Chapter 1

Gucci Mane’s happiness has become the only happiness that I can latch onto. He starts his new album, Everybody Looking, with the intro “No Sleep”. In it, he raps about being a “recovering drug addict” who “used to smoke a pound a week”. It’s hard to put into words how hearing this the first time made me feel. On it’s surface, who really cares? It’s not a hot bar or meant to be a standout line and yet it shook me where I stood all the same –because it was real. In all the pomp, circumstance and performative posturing of rap (regardless of whether or not said rapper lived the life they rap about), here was something honest and vulnerable. I knew Gucci had quit drugs during his stint in prison, but there’s a difference between quitting and admitting you had a problem. Addiction is treated as a weakness; the admission of which feels like confirming that you are indeed weak. The drugs stopped being about fun or parties, the drugs were your only rescue. The drugs were home and home was hell. So Gucci left and he told all of us his tale of survival. As I write this, I am in my late 20s: a toddler version of adulthood. Right now, the alcohol and the drugs are just supposed to be fun –escapism from the monotony and disappointment we are only recently getting accustomed to. We just want to party; we just want to touch the feathers of our youth some more before it flies out of reach. In a few years, we’ll be older and in a few more years we’ll be even older than that; we’ll have children, marriages, bigger responsibilities and less time for fun –but will that stop all the drugs and drinking? Is it so easy to break this habit that we’ve created? Some of us will quit and some won’t –as with all things, but as I stare into the bottom of this beer glass–praying that it doesn’t trigger a sickle cell attack–I wonder if maybe this home is no longer a comfort.

Chapter 2

When I was younger, I fantasized about running from home; away from my family. I fantasized about my family not really being my family or my parents waking up one day and realizing that they should treat me better. Fantasy was the only thing that was mine in those days. I would never act on it –I was too scared. I thought I deserved a torturous life. In some ways I still think I deserve to be treated like that. I was raised by pain and fear; anything else would be too foreign to adapt.

Chapter 3

Much of my Christian upbringing was spent being told to avoid hell; so I wanted to go to heaven. When I closed my eyes at night though, I could never picture it. It always came out wrong or incomplete; just undesirable. Earth, as ugly as it is, was tangible. Heaven is supposed to be this perfect place and maybe perfection can’t be imagined by human brains. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I die, but hell and heaven as they’ve been constructed by mythology and religious doctrine, serve no use to me.

Chapter 4

The first person I told that story to was a woman I care about deeply. It was 4 am and we were talking over FaceTime. We stayed up together that whole night –our insomnia being put to good use. We talked about our history, our fears, our desires and our present. It was a rare, organic, beautiful moment in my life. Can Heaven top that?

Chapter 5

I learned how to be a man from watching movies. But it was women who taught me I could be something better.

Chapter 6

I have seen a few people whose writing I respect a great deal move into a new plateau in their careers. A place where, suddenly, the artists and people they were once charged with writing about are now people they either work for, with or are in some communication with. In this new stage, they have become less critical or are moving into a more traditional idea of being a “creative” and away from “simply being” a writer of culture. I can understand this: criticism is made by plenty of people who keep themselves at a distance from what they write about. Without that distance, you start to form empathy and understanding. You may not like what a particular artist does but you now know the details and the business of how they made it, how hard they worked on it, how much it means to them and you can’t bring yourself to pick it apart and linger on its flaws.

I get this and I can even accept it. What I cannot accept is this disingenuous idea of “not being a hater”: the “vibes” attitude where everyone is positive and criticism is the enemy. Worst of all, I cannot stand this dismissiveness of criticism as a worthless exercise; as just hating for hate’s sake.

Criticism is an art like any other, and you shouldn’t trust any writer who doesn’t believe so. It is an expression of what you like, what you don’t like and why; what the art in question says about its fans and detractors, the culture around it and the time period from which it has emerged. The beauty of art is in the way something created by man can affect and touch the lives of those who act as witness. The ideal is: that the criticisms about this art, whether they be positive or negative, can touch on and articulate something that wasn’t expected or readily thought about by the people who’ll read it; and in this combination of art and critique something beautiful is birthed.

I got into criticism because I didn’t have anyone to talk to about the things I loved and the things I didn’t. So instead, I wrote it all down and, by the time I had moved onto writing for an audience, I was able to have those writings challenged or added onto by others. This discourse made my writing stronger but more importantly: it was a sparring match to explain why we love what we love. A reverberation of the art by its audience.

This doesn’t exist in a “positive vibes only” world. In that world, consensus is an unquestioned thumbs up and the strongest note of disagreement is: “it’s not my thing”. The beauty of Tom Scocca’s long, tedious screed on smarm was its valiant defense of snark as the only balance in an area that continuously encourages phoniness and sycophancy for the sake of career advancement or a narcissistic avoidance of ever having your feelings hurt by a bad review. Snark is honest; grating–insufferable at times–honesty being mischaracterized as an empty attempt to antagonize. The criticism that you disregard is the same criticism that will hold the entire, messy record on how the people felt, lived, thought, loved and hated at a certain point in time –regardless of what the “consensus” became. Not all criticism is worthwhile and it will always be like that; there is as much writing to make you cringe as there is any other art that makes you do the same; yet there will also be the type of criticism so honest, biting and eloquent that it will completely change your outlook on art and writing in ways you never imagined. Regardless of which, it’s important that the record show a full story instead of a stream of disingenuous well wishing.

Chapter 7

So much of rap music is about disappearing. Often, it involves flying off to space; in search of something new and, hopefully, better. Whether it’s Pastor Troy’s declaration, “I’m about to move to Mars y’all, the world a mess” or Kanye’s exasperation with life to the point that he’s gonna buy a spaceship “and fly, past the sky”; the world has been too much of a burden for so many rappers. Being black is hell. Being black and poor in America is worse than hell. It is filled with terror that you must learn to navigate every day; on top of this is the utter contempt towards you by everyone else in the world. For as much as black people, deservedly, commend ourselves for making something out of nothing, the nothing wears you down. Having only the slightest awareness of what your blackness represents to outside forces could drive anyone insane, make anyone miserable, cause anyone’s heart to break. Lil Wayne rapped about being a self-imposed “prisoner behind xanax bars” in order to escape the world; drugs and alcohol have always been the practical solution for escape; moving to the moon like so many rappers obsess about, remains unfeasible. This need to disappear or drown in the soothe, numbing ocean of drugs and alcohol isn’t simply borne out of a wanting to party; it’s deeper. People party because they wanna feel good and people party too much for the same reason they do anything too much: chasing a good feeling and running away from the world in the only ways they know how.

Chapter 8

What does it mean exactly to find yourself? Is it simply a case of trying to figure out who exactly you are or a fear that you already are the person you’re going to be so you have to fix yourself? Change has never bothered me, instead I worry that I haven’t changed enough. This is just who I am: the finality of that statement is terrifying enough to make me pretend that I’m still trying to find another me.

Chapter 9

When my heart beats too hard from all the pills in me, its sound is deafening. It’s rhythm is rapid and unstable; veering offbeat and threatening to jump out of my chest as though it wants to escape and feel the warmth of the sun for the first time. My heart makes me nervous because I don’t know what it’s up to. With Sickle Cell, you tend to think about the physical pummeling done to your body, but it’s my heart I worry the most about. My fear that one day my heart, exasperated from the extra work it has to do due to my misshaped blood cells will suddenly decide to quit with no two weeks notice. So it goes. I never asked to be alive and yet here I am and, as a bonus, I carry the weight of deformity. Despite all my existential worry, diseases never hurt the diseased as much as it hurts the people who choose to love them. They don’t understand it, they don’t know what it feels like and, as a result, they are terrified and guilt ridden over their own stability in comparison. I am always, seamlessly dancing between the stages of grief at all times –to the point that it feels mundane. Life’s cruelty is not special to me. I woke up today and my heart and body decided to keep working and that’s all I can ask for.

Chapter 10

If I have one true wish: I wish that my uncle’s death had frightened me away from destroying myself. Instead, I was just angry. I hated this world for what it had done to him, that it drove him to those drugs and that he felt that was his only way to maintain. And I hated myself for spiraling behind him. His death made me even more cynical–more bitter towards everything. I still fight to see the light.

Chapter 11

There’s a scene in Beyonce’s visual album, Lemonade, where the camera lingers on her deep inside the woods of Louisiana. She is surrounded by various tall and visually striking stalks; their light color in contrast to the dark bluish, moody cinematography. She is alone, with nothing but her thoughts and her emotions as the stalks are grabbed by the wind to dance. I am transfixed by this scene: by its look and Beyonce’s submergence into the unknown but comforting silence of nature; I am lost as she is and suddenly I begin to miss home.

Tallahassee is a trap: a swampy, humid prison that sucks the life out of you. The further out you get the more you are surrounded by trees and overgrown vegetation that scare you into believing that it may one day overrun the place. The actual “city” portion is dull in color and unremarkable in reality –until there’s a Florida State game or something. Some may think of this as a calm and safety, but the rest of us know we’re being held hostage here each day. Spend enough time in the jungle and you adapt to it and, taken from the ecosystem, you begin to long for it –even think you need it. I didn’t like Tallahassee until I left it. And even then, it wasn’t Tallahassee I liked but nostalgia. When I think of Tallahassee, I think about the fall: when school starts and the trees don’t change color but instead carry a peaceful, wafting backdrop to the hope and wonder that a new school year brings.

I don’t feel that anymore when I go back to visit. I feel like a stranger; as though everything I’d ever known and seen never happened. It was more than the new things built: the roads felt strange, the sun shined in a way unfamiliar to my gaze and the city was haunted by so many memories that there was nowhere left to find solace –not even in those trees and bushes. It was then, when I no longer felt like I had a home to go to and that my safety net was gone, could I finally move on with my life.

Chapter 12

I spend most of my time at my day job drawing doodles and writing. Very little of it is meaningful, it’s just reflex. The same reflex I had as a kid when I didn’t want to be in school or church. I am still looking to escape; desperately hoping to stumble into some sort of ease.

 

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When Harry Met Sally, starring Drake

One a car ride from Toronto to New York, Drake and Sally get into a discussion about whether or not men and women can be friends. Sally insists that they can, while Drake maintains that they can’t, stating “all my let’s just be friends are friends I don’t have anymore”. Years later, while still maintaining these attitudes, they inadvertently end up sleeping together, which causes a rift in their friendship. Afterwards, Sally moves on with another guy and Drake passive aggressively writes about her and uses her voicemail messages in songs.

You’ve Got Mail, starring Drake

Drake has a contentious relationship with a young woman who spends all her time going to LIV after church on Sundays even though she’s a good girl and he knows it. Unbeknownst to him, they begin an intense internet romance. When he finds out that this new beau is his rival he realizes that it is his mission to save her from herself by calling her out in his music.

Pretty Woman, starring Drake

Drake falls in love with a stripper he met at Magic City. This one pretty much writes itself.

Notting Hill, starring Drake

Drake plays a humble bookstore owner who falls in love with a Barbados pop star and finds it difficult to stay in her life because he keeps cramping her style.

Garden State, starring Drake

Drake is very sad, so Natalie Portman introduces him to Skepta music and dancehall in order to change his life. It doesn’t really make him feel better but at least he got some ideas for how his next album should sound.

Knocked Up, starring Drake

After a raucous night at 1 Oak ending in sexual relations, Drake finds out that his one night stand is pregnant and tries to prove his worth as father material despite his erratic schedule and  the fact that he lives in a home with an unnecessary amount of hangers on, R&B singers and random niggas he doesn’t even know. Despite her wanting to feel comfortable raising a baby with him and walking around naked in his kitchen without running into some stranger, Drake insists that that’s not the life he’s living. Will these crazy kids figure it out? who knows.

Jerry Maguire, starring Drake

Actually this one is exactly the same.

 

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Beyoncé can’t make being a black woman popular. Despite being arguably the world’s biggest musician, she can only hope that people look beyond her race rather than celebrate her blackness and other black women like her. This was made apparent when her video for “Formation” dropped: here was this empowering, unabashedly Southern song with a video that celebrated and reveled in being Black, being a woman and being “country” and it was met with critiques of not being inclusive enough or daring to throw a political statement of pride in one’s race in people’s faces. Beyoncé had committed the sin of reminding anyone who hadn’t been paying attention that she was indeed a Black woman from Texas.

About fifteen minutes into “Lemonade”, Beyoncé’s HBO-helmed visual album, there’s an excerpt from Malcolm X in which he states that, “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman”. The excerpt comes in as a reminder of the Black woman’s burden of having to live in a world that would rather do without them. They are the neglected wives, the unwanted children and the mothers that have been taken for granted by lovers, brothers, fathers, children, employers and elected officials and Beyonce has used this moment to give their pain voice.

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On its surface, “Lemonade” feels like the deeply personal story of betrayal, heartbreak and anger that has replaced a once-loving relationship. Throughout, you feel like you’re invading her privacy by being an audience member to this show; going from bug-eyed wonder about the juicy details of the tawdry affair Beyoncé keeps teasing about in each song to genuine concern for Jay Z’s safety as you watch his wife gleefully stroll along the sidewalk, twirling a baseball bat or walk slowly while a room is engulfed in flames behind her.

Step back for a second and you begin to realize that this is not just about Beyoncé but it’s about every Black woman. It’s about those mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers and aunties; these are all their personal stories that they share amongst themselves out of earshot of the men who’ve either caused the pain or shown no inclination of caring about it. Her lyrics interspersed between the poetry of Warsan Shire with the stark, lingering images of black women in the Louisiana bayou–at once stoic, at other times fiery–make for a haunting, unshakeable Southern Gothic tale of the Black woman’s burden in not just America but the world.

Since the out-of-nowhere release of her 2013 self-titled album, Beyoncé has been re-energized  –not just in methods of creating an event out of the growing irrelevance of album releases, but in subject matter. Where self-titled was an incredibly sexual and liberating expression of love, “Lemonade” is on the opposite spectrum: a claustrophobic, relentless testimony of a woman scorned. However you might have thought this event was going to go, you probably anticipated something more vapid; more congratulatory of the celebrity of Bey. Instead you got a deeply Southern, specifically black, Toni Morrison story with some great songs attached. Maybe it was the sequence in which Beyoncé was drowning underwater or the images of Louisianians interspersed throughout or the moving sequence of mothers of slain children (including the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown), but at some point this movie hit you in a way you weren’t prepared for. At some point you had to reckon with the things we’ve done to Black woman and the ways we’ve made their lives harder.

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The best art is borne out of honesty. Whether that honesty manifests itself in an abstract expression or a concrete but indirect performance, art that is true to who the artist is is the more pure manifestation. It’s what drove me to become a writer: an aching need from a young age to find the best way to get out the naked vulnerabilities and anxieties that consume me in a healthy manner.

Reflections In Real Time is as straightforward a title as you can get with regard to the subject matter on the latest record by the 25 year old singer-songwriter Kilo Kish. The album is a direct, brutal, hilarious and existential self-examination of a life lived so far. From a dazzling, musical theatre-style opening about growing up with the name Lakisha and the associations it carried in both school and work to a delicate culminating number that sees her making peace with the life she’s lived and feeling comfortable in her current existence while remembering all those emotions and fears she spent the album pouring out.

Reflections In Real Time is a concept record about coming of age. The awkwardness, self-consciousness and fretting over the big things like finding meaning and the small things like being cool. The album is littered with an anxiousness about “getting things right” and being “okay” and Kish spends a good deal of the record trying to convince herself of her worth. On “Fears Of A Dilettante”: in the midst of feelings of imposter’s syndrome and wavering self-esteem, she sings the refrain “I’m blowing a good life” in an exasperated panic; “I don’t know where to go/ That’s life I suppose” she resignedly sings at the end. She wants to believe in herself but the voices that counter any confidence or good measure feel louder. It’s a constant battle: one that she’s also aware of as being a part of living; a series of emotions conflicting, merging and fighting within us, daring to swallow you whole.

Reflections In Real Time is almost embarrassingly personal and honest about its subject. The type of brutal openness that can make someone feel naked in front of a large audience. It is the album as personal essay; a fitting product at a time when the personal essay market is oversaturated. The desire to tell ”your story” is both tempting and horrific: putting yourself out there to be judged by strangers is never comfortable but the release of that story and the feeling that you’ve said something new and worthwhile is an incredibly freeing act.

A byproduct of this and social media is that discussion of anxiety and depression are more open than they’ve ever been. The expression of mental health issues on the internet feels prevalent at a higher volume than anyone who grew up without social media or in an environment that stifled such talk could ever imagine.  Reflections dabbles in depression in its constant quarreling over societal and existential anxieties. The fluttery “Existential Crisis Hour!” interlude features a series of questions like “If I can’t choose to be born and I’m meant to make my own rules but I must die, Is there a point?” addressed to her own subconscious. The worrying over whether or not anything in this life is actually worth doing is a legitimate fear for a lot of people. A constant thought that can consume a person especially as the negatives of life overpowers or just overshadows any positives.

Kilo Kish doesn’t explicitly address depression on the album but there’s plenty of fragmented confessionals found to connect with those subsumed by it. The beauty of the record’s frankness is that it feels like a conversation. Listening to the album can be like seeing a therapist just as much as getting therapy; more importantly, it feels safe. Even with a more open environment for vocalizing depression, there hasn’t been much done to feel safer about it. What was once simply dismissed, ignored or “prayed away” is now moving into a new arena of concern trolling and diagnosing. No matter the intention: there’s a know-it-all, armchair psychologist attitude taken by people who feel fit to decide that there’s something wrong with you and that “someone” should get you help that’s less sincerity and more “bless their heart”. I found more peace listening to this record and having my fears and concerns identified and made to feel valid than I ever could have by anyone else looking down on me like a sick puppy. Depression comes in many packages and manifests in different ways, but a record like Reflections In Real Time feels like a powerful tool of self-care and relief simply by saying: I see you.

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Let’s first discuss what dancing is: Wikipedia says that dance is a performance art form consisting of purposefully selected sequences of human movement. This movement has aesthetic and symbolic value, and is acknowledged as dance by performers and observers within a particular culture. Seems simple enough, dancing is expression using the human body, often times reflective of a particular culture. It’s a very simple point that simply needs to be brought up anytime the western world has a heart attack over black people dancing suggestively.

This week Rihanna did a thing, which usually means that the internet is full of loud, unasked for opinions. This particular thing was the release of two separate music videos for her single “Work” featuring Drake: music videos that featured Rihanna destroying the boundaries of time and space by being too fine to make logical sense –or as many others have put it–affirming the restrictive shackles of patriarchy and The Male Gaze™ by parading herself as a sexual object and “grinding” on Drake or something.

If this sounds stupid, that’s only because it is. If there’s something the internet loves as much as slander, it’s probably falling all over themselves to use big, scholarly tumblr words and concern-troll the state of women or people of color in any given moment. I’m not going to make the case that shouldn’t have to be made that Rihanna is her own woman with control over her image who cannot objectify herself or point out that if there’s one object in these videos it’s actually Drake or hell, even make the case that using Rihanna’s past relationship with Chris Brown to shame her for being openly sexual is beyond gross and the most perfect example of people using faux-concern to push their own flimsy, bullshit agendas onto other people or celebrities that feel that they are entitled to (but seriously this the fucking worst thing of all). Instead, I’m going to use this time to explain what dancing is.

First off, I understand that we live in America: a place where the idea of outlawing dancing isn’t just a terrible idea for a movie but also a terrible idea for an actual law in places. Obviously, this isn’t the only country that does it but as a self-professed “christian nation”, it always seems to come back to the idea of dance as a satanic ritual whenever cases like these are found. This may shed a strong light on why so many people turn into your middle school teacher running around the gymnasium with their separation ruler at the thought of even the most suggestive bit of dancing. Naturally, these same people watch just a modicum of Caribbean dancehall/dutty wine and turn into the dowager countess from Downton Abbey. I know you’re scared and confused and feel like children will be corrupted or the male gaze has something something something, but I promise it’s ok.

Both dancehall and wine are dances that are well-known in caribbean culture as energetic expressions against vivacious island music. Despite how sexual you might paint it in your head because of your own repressed sexual desires that you can’t keep a lid on, it is not inherently sexual. It’s dancing and regardless of whether someone brings a ladder to the dancefloor, climbs it and then jumps off into another woman’s crotch (which I’m sure has happened), it does not become sex until it is actually sex and your personal fixation or objectification of this type of dance has everything to do with you and not the actual dancers.

Is there a sexual-ness being expressed in these dances? of course, but there is a big difference between someone putting out their own sexual energy and you deciding what kind of sexual deviancy is on display. In simpler terms, objectification is less to do with the subject than it is with the people watching.

So maybe keep the hashtag thoughts you have about Rihanna or any woman (and they’re always women) dancing how she chooses to dance to yourself. You’re not deep, nobody believes your concerned and you’re not an ally. All you’re really doing is telling on yourself and exposing the fact that you can’t keep your shit together when a woman does a physical activity. And hey man, I get it; I lose my shit when Rihanna dances too but maybe you should just let the moment wash over you like the baptism it is than running to the internet being irate because “such dancing is unbecoming in our society, my stars”. Stop thinkpiecing and fucking go outside, or go learn how to dance yung footloose.

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I didn’t appreciate A$AP Yams while he was alive. I wish I had. I wish I could pretend I stanned for his tumblr and that he became my internet guru like a number of kids who showed up to Yams day in NYC on MLK Monday (a full year after his death) or the ones who celebrated him all over social media. The truth is, I found him to be a pretty cool makeshift record exec who was funny on twitter.

In death, his life came out in full color through people’s reflections on him. He’d touched so many people in so many different ways: through music, through everyday New York living and through social media –all at the young age of 26. He was an internet phenom –the real “pretty muthafucka” who stayed Coogi down to the socks. His tumblr site RealNiggaTumblr blew up by being expertly curated, cared for and unapologetically nerdy about rap music and he parlayed that into a platform for his artist A$AP Rocky that eventually lead to a $3 million record deal. He was a brilliant and hilarious hip-hop nerd that embodied early 90s Puff Daddy’s ingenuity and cunning; and he was also lost in a debilitating drug habit.

Yams wasn’t shy about his drug use or about wanting to quit. He entered rehab in July 2014 with the plan to kick the habit for good. I imagine he gave his all to fight the urges to use heavily again, but life will ruin your plans often. And so it goes: a young, charismatic and talented self-created mogul was taken from the world too soon thanks to drugs –or at least seemingly, thanks to drugs. Drugs are certainly the easiest scapegoats in stories like this; ultimately though, for many, they’re just a release mechanism for a hard world that crushes its inhabitants. Yams had demons and he had pain that he wanted to cope with –he also liked to party hard and the two things often coalesced until he had nothing left. And so, like that, Yams aka Eastside Stevie aka The Puerto Rican R. Kelly was gone, and all we have left is our memories to propel him into an internet martyrdom.

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I lost my uncle January 2013. His name was Samuel. I remember when my sister called to tell me. I was crashing on my friend’s couch, saving money for an apartment I was getting the next month. I was alone, and when my sister told me that he’d passed, I felt even more alone. It’s a curious thing feeling self-centered in the face of a death in the family: you feel bad for the immediate family and the deceased’s siblings and relatives, but you also feel bad for yourself. What am I gonna do without this person in my life? The truth is, my uncle probably felt more peace after death than he’d felt in the past few years prior.

In the summer of 2011: I  graduated college, I was dating a girl I liked a lot and I’d just gotten a job offer in Maryland –about an hour outside of Washington, D.C.. I had gone up there one weekend with my mom to look at apartments. It was a nice break from being stuck in Tallahassee all summer dying of heat. My mom was proud of me and supportive of this big adult move, but she was worried about me. While we were driving around the Hanover area, my mom talked to me about depression and falling into addiction. We’d never talked about my own depression before –she was a Christian woman who felt it was a matter of feelings and circumstances, not a disease. Despite this, she knew enough about her son to know he was prone to volatility.

And so, she told me about my uncle. She told me what happened when he retired from the company he’d spent 20+ years as a faithful employee. She told me about the retirement fund that ran out, the bills that kept piling up, the wife who suddenly had to do all of the work, the kids who still needed money for college and the things he could no longer do for his family as a retired worker. She told me about the alcohol and drugs that began to take over his life, the control he lost, and the money that was spent on his habit. She told me about how he used my cousin’s college money to buy alcohol and about how he finally pushed his family away once and for all. She told me about the people in his life who tried to reach him and help him to no avail. He didn’t want their help because he was ashamed, but more than that because he was sick.

A year and a half later, I stood frozen in my friend’s apartment as I got the news that he had overdosed. They found him, alone and already dead. He was gone and all I could think about was the retirement that started him on this journey like the first domino being pushed over to cause a ripple effect. I should’ve thought about the substance abuse that killed him–that’s what I was supposed to do, like everyone else–but instead I thought about the job he gave his life to doing and the spare change he got in return. I thought about that same fate for myself and others when our time comes to retire from a job that doesn’t love us… and I thought about his brother, my father. Drugs and alcohol took my uncle’s life and yet the bitterest part is that drugs and alcohol was a temporary relief for his pain and his demons.

His name was Samuel. Samuel like in the bible. The story of Samuel is that at a young age he realized that he could talk to God, his name translates to “God has heard”. The cynic in me wishes God had talked to my uncle and helped to save him, yet there’s another part of me that wonders whether or not God did talk to him in his last moments and really did save him the only way God could. I couldn’t tell you which one of these makes me feel better. Maybe none of it is supposed to.

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I don’t know that I’ve ever found any value in “the cautionary tale”. The idea of using the bad things that happen to people as a map for how to better live my own life has never worked for me –less because of its self-centeredness and more because of my own incompetence. My mother told me about my uncle because she wanted to use it as a cautionary tale before I stepped into the real world, but it didn’t work the way she wanted it to. I wasn’t scared away from drugs and especially not from alcohol, instead I was scared of working. I was afraid to give my soul, my youth and my energy to a faceless corporation that had already determined my worth to be close to nil.

Having a 9-5 job hasn’t done much for me except to see why my uncle tried to find peace in a bottle. Other than the occasional joint and maybe taking 1 or 2 pain pills when I’m not actually hurting, I’ve never been much for drugs, but alcohol–a substance that 6 years ago I never thought I’d touch–became the only constant in a time when things seemed to only get worse for me. I was out of a job sooner than I ever expected, I’d lost the only girl I’d ever loved, I’d lost friends and I was miles and miles away from anyone familiar to me. Drinking calmed my nerves until it became my only recourse –spending weekends getting swimming pools full of liquor and then diving in it. It’s then that I knew I was beginning to spiral (self-awareness might be my greatest strength in circumstances like this).

We use all sorts of things to fill the hole in our lives. We all want a little peace in a world that feels too hard to cope with. Sometimes the things we do to escape can become addictions and those addictions can kill us. I didn’t understand drug and alcohol addiction until it made its way into my family. It’s easy to blame the victims for their own problems and get on a pedestal about falling to weakness and routinely poisoning your body with things that are known to do harm but fuck anyone who thinks like that. Self-righteousness is just as addictive as any drug but without the deathly side effects. People will turn to anything to escape from a harsh reality. Addiction is not an overnight creation but a steady building mountain that fills a missing void for awhile before it engulfs an entire life until there’s nothing left.

I wish the drugs hadn’t been the only solution to so many people’s pain. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but it happens enough that a real conversation should happen beyond pointless finger-wagging and “afterschool special” sermonizing. I think about my uncle all the time: I think about the sweet man that I used to talk to on the phone. I wish Yams was alive, along with Pimp C and Whitney Houston and so many others lost to addiction. My one hope more than anything though is that in their dying moments, they felt free from their demons.

2015 BET Awards - Show

At the End of The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s merciless satire of the intersection between black culture and America, there’s a moment when the main character stands up in a room full of other black people and poses the question: what exactly is “our” thing?”

For much of 2015 we’ve seen a surplus of rappers grapple with their identity. From how they look at themselves to how they look at their people to what fame has meant to their lives within this context; the music has been a reflection of the internal conflict these artists face.

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is the most obvious example of this. Both for its obvious uses of symbolism to talk about fame and for its explicit college textbook insight on Blackness. Kendrick’s purposefully uncomfortable, erratic record finds him jumbling guilt and success and the concept of duty. “What does Kendrick Lamar represent” is a question that weighs heavily on his mind and it’s a question he is constantly working through. A song like “The Blacker The Berry” rages against systemic racism before confronting intercommunity violence by veering dangerously close if not right into respectability. And yet, you have a song like “Alright” that promotes the idea that no matter how bad it gets for black people in America, we will survive. It’s our “We Shall Overcome” and its usage in protests and parties signify such. Kendrick uses the desolate environment from which he came and his newfound fame as a springboard to express his turmoil, much in the same way that Vince Staples does in his major label debut: Summertime ‘06. But where Kendrick is ultimately motivated by religious faith and hope, Vince comes off mostly jaded and hardened; choosing to personify the various characters spiraling towards the same dead end that is urban plight.

On the album’s most melancholy track “Summertime”, Vince laments: “my teacher told us we was slaves, my momma told us we were kings/I don’t know who to listen to, I guess we’re somewhere in between”. These are lines that pierce the heart and get to the root at the tug of war between what blackness means to society and how black people have to counterbalance it. There is no benevolent God in Vince’s world. The moral arc of the universe bends towards chaos and Vince expresses an acceptance in this fact while still chasing after any beauty that may be left. Instead of hope, Vince gives you the stories of dealers, crackheads, gangsters and those who mourn to remind you that there are people living in ruin that deserve to be heard. There’s survivor’s guilt in these raps much as in the same way there’s survivor’s guilt hidden passed the decadence and thrill in most trap music. Maybe the biggest example of this in 2015 is found in Future’s music.

I’d argue that there isn’t anyone in music who had a more eventful year than Future. For Future, his 2015 started in October 2014 with the release of his Monster mixtape; a tape that saw him backtrack from that pop direction of his last album Honest and return to a grimier, street aesthetic while still maintaining just as much vulnerability. “Throw Away” is a breakup song in the truest sense: full of anger, defensiveness, passion and tears. It’s at one moment completely ridiculous (“fucking these hoes mean too damn much to you”) and the next extremely open-hearted (“if loving me in public ain’t safe, you can take my love and hide it”). “Codeine Crazy” is just textbook depression: an open admission to taking drugs to feel better about life. Future followed Monster up with 2 more great mixtapes (Beast Mode and 56 Nights) that follow this same trajectory before releasing his 3rd album, Dirty Sprite 2. DS2 is one long sad party: the musical embodiment of being in the coolest place imaginable: bottles popping, money being thrown around and beautiful people everywhere and yet still feeling like shit because you realize you’re still empty inside. What separates Future the most from the other artists mentioned in this essay is that his feelings are rarely explicit. They come out in fragments and bursts during songs that on the face feel like party records or drug glorification. When Future raps that he’s “an addict and I can’t even hide it”, it’s nothing short of a cry for help hidden in your favorite chest pumping, turn up song. This is even more apparent in his collab record with Drake, What A Time To Be Alive. Both rappers more often than not, seem to be recording two different albums.

Future isn’t even hiding his depression most of the time here: going from heartbreak and sadness in “Digital Dash” to survivor’s remorse in “Live From The Gutter”. WATTBA is not a great record but it is an interesting one full of more pain that was probably expected from casual fans of Future (and from the album title itself). A fun activity that many people who are charged with writing about music seem to be engaging in is the contrasting of Drake and Future as the story between an opportunistic, vain sycophant (Drake) and a nihilistic, pure street rapper (Future) but these labels are unfair to both men. Drake has spent an entire career wearing his heart on his sleeve for better or for worse. Regardless of whether or not you think the music is good, Drake is an artist who expresses everything about himself. He’s an open book: we know when he’s in love, when his heart aches, when he’s being passive aggressive or condescending and when he’s just committing to the “business of rap” in order to sell himself as a product.

Drake’s album/mixtape If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late didn’t signify a change so much as it allowed Drake to fully embrace the Jay Z lying inside him. Full of calculated bangers, cockiness and joie de vivre, the album felt different from Drake’s previous work in that it focused less on emotions and more on the moment. That’s not to say it’s completely devoid of insight, one of the best lines of the whole record comes from “You & the 6”, a personal conversation between him and his mother, where he raps “I used to get teased for being black and now I’m here and I’m not black enough”. There’s always been an inherent whiff of this attitude in the criticisms levied at Drake, whether it’s about his persona, his musical acumen or his brand. Drake’s blackness for whatever reason (be it how he carries himself or his racial makeup) is allowed to be dissected and, at least for this year, Drake has addressed it at many points in his music this year. Drake may be Disney at this point but it seems silly to pretend he’s never exposed his soul for his audience.

For my money, the best exploration of blackness in terms of fame and inner torment was made by Earl Sweatshirt. Earl’s third album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside, picks up where Doris left off: exploring a celebrity that Earl never asked for and resents while trying to figure out what kind of person he wants to be. I Don’t Like Shit is filled with the ghosts of personal demons floating throughout. It is everything that To Pimp A Butterfly is without the pretense or the theatrics; punch your soul music over punch your face beats. Earl is the most fascinating person in rap to me because he seems to openly hate being a rapper while loving rap. His music is guarded and purposely uninviting in order for him to feel comfortable enough to actually share himself.  Celebrity is hell and for a black artist, it can feel even more intolerable; if there was a theme amongst many rappers in 2015 it was that music could allow for a way to cope in this prison. More important to that blackness, these artists proved that the question of what “our thing” is is more prescient than ever.

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