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PS Picks: 'Sorry to Bother You,' the Album—and the Film

PS Picks is a selection of the best things that the magazine's staff and contributors are reading, watching, or otherwise paying attention to in the worlds of art, politics, and culture.
Sorry to Bother You.

Sorry to Bother You.

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From Album to Film With Sorry to Bother You: I'll just come out and admit that I was still in high school when Sorry to Bother You came out—no, not the movie that came out this July (I trust you've either seen it, or at least seen the headlines), but the album that preceded the movie by six years. Back then, in 2012, Boots Riley—the eccentric communist director of the movie that stars Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson—was still best-known for his place at the head of The Coup, an Oakland-based hip-hop group recognizable by its funky instrumentals and radical lyrics. Apparently Riley, a film school grad, already had the screenplay written for Sorry to Bother You in 2012. The only thing he was missing was a large pot of money; so, the screenplay was re-purposed as The Coup's sixth studio album.

As a high schooler in the Bay Area, I had found the The Coup's music to exist somewhere in-between Talib Kweli-style conscious rap and the constellation of Bay Area hip-hop that revolved around the gravity of Mac Dre and E-40. I was a kid growing up in a good neighborhood on the San Francisco Peninsula. I wasn't paying the closest attention to rap lyrics: I was young, and comfortable, and not angry yet. But when Sorry to Bother You came out, it was 2012: the recession was wearing off, and we were realizing that, in the Bay Area, the pain was not going to stop. Rent kept rising. In my high school, classmates and friends' families moved further and further toward the cheaper land as they were priced out of their old neighborhoods. They'd jump from apartment to apartment, closer to the water, like they were being forced into the ocean. One week, the seat next to you in class would be empty: families gave up and moved inland, away from the tentacles of Silicon Valley and into the "other valley" in Central California.

I remember listening to Sorry to Bother You when it came out. It was, to put it simply, nuts. One song—"Your Parents' Cocaine")—featured background instrumentals that were almost certainly played on kazoos. A spoken word piece in "We've Got a Lot to Teach You, Cassius Green," seemed to follow some bizarre story about actual monsters in a telemarketing office. But nestled in the ineffable plot of the album and its befuddling instrumentals were some lyrics I needed to hear: one line that stuck with me was about how paychecks couldn't "stop the bleeding."

I hadn't thought of the album for a long time until I saw the movie last month. The fact that the plot of Sorry to Bother You the album is still relevant six years later is heavy. In 2012, we were losing; in 2018, we've lost. But the movie helped me get a bit closer to understanding how lyricists of The Coup manage to rap about rebellion over light-hearted party music. After they shut off the power to your building, you gotta find a way to keep the music going: even if it means picking up a damn kazoo.