Few rappers employ vignettes like Sideshow. He’s an unflinchingly personal rapper—which is saying something, considering he keeps company with MIKE, Mavi, and Navy Blue—but he delivers his narrative through piecemeal snapshots. The Washington D.C.-via-Ethiopia rapper has favored this approach since his 2020 debut Farley and hasn’t veered far from it since, choosing to render his visage a little less blurry each time he refines his craft. On his latest project Wegahta Tapes Vol. 1., Sideshow burrows further into his sound, searching for clarity in the stories and regrets that cloud his mind.
On the opener “Wegahta’s Brother,” he floats from existential anguish to memories of moving drugs to pay rent, spinning the block where his cousin was gunned down, and buying Japanese denim. Though these moments aren’t directly connected, they don’t feel like non-sequiturs. These fragments of memory bleed into each other, creating a panorama of Sideshow’s life in all its melancholy splendor. Sideshow’s raps aren’t overly flowery or poetic, sticking strictly to the brand of dead-eyed reporting of rappers like Vince Staples. But unlike Vince, who changes his flow and energy levels on a dime, Sideshow delivers every bar with a muted deadpan sincerity.
Drugs are on the periphery of nearly every song, and he treats the selling of them as a numbing but necessary means to an end. Near the end of the Evidence-produced “Henrik Clarke Kent,” he goes from bragging about profit margins with his partner to solemnly recounting a time when he served drugs to his auntie. Paranoia from dealing seeps into even his most trusted relationships. On “S95-Bound,” he raps, “Half my niggas robbers, half ’em scammers; all of them killers/All my brothers scholars, some in college and prison/But I can’t tell who solid, who gon’ rob me or switch.” Sideshow pulls in so close that you can smell the rubber bands wrapped around stacks of money and hear the cars idling outside his block.
Sideshow’s voice may not fluctuate often, but his ear for beats keeps the sounds of Wegahta Tapes fresh and eclectic. Loops and percussion–courtesy of MIKE (“Wegahta’s Brother”), Grimm Doza (“Lunchin”), and Roper Williams (“Rhodes to Rox,” “HP Sport”)–rotate and simmer like a rotisserie chicken on a spit. The beats for closing tracks “Sneeky Steps” and “SALT KILLS SNAILS” are outliers that embrace candy-colored keyboards and faster drum programming, but they are mixed low enough to match the rest of the album’s subdued palette. Sideshow catches flows over all of them effortlessly, his musical wanderlust offering as much adventure and danger as the dilapidated D.C. streets he walks down.
No matter what beat he’s rapping over or what memory he’s unearthing, Sideshow remains a grounded and sobering storyteller. It takes a certain level of conviction to start an album by refuting the existence of heaven while still holding out hope for a better tomorrow, and that’s the hat trick he pulls off. There’s no doubt that he’s more content to be touring the country and featuring on Alchemist records instead of being caught up in the streets, but as long as these images linger in his head, he’s willing to use them to exorcize his demons.