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Straight From the Underground: The Frighteningly Good Music of ‘Us’

From “I Got 5 on It” and N.W.A to the Beach Boys and Minnie Riperton, Jordan Peele exploits how tethered we are to pop music

A tape cassette titled ‘Us’ with giant scissors in the background Alycea Tinoyan
Spoiler alert

What if it had been “Cell Therapy” instead? Goodie Mob’s 1995 hit—and the Atlanta group’s biggest ever—is sufficiently spectral and crawly. It’s also a song about a spurned community growing in the shadow of a common enemy: suspect city politics. The keys are dusty and sinister, and the drums announce an encroaching army; the song, overall, sounds like hunger and exhausted options. I’m just saying that if you’d suddenly been forced into subterranean life with nothing but raw rabbit meat to sustain you and the burning notion that it’s not supposed to be this way for 33 years, “Cell Therapy” would be your first thought, wouldn’t it? You know, for cardio, for close combat training, for plotting some Old Testament shit against the fat and blissful surface world, whose time is coming.

But—BUT—had Jordan Peele chosen “Cell Therapy” to anchor Us, there wouldn’t have been an opportunity for the Wilson family to have a discussion about lyrics and fall face first into a dad joke like, “It’s not about drugs! It’s a dope song!”

Us, on its face, is about a family who discovers their red-suited doppelgangers on a beach trip and spends one really bad night trying to either escape from or kill their grimmer halves. As to what Us is really about, you’ll get varying answers, but it wants to be a class allegory. I am not here to talk about that. I am here to talk about the music, which is good.

I cannot, however, say that music is the most underrated aspect of Us, on account of it being central to the earliest discussions about the film. When the trailer dropped last Christmas Day with an edit of Luniz’s “I Got 5 on It” stretched to maximum atmospheric creepiness, it was—in a way that felt unique to this horror flick—the nightmare before the nightmare. For over two decades, “I Got 5 on It” had just been a party anthem about putting in on a dub sac, and now it meant … something that we previously hadn’t considered. Michael Abels, who left a hidden Swahili message in his superbly uneasy Get Out score, was also enlisted by Peele to compose the music for Us. So, surely there was another mystery to be unraveled—Yukmouth says to “Go get the S, the T, I D-E-S” in the song, and Us arrives in March! Curious!—but Peele was more modest in his expectations of the viewing public. Turns out that vague pit-of-stomach feeling of having missed something that has always been there, right under your nose, was the point. Here’s what I’m thinking: There weren’t any preconceptions about “Cell Therapy” to be overturned. It’s blatantly menacing, which makes it the perfect song to herald spindly, hesitant, teenage Chiron’s evolution into “Black” in Moonlight. But “I Got 5 on It,” with a little reframing, can sound menacing, which is why it works better for Us.

“I love songs that have a great feeling but also have a haunting element to them and I feel like the beat in that song has this inherent cryptic energy, almost reminiscent of the Nightmare on Elm Street soundtrack,” Peele told Entertainment Weekly. Or the soundtracks to American Psycho, or A Clockwork Orange or Reservoir Dogs; three other movies in which our attachment to pop songs was wielded against us. The “cryptic energy” of “I Got 5 on It,” I think, comes from the murder mystery low end and the first encounter synths on top of it.

As with the trailer, “I Got 5 on It” gets more menacing as the movie goes along. From its innocent beginnings in the cabin of a crossover SUV, the song next pops up during the second home-invasion sequence. The Wilson kids have just worked their way through their family friends’ beach house, stepping over their dead bodies and bludgeoning their doppelgängers. Late in the movie, during the final fight between Lupita Nyong’o and herself, the murder synths are swapped for piano keys and pulled taut over a raft of other orchestral elements. Between the shots of younger versions of Adelaide and Red dancing their respective recitals, you understand something about these characters, their connection, and what propels them forward—things that you couldn’t learn from the giant explanatory montage that immediately precedes the scene.

Peele is adept at using music to beef up a moment, or to suspend you in it, but also to act as the comic relief. During one of the bloodiest, most gruesome scenes in the movie, I don’t think there’s one person who didn’t laugh at least a little bit at the slam cut between the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police,” two songs that would otherwise never appear anywhere close to each other. There are few other specific choices—Janelle Monáe’s “I Like That” as the Wilson family pulls up to their beach house, or Adelaide’s daughter, Zora, listening to Noname while disappearing into her phone, for instance—that come as pure dopamine hits. Abels’s score does the rest. The frantic, stumbling strings of “Home Invasion”—while a wide-eyed Elisabeth Moss slowly applies lip gloss, stopping just shy of a Wild at Heart meltdown—are still raking the sides of my brain.

So who was that creeping in the window? Nobody now. “Les Fleur,” the first song from Minnie Riperton’s 1970 debut, guides us into the sunset, rounding out a playlist that brings together different musical backgrounds and effectively articulates tortured, elated, and even ineffable emotions really well. “Les Fleur” settles us into an uneasy peace at the film’s quasi-resolution. “Light up the sky with your prayers of gladness for the darkness is gone,” the song goes. The lyrics sell calm, but I wouldn’t say “Les Fleur” is happy. How could anyone be, when a part of themselves has died?