Sunday, April 5, 2015

“Thou Shalt Not Pacify The Truth”: Tink’s “The Ratchet Commandments” (Mosley Music Group, 2015)

The major label debut by Trinity Home, better known as Tink, “The Ratchet Commandments,” introduces a fascinating young talent to a larger audience. She takes full advantage of this forum; I am immediately attracted by the chutzpah with which she cleverly structures the verses of her song around the “Thou Shalt Nots” of the Biblical Ten Commandments, and applies it to the contemporary “ratchet.” As the backup singers chant “Thou Shalt Not,” Tink speaks directly to the ratchet in her own language, preaching such Biblical commandments as “thou shalt not commit adultery, covet thy neighbor’s husband/wife, or bear false witness against they neighbor” as well as some others that don’t directly have Biblical analogues.

Although she’s riffing on Biggie Smalls’ “Ten Crack Commandments,” I take Tink at her word when she sings, “Thou shalt not...pacify the truth.” Throughout Tink keeps it real; not needing to pacify the truth behind “entertainment,” but embodying it in her art (even including the video---a rare video that doesn’t detract from, muddy, or contradict the song’s message). Yet this brief summary is hardly a good introduction to the song, as it flattens out its lyrical and musical complexites, ignores the humor and charm of her broad social vision and original rhymes, and is no substitute for hearing it.i

The Animal/Manual Rhyme

She eases into the lyrics, addressing her producer/co-writer Timbaland before directly addressing the ratchet in her spoken introduction: 

I been at this thing for years
It's done turned me to an animal
Some of y'all ratchet, I'm a write you hoes a manual
Step by step, G shit for you to keep
This the ratchet commandments, I need a moment to preach 

With a nod to Biggie, the first two lines may give us all the backstory we need; though only 20 years old, she had already moved from her childhood gospel roots to begin rapping at the age of 15, and released several mixtapes and collaborated with noise-pop band Sleigh Bells (among others) before being signed to Epic records. So she’s well aware of the lifestyle temptations encouraged by the music industry, and this song becomes a form of protection, a talisman against becoming that animal or ratchet she preaches against. A manual goes beyond commandments by not simply telling you what to do or not to do, but by giving a rationale, and offering alternative strategies. “G” Shit means gangsta, but it could also mean gospel: girl gospel (spiritual rhythm and blues). Preach! In the first, verse she does:

(Thou shalt not) fuck up on a nigga
When you know he got a missus, you want labels, alright bitches
(Thou shalt not) lie upon the bible
How you looking for a title when you sleeping with his rivals?
(Thou shalt not) put trust in these men
These niggas are now bitches, quit acting so feminine
(Thou shalt not) pacify the truth
If you know your pussy lose, you a ho, so do better

I picture Moses nodding in assent; surely Tink’s gospel singing mother would appreciate it; on the other hand, Tink seems to keep the white corporate suits happy enough by speaking their language of bitches and hoes. Yet it’s also sexy, and very funny, and it must be made clear that she’s not simply judging the ratchets from some high moral perch when she tells them they can “do better;” she understands that it’s easier to give advice than take your own and only gives advice she can take. In the chorus, she offers her first verbal hint of just how the ratchet can do better:

Every night doing the most up on Instagram
Maybe that's the reason why bitches, they can't keep a man

The Instagram/Keep A Man Rhyme 

You could argue that Tink is merely assuming that these ratchets actually want to keep a man, but let's grant her that (since it's the main point of the song: if these ratchets want to keep a man, they're certainly not going about it the right way). You could also ask: "What (aside from being a catchy rhyme) does Instagram have to do with this?" She elaborates on that point as she confides in Timbaland (and us) in her second spoken rap between the second and third chorus:

I told Tim like
I'm irritated, devastated
I thought
I thought we had some young queens, what you mean?
We act belligerent, generation of ignorance
Bitches live for the 'Gram
so they life ain't got no significance
Boy this shit be a trip like Expedia
She won't pick up a book but she'll probably bust it open for social media 
Man, you'd be surprised
cuffing and loving and fucking the team
Getting by just by living and making it work on they knees
Let's not debate it, these bitches is overrated
They probably will never learn 'cause they lacking in home training, yo 
But niggas lying on they money like every day
And niggas ratchet too, just in another way
You fake fathers never held your daughters, never had a conversation 
You too fucking immature to get an occupation.

Coming more than halfway through this song (which, divided into 3 main parts—a verse, chorus, and extended rap—has much more in common with old school/traditional song structures than much new school industry hip hop), Tink’s internally rhyming, graceful and confident rant makes it clear that she wants women to act like the Queens they really are, rather than ignorant and belligerent. Equating ignorance with belligerence, Tink encourages women (or girls) to be the opposite. But, in order to know what the opposite is, we may have to know how she defines the word “belligerence” in this song.

Traditionally, men are the more belligerent, war-like, sex, but women can also be belligerent in the ways they act to others as well as themselves and, in the process, sacrifice their authority by sinking to the level that men--especially white men--have established. The message may be nothing new--as certainly other women, as well as men (albeit sometimes hypocritically, with a double-standard), have preached against a "ho" or slut-like woman, but Tink takes it to another level. Interestingly, the first example she gives of these women's belligerence is an addiction to Instagram; social media is responsible for these young ladies' feeling so insignificant.

By equating these women’s addiction to Instagram with the traditional “ho,” Tink invites us to think deeply about how the latest fad in internet does more to corrupt the morals of youth than hip hop can. As Tink’s song challenges the sedentary attention-deficit disorder culture, her argument is aesthetic as well as ethical. Belligerence becomes one with sacrificing the long-term goal for the immediate gratification of the transient short-term, which is encouraged---even pushed—by social media culture.

Tink seems wise beyond her years in understanding that the pre-21st Century culture (in which people were encouraged to be patient enough to write letters and read books more than today) is ultimately more rewarding than the immediate gratification of the primarily visual (and non-verbal) mode of Instagram. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say Instagram's this generation's crack epidemic; at the very least, the ability to keep a man (assuming that's what one wants) is much more like the concentration needed to get lost, and found, in a book (or, at the very least, a song structured as artfully as as "Ratchet Commandments" that can grow richer with each listening). Of course, Tink knows that to place the ultimate blame for this state of affairs on social media would be historically inaccurate, yet the fact remains that the conventions of social media like Instagram enable such ethical ratched-ness. Yet, curbing one's addiction to instagram is not the only advice Tink offers.

The second defining characteristic of the belligerent ratchet (“getting by just by living and making it work on they knees”) brings money into the picture. For all their belligerence, they’re still begging on their knees, even if they think they’re hustling! In fact, their belligerence reduces them to begging! This line gains in resonance when we remember it’s not the first time she speaks of money in this song; nor will it be the last. The earlier spoken rap after the first chorus, though half the length of this one, uses condensed poetic economy to say even more. In its last four lines, a series of contrasts emerges to create a tight ethical syllogism (or riddle): 

They rather be on the block
Than taking care of the crib
I'd rather be making money
Than taking care of some kids  

Because Tink preaches that women should be "taking care of the crib," it could seem that she's not practicing what she preaches in the last line (or that she's putting quotes around it so that this "I" is the ratchet). But Tink would also rather be making money than being "on the block" (and it's hard not to think of the traditional "auction block" as well as the contemporary meat market or gang rape when she uses that phrase). Interestingly, this is the only time in the entire song that Tink makes a bold, direct statement about herself (with the possible exception of the introduction's fear that she's becoming an animal).

The contrast between making money and being on the block may collapse were it not for a crucial difference: these women have kids and Tink's persona lives the live of a single, childless, young woman who is freer to separate love from the yoke of economic dependence. This allows her to bargain from a position of strength that does practice the standard she preaches. There is no confusion or ethical contradiction in the way she brings up what polite society would call the dirty little secret of money.

The “Heathen/Need Him” Rhyme

This becomes even clearer in the second verse, where the THOU SHALT NOT goes beyond the biblical injunctions of the first verse into the contemporary trenches and reveals the complexity of relationships (or one night stands for that matter):

(Thou shalt not) slip up on a heathen
Always keep it cool, never let him know you need him
(Thou shalt not) let a nigga see you sweat
Fuck a bitch and get the check, move along, you know the rest 
(Thou shalt not) respond to these bitches
They envy what you doing and they only want attention
(Thou shalt not) pacify the truth
If you know your rent due, get the fuck out the club 

She's not saying you can't be in the club, hunting for a guy--but just have your own shit (and money) straight first. This could apply to the men too (since "niggas are now bitches"), as the video shows in a great image of poetic condensation: a guy writing his phone number on the back of his eviction notice!

Despite her invocation of the Biblical moral code, she's certainly not advocating pre-marital chastity, or a Lysistrata-like (think Chi-raq) sex strike, only to "keep it cool" whether you're female or male if you want a one-night stand: "Fuck a bitch and get the check, move along, you know the rest." She understands that in this (war)-game of dating that getting the check equals power, and that women can wield it as well as men. "The rest" is purposely left vague. All this adds up to a simple message--take care of yourself first or you'll come to the game partially disabled. The song suggests on a deeper level that it is money that has screwed up the male-female relationship (the tradition that a man can, and even is supposed to, buy a woman, is still, alas, alive), but in the meantime, fight fire with fire. You're worth more than you think you are; you sell yourself short. In this society, you may have to have money in order to back up your mouth, but in the sport of love, a woman's worth is a kind of money--don't squander it!

Once you know what you really want or need (whether keeping a man, or a one night stand), how do you go about getting it? The ratchets are not only lying to themselves as well as others, but also tactically and strategically dumb, or unschooled. By contrast, Tink offers strategies for various situations. It’s likely that she would agree with Shakespeare’s Cleopatra who, when advised by another woman to cross her man in nothing, responds: “Thou teach teachest like a fool the way to lose him!” This is not a belligerent approach, especially when it’s so brilliantly entertainingly theatrical as the way Tink acts it out. A beautiful, mischievous, yet righteous, spirit oozes out of this artful, soulful—even sanctified--20 year old.

Yes, there’s also a childlike “Na Na Na Na Na Na” scorn, and a highschool cliguishness in the song—for instance, in the one line that’s sung in the chorus/hook, “Y’all can’t sit with us.” (Us—the cool girls, the together girls, the Queens, the non-ratchets)—but this is what redeems it from the cloying tone of a strictly moral argument. Still, if you’re looking for easy sympathy from Tink, dear ratchet girl, you’re going to probably have to wait ‘til she drops another track. But, here, her tough love shows a deeper sympathy, if she can hook you (“I love that song, I’m laughing with her. She’s not really talking about me”). Then it can sink in.

Ultimately, "Ratchet Commandments" presents a persona that has found a balance, or even what Aristotle would call a "golden mean" between the extreme of "belligerence" and "femininity" (transcending the virgin/whore complex) in the battle of the sexes. By contrast, the ratchet is too "belligerent" for exactly the same reasons she's too "feminine" to be a Queen (as Tink defines "feminine" pejoratively: the act of pacifying the truth, sacrificing your moral authority to be "nice"--but then backstab nonetheless). But the main point of all her criticisms of the "ratchet" is that they reveal, through negation, the positive alternative. She says what she is (and hopes to be) by criticizing what she isn't (and hopes not to fall into). In this sense, the song is a vow--a reminder, a mind-protector--to herself--to be the anti-ratchet, a Queen, as well as a statement to any man who is overhearing about what kind of woman she is, to let them know where she's coming from and what she will and will not accept. 

There are male ratchets too, but clearly Timbaland is not one of them. It makes me very happy to see these two Pisces collaborating. Though many are comparing Tink to Lauryn Hill, it's possible that for Timbaland, Tink may very well fill that collaborative void he's felt ever since the death of Aaliyah in 2001 (certainly Katy Perry couldn't fill it). For my own part, she restores my faith that it’s possible—even today—that, yes, the pop media can teach better than school or preach as good as the church...not that every song need to do that as she does here, nor that one must be a “poptimist.” (afterall, it’s too early to tell if this song will be a pop smash; it hasn’t even reached half a million youtube views as of this writing). Whatever.....“Ratchet Commandements” is a strong, courageous song, and I pray it’s a hit.

If you can look past its “explicit lyrics,” you’ll find, “a dream or belief to reach” (Gwendolyn Brooks) beyond the beseeching of the self-hating profligate (ratchet), while maybe even helping you enjoy your body and dance (without white face, or a blonde wig). Beauty is only skin deep, you can’t judge a book by looking at its cover—to quote 2 R&B classics—and yes you are a book even if you don’t read yet. You have to be a book to be a queen; you don’t have to beg to choose and still play fair. I can’t believe that Trinity Home’s gospel singing mother wouldn’t be proud of her daughter’s achievement.