The Hierarchy of meaning in relation to “Paranoia” by Chance the Rapper

Since I am currently pursuing a major in Communications I am often give lots of creative freedom on what I write about in school. Periodically I will post some interesting academic papers I have done for school that I think y’all will really enjoy, if you are interested in more than surface level, when it comes to music, fashion or whatever. This the first journal post I will make. Let me know what you think, and if you want to see more!


Buried deep within the critically acclaimed, free-release mixtape, Acid Rap (2013), by hip-hop artist Chance the Rapper (born Chancellor Bennett), lives the deep ballad “Paranoia”.  “Paranoia”, hidden after a 30 second pause, follows the song Pusha Man, which is the 2nd track on the mixtape. Bennett gained mass notoriety from the mixtape as a whole, but especially for attempting to address the ongoing problems in his hometown, Chicago. Beyond the literal, and behind the musical masterpiece, lies much deeper meaning. In order to truly experience this piece of work for what it is meant to be, we must dig beneath the surface. The hierarchy of meaning detailed in the Coordinated Management of Meaning theory, states that there are 6 levels that must be understood to truly define the meaning of a particular piece of communication. This is a very useful tool for analyzing multiple forms of communication, including music and song. Using this hierarchy one can break down “Paranoia” based on the content, speech act, episode, relationships, autobiography, and the cultural patterns. 1

{Transition from “Pusha Man” to “Paranoia”}
[Produced by Nosaj Thing]
[Hook (x2)]
I’ve been riding around with my blunt on my lips
With the sun in my eyes and my gun on my hip
Paranoia on my mind, got my mind on the fritz
But a lot of n****s dyin’, so my 9 with the s***s
[Verse 1]
Move to the neighborhood; I bet they don’t stay for good, watch
Somebody’ll steal daddy’s Rollie, call it the neighborhood watch
Pray for a safer hood when my paper good, watch
Captain Save-a-Hood, hood savior, baby boy
Still getting ID’d for Swishers (Mama still wash my clothes)
Still with Save Money militia (I’mma still watch my bros)
Trapped in the middle of the map with a little-bitty rock and a little bit of rap
That, with a literary knack, and a little shitty Mac, and like, literally jack

[Verse 2]
They murking kids; they murder kids here
Why you think they don’t talk about it?
 They deserted us here
Where the fuck is Matt Lauer at? Somebody get Katie Couric in here
Probably scared of all the refugees; look like we had a f***in’ hurricane here
They’ll be shooting whether it’s dark or not, I mean the days is pretty dark a lot
Down here, it’s easier to find a gun than it is to find a f***ing parking spot
No love for the opposition, specifically a cop position
Cause they’ve never been in our position
Getting violations for the nation, correlating, you dry snitchin’

I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared too
I know you scared… me too
I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared too
If you was there, then we’d just knew you cared too

It just got warm out, this the s*** I’ve been warned ’bout
I hope that it storm in the morning, I hope that it’s pourin’ out

I hate crowded beaches, I hate the sound of fireworks
And I ponder what’s worse between knowing it’s over and dying first

Cause everybody dies in the summer
Wanna say ya goodbyes, tell them while it’s spring
I heard everybody’s dyin’ in the summer
So pray to God for a little more spring

I know you scared, you should ask us if we scared, too
If you was there, then we’d just knew you cared too

There are a few key concepts that can be drawn from these lyrics. Bennett begins the song by expressing what a typical day in Chicago’s lower income neighborhoods might look like. He describes the paranoia that he feels due to the high murder rate he witnesses around him, ripping through very similar demographics to himself. This hook sets up the rest of the song.

In the first verse, this is where Bennett begins to paint the picture of a meek life in Chicago, and continues to provide more insight on life in the city. He begins this verse with the complex line “Move to the neighborhood; I bet they don’t stay for good, watch, Somebody’ll steal daddy’s Rollie, call it the neighborhood watch”. The first part of this line, describes Chicago’s extremely high turnover rate, while alternatively being a play on words, meaning the people who stay, stay for the wrong reasons (drugs, gangs, crime, etc.). The second half of these lines is another double meaning. Literally, Bennett is saying that if his father’s watch gets stolen it will unwillingly become a “neighborhood” possession. The neighborhood watch is usually a group of neighbors who looks after the community and keeps it safe, so figuratively Bennett is attempting to say a stolen item is the closest this neighborhood will get feeling a sense of community.3 Chance the Rapper continues to speak about how his community can only hope for a better life, and that his “literary knack” is the only tool he sees as a way out.

Verse two is where the true social commentary about Chicago begins. Bennett packs this verse a plethora of powerful script. He asks why the media chooses to ignore the murders on innocent inner city children daily. He asks where Matt Lauer or Katie Couric, 2 well respected journalists on major networks, are during this time of chaos in the city. He comments on how easy it is to find a weapon (legally or illegally), and how often crimes are committed in broad daylight. He speaks on the clear hate for the opposition, whether that be rival gang members, or police officers. Bennett finishes the verse with the extremely strong words “Cause they’ve never been in our position, Getting violations for the nation, correlating, you dry snitchin’”. This attempts to explain why many of the lower income neighborhoods have such hatred for the Chicago PD. This is also a reference to the folk nation, which is a prominent gang consisting of mostly minority members within the city, and how they and other gangs are often blamed for much of the troubles Chicago is combatting.4


Lastly, we have the breakdown of “Paranoia”. Bennett softly sings and repeats the lyrics “I know you scared” before delving back into more raps, in the same tone. Bennett raps about his fear and hate for the summer. He prays for a storm, because bad weather offers an opportunity for everyone to stay inside and out of harms reach. He knows that when summer hits, the crime and murder rates will soar. He exaggerates the fact that with the change of a season, or the days on a calendar, a loved one can be stolen away from you. He can’t even enjoy the fireworks, because the sound reminds him of gunshots. He then once more repeats the beginning lines to put emphasis on the fact the are many more “people who are affected besides the 2 people involved in [a] confrontation”.

The next thing that must be examined to define meaning in “Paranoia” is the speech act. The speech act is the actions portrayed during this song. Bennett’s tone transitions between verses, from a softer tone, to a raw, direct tone in the 2nd verse, and to a somber singing voice in the breakdown.  Chance the Rapper is trying to demonstrate the frustration and sense of hopelessness that Chicago citizens face daily. He portrays a person who is tired of the constant struggle and is waiting for something to come rescue him. The beat of the song is another demonstration of speech act. The beat is a dark, meek melody with chimes and a sharp snare, overlaid with Bennett’s signature “igh” ad-lib. Another important thing evident in many of Bennett’s song, including “Paranoia”, is the Chicago influence in the sound. Bennett ties in “Soul, Jazz, Rock, and Electronic” into his music, to give it a distinctly Chicago sound.5 The addition of the slow song at the end of an upbeat song also creates a great deal of instrumental contrast. In an interview with Sway Calloway, Bennett gave some insight on the title stating that people from Chicago “feel like ‘everyone’s out to get me, no one is on my side’ “.6

In CMM, the episode constitutes other things that may be going on in one’s life, or other background information that can help determine meaning.7  The listener must have some sort of previous knowledge about the violent wave Chicago has faced over the last number of years. 2013 saw 415 homicides, which was actually a 101 drop from the previous year, which tallied 516 homicides and was the highest in the United States.8 Gun related crimes have been a problem Chicago (residents and police) have been trying hard to combat for years. Another important correlation is that between the heat and the crime rates. A weather rise in April to 80 degrees saw 16 shootings in a single day, and left 2 dead. 9Bennett, his brother who is also an up and coming rapper, and his father who works in the government office have all been well documented in their attempts to help spearhead change. Besides homicides, other serious felonies such as robberies, burglaries, and assaults have also been a large problem. Though Chicago has managed to lowers its crime rates from 2010 which was 151,520 to the 66,237 of 2013, Bennett acknowledges that there is a lot of work to still be done.10 Another contextual piece of information is that one of Bennett’s best friends, Kevin Ambrose, was gunned to death while Bennett was busy recording the same mixtape that “Paranoia” belonged to. 10

Relationships that the creator has are very important with determining meaning. There are 2 very important relationships one must investigate when attempting to break down “Paranoia”. The first being Bennett’s relationship with the city of Chicago, and the second being Bennetts’s personal relationships. It is no secret that Bennett has much respect and love for his hometown. Evident through his music and fashions, it is very easy to tell where Bennett is from. His career and popularity started in Chicago before spreading rapidly. Much of his social media activity is dedicated to speaking about Chicago and attempts to explain how important his city is to him. He is credited with starting the #savechicago campaign on twitter. The twitter hashtag was a part of a social experiment where Bennett and multiple other rappers tweeted about ” #May23”. 11 The city stood by on May 23rd waiting for something huge to happen, and once the day has gone and passed, the city has gone 42 hours without a gun related crime. One must also dive into his personal relationships to truly appreciate his dedication. Bennett’s friend who had been murdered during the recording of Acid Rap (2013), was a fellow rapper who had performed multiple times with him at many peaceful Chicago events. Bennett also has a very close relationship with his father, and his younger brother who also helped launch the #savechicago campaign.12

Autobiographies look as how a particular piece of communication resonates with the viewer. Personally, I can draw a few connections to this song. Though I have never had a close family member or friend slain, I have many family members living in high crime cities around the world. I have had family members who have been the victims of violent crimes, even my grandfather has been held at gunpoint and robbed, so this song resonates with me greatly. I have also been to Chicago and been able to see the struggle before my own eyes. Along with that I am a part of one of the many minority groups that is affected by this outbreak of violence and poverty, though I am fortunate enough to live a much more privileged life.

Culture in CMM relates to the sets of rules and norms that we understand as standard for a certain situation. There is much variety in the interpretation of rap music. In the present day,  Hip Hop and Rap are very popular genres that are taking over the airways, while it started off as a very small, grassroots movement from “the South Bronx (New York City)”.13 Hip-Hop has grown to many citys, countries, and continents as the main genre of preferred music. In Chicago a prevalent style of hip hop, is called Drill Music. This genre term was coined and made famous by rapper Chief Keef (born Keith Cozart)  and producer Young Chop(born Tyree Pitman). Drill music centres on gritty beats, and simple lyrics usually surrounding gangs, shootings, drugs, and violence. After Cozart made it big with his smash hit “Don’t Like” which even got remixed by Kanye West, the Drill scene blew up, and the crime rates in Chicago’s south side began to rise again. Keef and his fans have even adopted the moniker “Chiraq” as a way to reference the rough lifestyle in Chicago. 14 Chance the Rapper’s style of music is far from Drill, and draws from many other styles of Chicago music instead. “Rap music has recently been at the center of the concern about the potential harmful effects of violent… lyrics”, and in recognizing this he preaches positivity in an attempt to create a safer city for everyone involved, which can be considered well outside the norm for his genre.15

In conclusion, Chancellor Bennett, also known as Chance the Rapper, elicits a deeper meaning in his song Paranoia through lyrics, placement, and sound. A deeper analysis confirms this meaning through Bennett’s relationships, and the cultural norms that he refuses to constrain to. Though one may have different understandings and feeling towards this song based on their personal experiences or stances, Bennett’s attempt to create a raw view of Chicago is arguably accomplished when compared to the hierarchy of meaning.

Chance The Rapper – Pusha Man/Paranoia


  1. Wood, Julia. “Theories About How People Construct Meaning.” InCommunication Theories in Action. Boston: Wadsworth, 2004.
  2. “Chance The Rapper (Ft. Lili K. & Nate Fox) – Pusha Man/Paranoia.” Rap Genius. (accessed June 24, 2014).
  3. Crews, Michael D.. “Florida Department of CorrectionsMichael D. Crews, Secretary.” People and Folk Nation Sets. (accessed June 24, 2014).
  4. Calloway, Chancellor. “Chance The Rapper Speaks on the Crime Level in Chicago on Sway in the Morning.” :
  5. Wood, Julia. “Theories About How People Construct Meaning.” InCommunication Theories in Action. Boston: Wadsworth, 2004.
  6. Bernstein, David, and Noah Isackson. “The Truth About Chicago’s Crime Rates.” Politics City life. (accessed June 2r, 2014).
  7. “Chance The Rapper (Ft. Lili K. & Nate Fox) – Pusha Man/Paranoia.” Rap Genius. (accessed June 24, 2014).
  8. Bernstein, David, and Noah Isackson. “The Truth About Chicago’s Crime Rates.” Politics City life. (accessed June 2r, 2014).
  9. Howard, Ty. “Chance The Rapper Speaks On ‘Save Chicago’ Campaign – Fake Shore Drive.” Fake Shore Drive. (accessed June 28, 2014).
  10. Herd, Denise. “Journal of Public Health Policy.”Changing images of violence in Rap music lyrics: 1979–1997: 395-406. (accessed June 24, 2014).
  11. Stewart, Allison. “Chicago rap in the looming aftermath of drill.”,0,7507536.story (accessed June 28, 2014).
  12. Herd, Denise. “Journal of Public Health Policy.”Changing images of violence in Rap music lyrics: 1979–1997: 395-406. (accessed June 24, 2014).

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