacting with the music in a way that comes across not only as more listenable, but more authentic.
If I were to point to one thing Fat Shady has that makes him stand out from the Chinese rappers of the past, it would be emotional content. In an early scene from the 1973 martial arts classic Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee asks a young kung fu student to kick him. The student performs a technically sound but unenthusiastic side kick, which Bruce avoids without effort. He looks intensely at the boy and asks him, “What was that? An exhibition? We need emotional content. Try again.” Similarly, emotional content can be the difference between a hip hop song that stands the test of time and one that sputters to an early death, forgotten after one or two months of radio play.
The thing people crave in an artistic product is the transmission of some kind of emotive expression from the artist to the audience. That’s what creates the necessary element of human interest in a work. Even with no knowledge of Chinese, the grit in Fat Shady’s rhymes is audible from the beginning. That’s because he’s talking about something that matters to him: money.
Fat Shady in particular is a rapper who understands the importance of that emotional connection, and capitalized on it. His own initial rise to fame occurred on a talent show similar to the American show The Voice. Fat Shady’s performance of his first hit song "老子明天不上班“ (Daddy Ain't Going to Work Tomorrow, video available in the Film tab) was a huge success with both the judges and the audience. The lyrics are an assault on the futility of the Chinese working class rat race, and Fat Shady’s desperation to break out of the cycle. The message resonated with viewers across the country, and with “Chinese workers fed up with the daily drudgery of their jobs”, and footage of the performance blew up, going viral on Chinese media sites. It went so viral, in fact, that its rawness was felt across the ocean, reaching a significant portion of the Chinese American community.
Here we have another important point of distinction between Fat Shady and Yin Ts’ang. Yin Ts’ang’s rise to fame occurred before the realization of the internet generation, and for that reason needed to happen on the ever-gracious wings of the Chinese government. They worked their way up the classical music industry ladder, receiving all the trappings (and blessings) of the Ministry of Culture along the way: they produced a demo tape, which led to a record deal with Scream Records, which led to a studio album, which culminated in Zai Beijing. The single reached a #11 spot nationally and secured Yin Ts’ang the award for Best New Music Group of 2003 at the China National Radio Music Awards.
In contrast, Fat Shady’s breakout moment was self-initiated and self-sustained. His fame was catalyzed, and guided, by a viral success, free from the meddling hand of censorship and “social values.” Fat Shady does not have a record deal; he records his songs in home studios. He supports himself by booking his own modest shows, at places like a local mango festival and the opening of the ‘Golden Paris’ real estate development. This is why Fat Shady is a more valid representation of underground hip hop culture, while Yin Ts’ang is more victim to the pitfalls of the Chinese music industry.
Fat Shady’s alternative origin story is also what allows him to include more vibrant lyrics. Free from the coerced banality of the Zai Beijing era, each bar is saturated with intent, emotion, and message. The song opens with a grimy repeated chanting of its title phrase, wasting no time in getting straight to the point - below is a rough translation of the first verse:
Go get my money to eat (repeated intro)
My money, my meal money. Where’s my food at? Where?
Wait for us to blow, then, we’re gonna go get ours
Money on the rise, so I ain’t got a problem
They ask me to drop flows, easy, no problem
Earning more, more, no problem
Got it in the bag, gonna go get my cash
That cash, don’t count on the slow-witted to see it
Moving down the line, making more each time
Go, go get that paper, because we want money all over the place
City turned battlefield, we’re all soldiers, don’t be one who loses
I got strength, that paper is mine
Go! That paper’s mine
[English and Chinese mixed:]
Shout out to 牛逼的* flow, shout out to 牛逼的 rapper
*（niu bi: literally, “cow’s vagina”, a slang term for “cool” similar to the English “badass”)
[Return to Chinese]
My turn to eat, don’t even open your mouth with that garbage
Go back to your parents, there’s no difference between empty talk and idle dreams, I don’t fuck with either
I don’t wanna go back home and put on a show, I just wanna tell you that making money isn’t wrong
Then just go, go get my money to eat
Eat my fill, then eat again
Finish my struggle, then struggle again, and celebrate with my brothers
Celebrate to show what you want, because we do it right and we win
We put on a show that’s straight fire
Feast your eyes, you say you want more
Go! Stopping at any shop, [English] my yellow young niggas
If you get it, you get it, I’m not tryna hate my young niggas
Suppressed for so long, the old dogs on the street bark
What’s the purpose behind what you’re chasing?
If you still can’t catch these lyrics and flow, you’re outdated and far behind
Go, get paper to go eat, do it to show them, won’t give them any ‘likes’
Some people do differently, but I’ll set an example for them to see
My money to go eat, don’t talk nonsense, these words definitely won’t fade away
Go to eat, that money to go eat, [English] pay me, pay me, don’t talk nonsense
Cash, cash, cash, that meal money
(Repeated outro into next verse)
In Chinese culture, food is of paramount importance, and in many ways can be said to be a symbol or placeholder for life itself, as seen in the Chinese expression 民以食为天 (“The People Consider Food as Important as Heaven”). In a country where famine is not just a historically recurring state of existence, but a frighteningly not-so-distant memory for many Chinese who once lived under Mao’s regime, food as a symbol represents the continued ability to exist. Fat Shady links his message to a subject (food) that’s immediately accessible to his audience, allowing them to easily grasp the stakes of the song’s lyrics. Fat Shady manages to paint a picture here that embodies the original “hustle” energy of New York hip hop culture, while also remaining deeply and authentically Chinese; the monumental importance of this balance cannot be overstated as China moves forward in developing its own hip hop identity.
At some points in the song, you can tell Fat Shady is deep inside the aggressive energy of his music, cutting down hypothetical haters with razor sharp rhymes:
“My turn to eat, don’t even open your mouth with that garbage/Go back to your parents, there’s no difference between empty talk and idle dreams, and I don’t fuck with either.”
Other times he’s riding rap music’s international currents, floating casually in and out between English and Chinese (and unintentionally raising questions about the cultural appropriation of black language):
“Shout out to 牛逼的 flow, shout out to 牛逼的 rapper.”
“Go! Stopping at any shop, [English] my yellow young niggas
If you get it, you get it, I’m not tryna hate my young niggas”
And still other times Fat Shady seems to immediately turn serious, addressing his audience directly and confronting the listener with questions that are more nuanced and relevant than expected:
“Suppressed for so long, the old dogs on the street bark/What’s the purpose behind what you’re chasing?”
Fat Shady’s ebb and flow throughout the track offer a diverse range of moments that all contribute to the expressive effectiveness of the final product. True to form of the trap music genre, Fat Shady’s actual message (“I’m making money”) comes second in importance to how he conveys it. While the theme of making money and chasing success is certainly nothing new for the rap genre, Fat Shady’s interpretation of the trope is largely innovative and steeped in unique cultural context. What’s more, is that his own energy as an individual is palpable through the song. The listener is made to feel the combination of self-taught ambition and feverish desperation that defines the young Chengdu viral rapper. Fat Shady climbed from obscurity entirely on his own, and that attitude is present in Get After That Paper. It’s evident in both his lyrics and the offhanded self-confident tone in his voice; Get After That Paper is the story of someone who opened their own door, and is now determined to walk through it. Knowing that that door was opened on national television in front of millions, we find ourselves invested in the rapper’s story, and ready to be swayed by the force of his personality. Fat Shady himself offers a possible explanation as to why his music seems to strike a specific chord with his listeners:
“Every city has its own personality, and the personality is in the dialect. When you hear the Chengdu dialect, it has a kind of ‘whatever’ feeling to it. Standard Mandarin just doesn’t give you that feeling.”
The use of the Chengdu dialect, normally hard to find outside of Chengdu, is the vehicle that allows the song’s message to permeate the everyday noise of Mandarin and connect with a different part of the listener. The other element that makes this possible is a distinctly Chinese message. Although the idea of “getting money” has been around since early on in hip hop’s history, Fat Shady’s use of cultural imagery and references to China-specific situations (I don’t wanna go back home and put on a show [Migrant Workers]; I just wanna tell you that making money isn’t wrong [Confucian Values]; The city’s turned battlefield, we’re all soldiers, don't be one who loses [Urbanization of China]) allows the classic rap formula to hit home with a new demographic in a new way. Whereas Yin Ts’ang overextended themselves in a flat, one-dimensional attempt to pander to a cookie-cutter Chinese audience, Fat Shady succeeds in telling a story that is both meaningful and relatable to a Chinese consumer. China, although a Communist country on paper, in recent years has been seeing a surge of Capitalist values. Wealthy Chinese buyers are eager to flaunt the latest Louis Vuitton bag or Rolex watch, with those below them on the financial ladder simultaneously condemning their materialism and also doing their best to achieve those same salaries. But in a country with a population of nearly 1.5 billion, this is no small feat. The Hukou housing system has been the subject of much criticism for propagating cycles of poverty and stagnancy. Students study tirelessly to ace their Gao Kou exams, which their parents make clear from the outset is their greatest chance at a successful future within the system. A commonly accepted end goal in Chinese society is simply to make enough money to get married, buy a house, and get a car. Meanwhile, the more affluent can be found shelling out major RMB on whatever foreign brand has the most upper-class reputation at the time, or paying steep fees to enter nightclubs, only to sit down and scroll through their phones the whole night. For those who have money, it’s all about being seen. One’s social status is inextricably tied to one’s wealth, and rich people in the big cities use money largely as a device through which to display their social position. The wealth disparity has left countless Chinese people frustrated and disillusioned with the rat race.
So, despite possessing far fewer explicit references to China and Chinese culture, Get After That Paper manages to be more deeply Chinese than Zai Beijing by touching on concerns and experiences that are real to a Chinese listener. Rather than being Chinese in the way “taco” is Mexican or “kangaroo” is Australian, Fat Shady chooses to pour his own lived reality into the song, and in doing so, guarantees the validity of its appeal. This may seem unremarkable to a westerner, but many Chinese artists are only now beginning to learn to speak on the topics that are important to them - the effects of the Cultural Revolution’s stranglehold on personal expressive freedoms are still visible in that sense. After the close of the Mao era, there was a kind of nationwide communal shrug of what do we do now? Chinese musicians started to poke their heads out into the wider world of music and see what there was to be done there. But later attempts to instantly fill the vacuum and copy the cultural landscape of American pop and hip hop music left the country with about one million songs that all sounded the same. Vapid, ambiguous crooning about love and dancing to the beat became the status quo – and inside China’s bubble of government-administered censorship, that can be a hard thing to shift. Once the Ministry of Culture finds something it deems to be morally acceptable, it can be difficult to function outside of that. That’s why artists like Fat Shady are necessary right now. His work not only destabilizes the homogeneity of China’s music industry, but represents a growing hunger within the country for truth, meaning, and individual expression in music. For these reasons, Fat Shady can be held as a case study of successful Chinese hip hop culture – just one of many more to come.