Dissect Podcast: Giving Rap the Platform it Deserves

By Christian Thorsberg

Rap music was my gateway to writing and studying poetry in university. Because rap music, for many artists, is poetry. Wordplay, lyricism, movement, a deep relationship to the person — great rap is great poetry is soliloquies to the world. Within their verses are layered truths and experiences, artful interactions and expressions with the knowns and unknowns of both the quotidian and eternal. Just as poetry employs Frost’s “sentence sounds,” rap harnesses explicit sonics, all for the sake of storytelling and cohesive narrative furthering. Through rhyme, allusion, and great motif, they are vignettes of the human condition.

Cole Cuchna created Dissect Podcast in 2016 with this mantra in mind. Coupling his love and talent for music with a tireless and thorough research ethic, he began analyzing some of his favorite rap albums to uncover the intentions and deeper meanings lying beneath surface-level listens. Dedicating a full season (~20 or more episodes, at least one episode per song) to one specific album, Cuchna always begins with a few well-researched exposition and context episodes to ground the exploration and establish the musical, cultural, and political environments into which the artist released their work. With each episode requiring about 20 hours of research, writing and recording, Cuchna’s dedication and passion for his lyrical examinations is clearly conveyed through the high-quality insight he consistently provides.

Beginning with a 22-episode debut season in which he analyzed Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Cuchna’s sophomore crusade explored Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. This, for me, was the season that opened my eyes to not only my personal interests for music journalism and analysis, but to Cuchna’s spectacular ability to turn to his own musical training for the purpose of revealing insight — S2E11, an analysis of “Runaway,” tapped into music theory for a holistic understanding of the piece’s auditory beauty, eliciting dramatic emotion and personal connections between Cuchna and the listener. Later, in the season finale, Cuchna again opened himself up to his audience, sharing the DIY, personal journey of the podcast, along with big news: after humble, uncertain academic beginnings — two years of relentless late-night early-morning Dissect research, balanced with self-doubt, raising a daughter and a 9-5 job — he had accepted an offer to join Spotify and produce Dissect full-time. It was the well-deserved culmination of an intensely personal and dedicated pursuit, all in the name of musical passion and artistic celebration. But Cuchna was already receiving recognition and hardware for his endeavors: Dissect won the “Best Podcast of 2017” award at The Casties, then proceeded to top the New York Times’ “Best of 2018” list.

An underappreciated element of Dissect is how Cuchna never shies away from controversial or complex discussion. Instead, he approaches such topics with educational and greatly informed perspective. In Season One, his deep dive into Kendrick’s roots and the history of Compton’s segregation, gang violence and police brutality emphasized how TPAB and Lamar’s earlier works were much bigger than just music. Season Four’s analysis of Flower Boy carefully examined the role and stigmas of sexuality in the music industry, while Dissect’s first mini-season, dedicated to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, similarly discussed the industry’s perpetuation of gender roles and discriminatory practice, especially in the 90s. Currently in its fifth and arguably most ambitious season to date, Cuchna is returning to Kendrick and focusing on the Pulitzer-Prize winning DAMN. — an album intended to be listened and understood both forward and backwards. An intensely emotional album dealing with race, protest and police brutality in contemporary America, Cuchna again established a moving and dramatic backdrop of the country’s political turmoil and divide. Indeed, never has a Dissect season been more high-stakes, nor, I would argue, potent in its intertwining of music and culture. 

Other works by Cuchna include a full season dedicated to Frank Ocean’s Blonde and individual episodes focusing on pieces and projects such as Tyler the Creator’s Igor, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and earlier mixtapes, and various interviews with music industry critics and artists, like Tricky Stewart and Anthony Fantano. 

Dissect has forever changed my approach to music listening, affording me a much deeper appreciation for the album form and the literary genius of certain contemporary artists. For music nerds and historians, Cole Cuchna’s commitment to serving as the bridge from artist to audience is a courageous endeavor, hopefully inspirational for creators, writers, and musicians alike. As he continues to grow and expand this project, placing on a pedestal underrepresented genres and music, the lines formerly separating journalism, critique, music theory and poetry will continue to blend in harmonious fashion. Thank you Cole for your service, and hopefully many more will emulate and contribute to the atmosphere of educational artistry Dissect puts forward.