Like few other songs of the past 40 years, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” stands alone in hip-hop history. The Geto Boys‘ signature single, a Hot 100 top 40 hit from an era when gangsta rap virtually never crossed over, remains a singular and oft-referenced text in genre scripture.
The trio of Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick Bill had earned their reputation as an unflinching, confrontational hardcore hip-hop act — so much so that when Bill shot himself in the eye during a fight with his girlfriend, they put him, still bandaged and on his hospital gurney, front and center on the cover to 1991’s We Can’t Be Stopped. But while no one would consider the bleary-eyed “Tricks” to be a compromise to the group’s integrity — the lyrics are brutally honest and visceral — it’s paired with an introspection that set an early high-water mark for the genre. It’s also connected together by a silky Isaac Hayes loop that could’ve appeared on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic a year later, and which lends the song both accessibility and structural stability. The song’s nocturnal combination of violent paranoia and diaristic self-loathing, tied together musically through old-school soul, has proven impressively enduring: With minor alternations, it could easily fit within the catalogues of 2Pac, Kanye West or even Juice WRLD.
Scarface, ultimately the group’s biggest solo star, towers over “Tricks,” both as its producer and the writer of three of the four verses. (The song was originally intended for his solo debut.) His contributions are iconic from the second the tape starts rolling, as both his beginning fakeout (“I sit alone in my four-cornered room…”) and his proper opening lyric (“At night I can’t sleep, I toss and turn…”) are embedded in the rap lexicon. His thunderous voice sets the tone for song as he raps about fears from threats both external (“I’m paranoid, sleepin’ with my finger on the trigger”) and internal (“I often drift when I drive/ Havin’ fatal thoughts of suicide”). His two verses on “Tricks” are split up — and matched in intensity — by cohort Willie D’s harrowing tale of “movie star” bravado undercut by anxieties about past misdeeds that nearly leads to tragedy. Cut the song off after those three verses, and it’s still a classic.
But it’s the final verse — delivered by the late Bushwick Bill, who died at 52 over the weekend — that makes the song indelible. Partly because “Tricks” feels complete even without him: Three verses, each more potent and poignant than the last, all punctuated with the brilliant title and assuaged by that non-judgmental Isaac Hayes guitar hook, and it feels like the whole thing should probably be over. But then Bill’s voice enters like an apparition: “This year Halloween fell on a weekend/ Me and Geto Boys are trick-or-treatin’.”
The line is the perfect curveball to throw after three confessional verses: The opening bar removes the first-person perspective for what feels like the first time in the entire song, sounding more like the narration to a horror movie trailer than an MC scribbling in a notepad. And in stark contrast to Scarface and Willie’s booming baritones, Bill’s voice is thin and high-pitched, his delivery flat and clipped. It sounds, essentially, like it shouldn’t be there — which, for a song primarily about feeling gut-wrenchingly out of place in your own story, turns out to be the ideal note to start the final verse on.
And the words are perfectly chosen. A less-vivid song would’ve given Bill’s Halloween tale an explicit scene-setting intro, hip-hop’s equivalent of “It was a dark and stormy night.” But “Tricks” sets the stage far more evocatively with just as few words. As a lyrical detail, “This year Halloween fell on a weekend” tells you everything: That the verse is going to take place on Halloween, that it happened not that long ago, and that it was memorable for Bill and the Boys because the holiday not being on a school night meant that tons of kids were likely out for it. The portentous nature of that ominous opening is delivered upon by the second half of the lyric, which grumbles “Me and Geto Boys are trick-or-treatin'”: The tense shifts to the present, Bushwick Bill and friends are right at the center of the mischief, and the “Tricks” of the song’s title gain another layer.
From there, Bill’s verse matter-of-factly tells the story of the Geto Boys “robbin’ little kids for bags.” (Whether they’re symbolically jacking young street players for cash or literally stealing candy from school kids is unclear; both seem plausible.) The trio attract police attention, and turn their hostility on a “six-or-seven-feet”-tall cop, with Bill punching him bloody. (“Drrrrroppin’ them motherfuckin’ B’s on ’em” is perhaps the most memorable lyric/delivery in a song bursting at the seams with classic one-liners.) But in keeping with the song’s established pattern of unreliable narrators, Bill’s memory turns out to be a fantasy, as his victim, his co-conspirators and even the holiday backdrop itself all disappear (“It wasn’t even close to Halloween”). He’s left with destroyed hands, “bloody from punchin’ on the concrete,” and all he can do is exclaim “Goddamn, homie!” before arriving at the same titular conclusion as Scarface and Willie.
The first three verses of “Tricks” provide its character, but its spirit is in that final verse. In nearly any other hip-hop song ever recorded — particularly those adjacent to the “horrorcore” genre — the verse would’ve been played for maximum chills, thrills and spills, its vocal stretched to cartoonish dramatics, its production a mix of stabbing synths and zombified bass. But “Mind” is uniquely eerie because it refuses to indulge in showiness; while he occasionally accentuates for effect, Bill doesn’t play his yarn for scares, but almost for laughs, as if he was swapping stories with friends on the corner, as if a tale this horrifying was almost business as usual for the MC. It’s his unadorned, monotone, almost conversational delivery — which Scarface and Willie sound like opera tenors belting to the back row in comparison to — that really makes it unsettling, and unthinkable to imagine coming from any other rapper, let alone Scarface himself, who wrote and originally recorded it.
Without Bushwick Bill, “Tricks” is still a masterpiece: a marvel of technical proficiency and soulful delivery; a totemic marker on the timeline of hip-hop history. But with it, it becomes something greater, something less quantifiable and far more unshakable, the difference between a work being historically important and one that truly never dies. And regardless of what the calendar says, in October, this year, Halloween falls on a weekend.