The Rapper Who Hates Rap: A Critical Understanding of Lupe Fiasco’s “Hurt Me Soul”

Note: I typically only discuss books and the intersections of culture and literature, but I wanted to share this anyways. In my eyes, hip hop is as literary a form as any.

Song: Hurt Me Soul

Artist: Lupe Fiasco

In hip-hop’s short history,  the genre has undergone innumerable paradigm shifts, as its trends, demands, and contexts are inevitably changing. In the mid-2000’s, mass commercialization of hip-hop left many fans wondering whether perceived stagnation meant the death of a once powerful, socially-conscious art form. This was the hip-hop landscape Lupe Fiasco entered when he released his 2006 debut album, “Food & Liquor”—a thought-provoking effort that took the landscape in question, and boldly questioned it. At times, Lupe appears to be battling against gold rims in favor of soul hymns—but his feelings are complicated by the fact that, sometimes, those gold rims are rather appealing. One of the album’s standout tracks, “Hurt Me Soul,” explores the frustrations of a conflicted conscious rapper who loves rap, but finds its landscape, hollow, irresponsible, and duplicitous.

In the first lines of the song, as a soulful Cecil Holmes sample drives the beat,  Lupe frankly declares that he “used to hate hip-hop.” Lupe puts this paradoxical declaration in context with two anecdotes, each driving the respective conversations in their given verses. The first finds Lupe abstaining from hip-hop, primarily due to his issues with the word “bitch.” He finds the degradation of women in Hip Hop far too prevalent, but these feelings are paled when he comes across an enjoyable Too Short song. Known for his pro-pimping imagery and sexually explicit lyrics, Too Short’s music presents Lupe Fiasco with something audibly pleasing, but utterly incompatible with his values. His relationship to the music is further complicated when he finds himself applying the word to a former girlfriend, and realizes he’s been trained by hip-hop to react to females in a way that he finds uncomfortable and damaging. The rest of the verse transitions into a conversation about rap as an influence for the younger generation, critiquing an era of irresponsibly contrived gangsta music that kids discern as reality. Lupe explains how the flamboyant, outlandish material of rap videos seemingly poison impoverished children’s vision of success when he rhymes, “Gangsta rap-based filmings became the building blocks/ For children with leaking ceilings catching drippings with pots.” Instead of inspiring the urban youth to strive for positive and realistic goals, Lupe feels these rappers only create unrealistic pipe dreams. In the subsequent lines, Lupe stresses the unique complexities faced by the Hip Hop fan, as he attempts to bring his “living conditions, religion, ignorant wisdom, and artistic vision” in harmony with this somewhat volatile music. Simultaneously, and ironically, this is the same music that sparks his own motivation and brings him to create his own hip-hop. However, instead of approaching it the way other rappers do, he plans to “tap into the world” and rap about social realities.

In the second verse, Lupe hits his listeners with the next anecdote—this time, expressing his distaste for what he finds to be a blasphemous Jay-Z rhyme. The line, taken from Jay’s song “D’Evils,” finds Hov proclaiming, “I never prayed to God, I prayed to Gotti.” As a devout Muslim, Lupe finds this proclamation even more contradictory to his beliefs than Too Short’s love for the word “bitch.” It glorifies the very issue that seems to keep Lupe up at night—that Hip Hop leaves role models and values misplaced. Nonetheless, despite attempting to boycott Jay-Z’s music, he finds himself “back to giving props” again after watching Jay-Z’s “Streets Is Watching” documentary. The value crisis continues, as Lupe battles between loyalty to his religion and loyalty to the art he loves. In addition to his own difficulties, hip-hop fans appear to love the music for all the reasons that he finds it jarring. A worried Lupe rhymes, “The theme songs that niggas hustle to/ Seem wrong, but these songs were coming true/ And it was all becoming cool.” Lupe concludes that all of those “gangsta rap-based filmings” have evidently become real inspiration to the kids with “leaking ceilings.” Thinking it’s all “cool,” the same kids now act out those dangerous fictions in reality. Lupe’s reflections turn back to the artists, and he wonders about their role in exploitation. If  “what constitutes a prostitute is the pursuit of profit,” then all rappers selling sexualized images and themes are prostitutes in a capitalist-driven system. In a larger scope, Lupe argues that these rappers have effectively traded the poor community’s well-being for personal riches. Of course, with so few inner city residents finding large-scale success, it’s difficult to then knock their hustle. In a hypothetical dialogue, someone tells Lupe, “His business isn’t mine and that nigga pimpin’ got it.” Though he’s happy for the people who escape impoverished situations, he can’t support a culture of indifference to the issues that keep the rest in. Other hip-hop listeners share the same troubles that Lupe goes through, but they ignore the hurtful themes in Hip Hop, because those themes are inevitably a part of the music they adore.

While the first two verses set the context for Lupe’s tortured, conflicted relationship with hip-hop’s falsehoods, the rest of the song represent the topics Lupe wants to replace those falsehoods with. The emotional choruses are the results of his tapping “into the world,” and they constitute the most moving parts of the song. Behind the careless materialism and the glorified violence rappers use to represent their neighborhoods are these real problems, which Lupe masterfully lists in a soulful, rhythmic list. In the first chorus, Lupe sings, “I have sex for money/ the hood don’t love me/ The cops want to kill me, this nonsense built me/ And I got no place to go.” Prostitution, deceitful streets, racial profiling, poor education and more pack these lines full of emotion, but the weight of Lupe’s words is fully realized in his admittance that “this nonsense built me.” Though he sees how problematic it is to look up to the images in commodified Hip Hop, he’s grown up on these cultural images as well. Once one realizes that most of rap’s glorifications are embellishments, one is left with “no place to go.” The idea of having no place to go also relates back to Lupe’s status as a Hip Hop listener who hates Hip Hop. All of this combines to create a situation that truly hurts Lupe’s soul.

The song culminates in an assonance-soaked final verse that takes the choruses to a new level, and puts Hip Hop in conversation with “all the world’s ills.” Lupe intends to set these ills up next to the central problem he has with Hip Hop—that mainstream rappers will never be allowed to replace their shallow, braggadocio rhymes with discussions of these monumental problems. Instead, record labels will continue to push a fantasy that will undoubtedly sell records. By nearly the last line, Lupe is telling his listeners, “I lost my earpiece, I hope ya’ll hear me,” signifying that there is no one telling him what to rhyme. He’s a free emcee, and the unfortunate rarity of that certainly hurts his soul.

While powerful, a proper analysis of “Hurt Me Soul” does require listeners to consider several aspects of Lupe’s character, before immediately becoming a Lupe disciple. Though his feelings are driven by an admirable humanism, much of his stance seems to stem from his Islamic roots. The first word of the song is an Arabic word meaning “Allah, forgive me.” This plea sets the tone for the rest of the song, as Lupe’s shame is derived from loving and existing in a Hip Hop culture that he finds heretical. His problem with Jay-Z’s “D’Evils” line likely comes off as tame to most who aren’t devoutly religious, and in today’s generation, many simply aren’t. Consequently, barring religion, Lupe’s grievances are based in the idea that the hip-hop listener has a responsibility to be in support of hip-hop’s content. Lupe’s issue with Jay-Z is that Jay-Z doesn’t pray to God, but should that affect the way Lupe enjoys the music? Does Hip Hop have to be a moral undertaking that just so happens to entertain, or can it be entertainment that just might contain moral lessons? The opinion that one should never separate oneself from the contents of a song lie at the heart of Lupe’s argument, and in some cases, that seems just as unrealistic as the champagne, cars, girls, and jewels.  According to Lupe, mainstream Hip Hop would prove inaccessible to any brand of humanitarian, or anyone with a strict value system. This is problematic in that Hip Hop needn’t be weighed down by an unrealistic responsibility to always impart wisdom. Like any other musical form, it exists partially as a form of entertainment, performed by imperfect entertainers. If every Hip Hop song mirrored “Hurt Me Soul,” then what would party-goers listen to in the club? In some ways, this type of hip-hop would be less human than current forms.

The aspect of this track that saves it from being overly pretentious is that Lupe’s value crisis is his own. He doesn’t suggest that all of rap change to fit his tastes, but rather that maybe his tastes just aren’t compatible with rap. While it hurts his soul, it doesn’t necessarily have to hurt yours. By entering the Hip Hop landscape, challenging its canonical works, and putting bigger issues in conversation, Lupe grasps at the possibility that other rappers will lose their earpiece—but he isn’t snatching them from their ears. Unfortunately, his recent albums have demanded changes instead of suggesting them. This has resulted in self-righteous music rendered inaccessible to most hip-hop fans. Lupe’s disillusionment has stretched far past “Hurt Me Soul,” leaving him with “no place to go” in the current Hip Hop landscape.

Finish the Archetype, Stephen: Anti-Climax in “The Stand”

Book: The Stand

Author: Stephen King

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

This gigantic book took me almost three months to read. At some points along the way, it felt like a chore, and that’s something I try to resist with books at all costs. Books generally have something redeemable about them, and even The Stand had its redeeming qualities–good story momentum, end-of-the-world theorizing, and Kojak the dog were highlights for me. But generally, most parts of the book felt either overwritten or simply unnecessary, turning a story that should have been about 400 pages into a sprawling 1,100+ page epic with few scenes even worthy of that adjective. In a straight forward archetypal story like this one, pitting good against evil (quite literally), I expected the final battle to be, well, epic. I had already rolled my eyes at the predictable plot, but in an effort to actually enjoy the book, I turned my attention to that inevitable final clash. Each time I found my eyes closing while reading, I reminded myself that the work would pay off in the end when two gods squared off for the fate of the world. And then, it just didn’t fucking happen.

Excuse my language, but this was really upsetting. My mom and dad both love Stephen King and I can vividly remember seeing his various books displayed on our bookshelf. For whatever reason, the cover of The Stand stuck in my mind (see the picture above), fascinating me for years and years. I never thought to ask my mom what the book was about, nor did I open it up to read a few lines. I was very little and I was merely drawn in by the picture: a white knight with a sword fighting a dark, demonic creature wielding a scythe. It was mysterious to me and I built it up in my mind over the years as an epic fight or battle that must happen in the book. Part of the reason I chose The Stand as my first foray into King was due to those memories and feelings.

When I began reading and realized that the book would follow a frankly tedious good/evil archetype, I resolved to hold out for that final battle. The many hours spent trudging through long-winded, vapid sections of the book felt justified, if only to make it to the ending I’d been rendering in my head since I was a child. And again, it just didn’t fucking happen. There was no big battle. No God throwing Satan in a lake of fire. A nuclear bomb was accidentally triggered, killing the entire “evil” side, and effectively ending the narrative. Getting through the last 60 or so pages of Stu and Tom walking back to Boulder was a true exercise in willpower, and though I’m glad I finished it, I’m glad it’s finished.

 

 

Navel-Gazing and Stereotyping in “The Fortress of Solitude”

Book: The Fortress of Solitude

Author: Jonathan Lethem

Genre: Fiction

 

This is going to be a relatively short post, considering the book is 500+ pages. I did not like this book, which is quite disappointing, because I’d been looking forward to reading Lethem for a long time. All in all, it was uneven in the worst way, as it sprawled into pointless side narratives and bland scenes, never tying the worthwhile parts together and spending way too much time on pointless introspection. The more interesting parts of the book, such as Dylan’s absent mother, are barely touched on, while boring-as-shit sequences like his college experience and the ForbiddenCon event took up many pages. The general vibe I got from poking around the internet was that people enjoyed the first half of this book and then trudged through the second half. Honestly, I didn’t really care for either. The first half of the book felt like I was re-watching the first half of A Bronx Tale. I love that movie, but how many times can you read about or watch kids grow up in 20th century NYC? I didn’t need several pages about skully or stick ball, nor did I need extended descriptions of frankly uninteresting characters, like Henry, that never come up again in a meaningful way.

At first, I thought I was liking the second half of the book more, but I soon tired of Dylan’s arrogance and attitude. Worst of all, he was the only character that Lethem really seemed to be emotionally invested in. Mingus, a promising character in the beginning, never really came together. To this point, having finished the book, I’m not really sure why Mingus ever liked Dylan at all. His constant upbeat, playful demeanor was contrasted with Dylan, who never smiles or seems happy about anything. By the time the reader reaches this key moment, where Dylan goes to visit Mingus, you expect the section to be rich with emotion, brimming with insight. But alas, the anticlimax of this scene was overwhelming and frustrating. I should have seen it coming, as Dylan is never really actually interested in anyone but himself. The incessant navel-gazing in the second half of the book made me dislike Dylan even more than I already did, which made the book really drag after a while.

And finally, I was a little bothered by the racial commentary Lethem is interested in here. Many of the black characters felt like caricatures of well-known stereotypes. In one scene, where Dylan is hanging around with three black kids in a park, Lethem describes the young white kids in the park as “animated Disney bluebirds, twittering harmlessly around the head of the Wicked Witch as she coated an apple with poison.” C’mon dude. Dylan and the three black characters were going to do some graffiti–not kill somebody or rob a bank. I have a tough time seeing what was sinister about them. I realize that Lethem is speaking to a point of view, a racist one, that seems prevalent to the setting, but he never offers readers anything as a counterpoint. In this book, black people are drug dealers, pimps, and beggars, all sharing a violent temperament. Black people are never genuine, always trying to trick you or force you into giving them something. Again, I understand that Lethem was trying to highlight a certain quality of ’70s Brooklyn, and perhaps there is some authenticity here, but I would love for Lethem to sit down with me, look me in the eyes, and tell me there were no redeemable people of color in ’70s Brooklyn. In trying to speak to racial tensions at the beginning of Brooklyn’s decades long issue with gentrification, Lethem seems only to have sketched out stereotypes. Even Mingus, who begins the book seeming like a counterpoint to all I mentioned above, eventually falls into those same traps. Arthur, a white peer of Dylan’s who begins the book as a nerdy white kid and eventually becomes entranced by black culture, does become successful later in life, despite getting into the same activities and troubles Mingus was involved in. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of difference between those characters aside from the color of their skin. Perhaps that is making a statement, but that statement felt buried to me.

I still plan on reading Motherless Brooklyn, another of Lethem’s novels, which will hopefully have some redemptive power. Until then, I’m not impressed, Jonathan.

 

Next post: The Stand by Stephen King

 

How Gucci Mane Opened My Mind and Wrote a Fantastic Memoir

Book: The Autobiography of Gucci Mane

Author: Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin

Genre: Autobiography

 

Sometime in 2008, as I was preparing for college, I reached out to my would-be roommate via Facebook. One of the first questions I was faced with was, “Do you like Gucci Mane?” I had only heard of him in passing and definitely hadn’t knowingly heard any of his music. I took a quick trip over to Youtube, typed in Gucci’s name, and skipped through a few of his songs. At that point, having grown up listening to 2pac, Nas, Eminem, Immortal Technique, and other “lyrical” rappers, I was highly resistant to anything I deemed less-than-lyrical (read: Southern). Years earlier, in 2004, I remember being incensed that Outkast, a group I defined by their work on Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, had won the award for Best Rap Album. I had not heard Aquemini, Stankonia, ATLiens, etc. I say this only to note that my hip hop pretentiousness at that point in my life had been steadily growing for years, and by the time my roommate asked me about Gucci Mane, I was already repulsed by what I deemed the popular onslaught of catchy, empty, Southern hip hop. Needless to say, I told my roommate-to-be, Doug, “No, I do not.”

Towards the end of 2009, after about three full months of resisting Doug’s Southern rap tastes, I decided to give Gucci Mane’s new album, The State vs. Radric Davis, a try. I wanted to hate it. I wanted to tell Doug when he got back to the room that this music belonged in the garbage can with D4L and Soulja Boy. I wanted to tell him that this kind of hip hop disrespected the art form that its forefathers created. And then “Classical” came on, the album’s intro.

I felt like Odysseus, tied to the mast of East/West coast hip hop, trying to resist what was really, surprisingly, incredible. I was hooked from that song on, and I couldn’t wait to tell Doug that I had finally opened my heart to the wild and wonderful sounds of southern hip hop. The significance of that moment is hard to describe–it marked one of the first times that my fundamental understanding of something was completely obliterated. My position that “real” hip hop necessitated an intricate showing of lyrical ability and serious content contradicted my newfound love for Gucci Mane. I now had a whole sub-genre of music to explore, and with my self-imposed barriers gone, I looked to Doug for hip hop guidance–Lil Boosie, Webbie, Z-Ro, Waka Flocka Flame, and so many others became, for a while, my go-to music. I have sincecarried this experience with me as a lesson and a reminder to remain open-minded. How many other things might I be missing out on due to stubbornness and pretension? Anyways, today, Gucci is in my top five favorite rappers of all-time. I was heart broken in 2014 when I found out he was going back to jail, but it turns out, thank god he did.

I’ll begin by simply giving this book my recommendation. The Autobiography of Gucci Mane is an easy, exciting read, with a huge added bonus for any of his fans. I don’t think you need to be a big Gucci supporter in order to appreciate this book, but there are a lot of references to songs, albums, and people that may become tiresome if you aren’t. Because this book was rather straightforward, I’ll mention some of my biggest questions and reactions below, rather than bore you with critical reflection.

The book lists Gucci Mane as the author, but includes Neil Martinez-Belkin (NMB) as the co-author. How much of this was written by Gucci himself? 

This was a question I thought of frequently while reading. I wondered whether Gucci had recorded the book as notes to be transcribed by Martinez-Belkin, or whether Gucci himself sat down and penned it. The writing did sound like Gucci at times, but I couldn’t be sure. Finally, I found this wonderful interview with NMB, who cleared this up for me straight-away. Gucci did write the book, and only received editorial help from his co-author. Along with the normal editing tasks of an editor, NMB conducted interviews with many of Gucci’s friends and family, going over the stories Gucci wrote about. In many cases, NMB then went back to Gucci with that information, which subsequently sparked more memories and writing. So, I guess you could say that NMB facilitated the writing of this book, but did none of the actual writing. Just food for thought as you’re reading.

Throughout the book, Gucci uses his albums and hit songs as touchstones along his journey. Where is the accompanying soundtrack of mentioned tracks? 

I can’t tell you how many times I thought about this while reading. Some of the books most poignant anecdotes describe the process of creating songs, specifically those songs that proved significant to his career. Gucci has so much material that some of the earlier songs he mentions were unfamiliar to me. A playlist of each song he discusses would have been a super useful and enjoyable supplement to the autobiography, both for known and unknown songs. “First Day Out” is one of my favorite Gucci tracks of all time and I have every word memorized, but I still wanted to hear it when Gucci mentions the way Zaytoven reacted to the first four bars of the song. I wanted to lose my mind alongside Zay, as I had done on my own, countless times, walking through the streets of New York yelling shit like, “No pancakes, just a cup of syrup!” Creating a playlist available on Youtube or some other streaming service would not have been difficult for Atlantic to do. If I wasn’t doing the majority of my reading on the wifi-less subway, I would have made my own Youtube playlist.

The section describing Gucci’s first encounter with DJ Burn One and the making of “Chicken Talk.” 

I had no idea DJ Burn One was white. I also had no idea he was the first one to talk Gucci into doing a mixtape. More than his albums, any Gucci fan knows that the true gems of his lengthy catalogue are scattered across his mixtape projects. Chicken Talk, however, has always remained my favorite. Gucci was doing a lot of ecstasy at the time, was back to selling drugs, and had complete freedom from his label with this release. None of that is necessarily good on its own, but it made for some authentic, gritty, and downright fun music. As he says himself, “More than any other release of mine, Chicken Talk captured my state of mind during the time I was making it…It’s a perfect time capsule and my favorite of all my mixtapes.” It’s Gucci’s favorite, too!

Apparently, when him and Burn One finished the mixtape, they tried to sell it at an Atlanta flea market. The proprietor of that market had heard rumors Gucci Mane’s career was finished, which was a realistic enough diagnosis, considering his upcoming album wasn’t gaining much traction. Instead of giving up, the two bumped Chicken Talk from Burn One’s truck in the flea market parking lot, attracting a group of people and plenty of interested buyers. When the aforementioned proprietor saw what was going on, he came out and bought a bunch of copies. I’m a walkin’ lick, I’m a talkin’ brick!

I know I already mentioned it, but that story about the making of “First Day Out”…

This is best described in Gucci’s own words:

Deb organized a homecoming party at Metronome Studios the night I got out [of jail]. It was a big affair, with a whole bunch of important industry folks in attendance. The party was for everyone else, though. I was itching to work. As soon as Zay showed up I had him load up some beats to get the ball rolling.

A couple songs in, Zay waved me out of the booth. He had a request.

“Do something for me,” he said. “When I play this next one just go in. Don’t even think about a hook and don’t do any of those writtens. Let’s see what comes out.”

I had pages and pages of raps I’d written in jail, so those were the songs I started up with when I got back into the studio. I wanted to get them recorded so I could move on to new stuff. But I had no problem doing a freestyle for Zay…I stepped back into the booth and put the headphones on. Zay played the beat and I was off to the races.

I’m starting out my day with a blunt of purp

No pancakes, just a cup of syrup

Baking soda, pot, and a silver fork

You already know it’s time to go to work

“Damn!!! That’s it!!!”

As soon as I let those four bars off, my buddies outside the booth went crazy. I lost my momentum. I looked out the window to tell Zay to start the beat over, but he’d already gotten out of his chair.

“You know you’re killin’ this right now?” he said.

Killing what? I’d only rapped four bars. I wasn’t sure what Zay was talking about, but he wasn’t alone in his thinking. We’d already made a bunch of songs and nothing had gotten a reaction close to this. Zay started up the beat again and I regained my focus and finished the freestyle.

…When I exited the booth every person in the studio had their eyes on me, looking bewildered. Zay had goose bumps. Holiday looked like he just watched me walk on water.

Incredible.

Side note: Gucci was the first person I ever heard yell “skrrrt!” adlib. In fact, aside from Jeezy, he was one of the first people I ever heard use adlibs. Now every rapper in the game uses them. He’s a god damn pioneer.

Gucci almost died on a flight to Houston with his manager, Coach K. And he has a son?!

One of the things you notice while reading this book is how many times Gucci seemingly avoided death, or at the very least, grave injury. If anything had happened even slightly differently in various different threatening situations, Gucci would probably be dead. The run-in with Jeezy’s goon, his status as a cocaine kingpin, his behavior towards police in 2014 while carrying a weapon, and so on. Given the complete lack of discretion police have shown towards unarmed black males in recent years (or perhaps throughout the entirety of American history), it’s an absolute miracle that Gucci came out of that last situation unharmed.

One of the lesser known situations was a flight from Atlanta to Houston that flew way too close to a tornado, terrifying everyone on board, including Gucci. It’s at this point in the narrative that Gucci tells us he has a son:

The storm bellowed as I heard muted crying. I looked at Coach. We didn’t exchange any words but I knew we were thinking the same thing. Maybe this was it. We bowed our heads and all I could think of was my son.

I know what you’re thinking. What son? Truth is I didn’t know him all that well either. I’d only learned I had a child a year before. He was already ten months old. A girl I used to see had a baby and people were saying it looked like me. I hadn’t even known she was pregnant. I reached out and asked her if it was mine. She was unsure. I took a blood test and sure enough, I was the father of a little boy.

Gucci goes on to describe how he had not, up to that point, had much time to “embrace [his] new role as a father.” Between jail bids, his career, and his drug addiction, he had neglected to forge a bond with the child. With his life in the balance, Gucci thought only of his son. Sometimes it takes situations like that to wake us up.

But, more importantly here, can you imagine calling Gucci Mane dad?

An underlying theme throughout the autobiography is Gucci’s struggle with mental illness. Not only drug addiction, but also bi-polar disorder.

Mental illness has always lurked in hip hop’s shadows. From Geto Boyz’s “Mind Playin’ Tricks on Me” to 2pac’s paranoia-laced recordings to Kid Cudi’s much reported struggles with addiction and self-harm, the topic has been there for a long time. Unfortunately, there has not been much hip hop-centered discussion around this topic up until recently. It felt refreshing to see Gucci speaking openly and honestly about these struggles, not just in one part of the book, but throughout the entirety. In one situation outside the 2010 VMAs, Gucci lost it, throwing a stack of ten thousand dollar bills at the cameramen agitating him. This was only one situation of many in which Gucci appeared to succumb to his inner demons.

This would happen from time to time, whenever my benders would reach their tipping point and manifest in the form of bizarre behavior and volatile outbursts. Spells where I would zone out and gaze into space. Sometimes I’d be looking into the mirror, mumbling to myself, trying to make sense of thoughts that didn’t make any sense. Doctors had tried to give me medication for this before. Mood stabilizers. But I rarely took them. They made me even more sluggish. They zapped me of my energy, my creativity, my whole mojo.

I hope that Gucci’s frankness about his mental struggles inspires other rappers to open up, encouraging the genre as a whole to be more forthcoming on the topic. With many young, urban black men dealing with violence and suffering from PTSD, it probably should be more prominent than it is. Most recently, Chief Keef sidekick Fredo Santana opened up about his struggles with mental illness that led to his drug abuse. A couple seizures, a kidney failure, and a liver failure later, Santana had this to say on Twitter:

Hopefully I can be the face to sho niggas to slow down an we got our whole life ahead of us fuck being rock stars gettin high I got ptsd…

This tweet was reminiscent of one Gucci sent out in 2014:

To all the young people who follow me I beg ya’ll stay away from codeine cough medicine it’s not cool to be in jail or early grave #guwop

Let’s keep this conversation going, hip hop.

So, what’s next for Gucci?

This isn’t a reaction to anything in the book, per se, but goodness, Gucci is a changed man since his last jail bid. In my opinion, he’s making better music than ever and sounds as focused as he’s ever been. He just got married yesterday on 10/17 and dropped another album late last week. The man is on a tear and I couldn’t be happier for him.

Other quick notes

Gucci launched the careers of so many different Atlanta rappers, and he gives each of them a part in this book. As a fan of hip hop in general, it was intriguing to read about early Migos, Young Thug, etc. There is also a brief but interesting section on Gucci’s unfortunate meeting with Scott Storch. Turns out the guy really is, for lack of a more appropriate term, a douchebag, but probably also a drug addict, so I’ll give him a break. And lastly, Gucci goes over his full-fledged 2014 mental breakdown in detail, making for an uncomfortable and sad section called the “Nightmare on Moreland.”

It’s Gucci! Burr!

 

Next post: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

The Ethereal Prose of Paul Harding’s “Tinkers”

Book: Tinkers

Author: Paul Harding

Genre: Fiction

 

I had never heard of this book before seeing it recommended at the Tattered Cover in Denver. I love independent bookstores (sorry, Barnes & Noble) and as they are a dying breed, I usually try to support them by buying a book. This was one of those books, and I probably would not have bought Tinkers otherwise.

Through the first fifty pages or so, I was not enjoying it. Harding’s prose felt winding and meandering in a way that was more tedious than interesting to me. The plot, too, felt like it was wandering to nowhere. I struggled to tell my girlfriend what the book was about, and realized I was not very sure either. Fortunately, I kept with it, and Harding continued to carve aimless channels of…beauty?!

At some point during the first third of the novel, after I had accepted that the plot was not very compelling, I realized that many of Harding’s sentences were truly beautiful observances of the divine among us–namely nature, but there was another more general, less pointed ethereal atmosphere being described. In fact, that is how I would describe the entirety of this generational elegy, which swerves off the conventional plot highway and takes readers on a scenic drive through memory, love, and a certain nameless emotion I won’t even try to describe. More so than memory or love, it was that nameless feeling that kept me reading. As the sentences floated off the page and away from the little plot that exists, I made futile grasps at its identity. Was it the sense of divinity in each of us? Was it, perhaps, the sense of divinity in our human connections? Was it a mixture of sublimity and beauty? Obviously I gave this a lot of thought, but never came up with anything definitive, so here is an example:

The true essence, the secret recipe of the forest and the light and the dark was far too fine and subtle to be observed with my blunt eye–water sac and nerves, miracle itself, fine itself: light catcher. But the thing itself is not the forest and light and dark, but something else scattered by my coarse gaze, by my dumb intention. The quilt of leaves and light and shadow and ruffling breezes might part and I’d be given a glimpse of what is on the other side; a stitch might work itself loose or be worked loose. The weaver might have made one bad loop in the foliage of a sugar maple by the road and that one loop of whatever the thread might be wound from–light, gravity, dark from stars–had somehow been worked loose by the wind in its constant worrying of white buds and green leaves and blood-and-orange leaves and bare branches and two of the pieces of whatever it is that this world is knit from had come loose from each other and there was maybe just a finger-widths hole, which I was lucky enough to spot in the glittering leaves from this wagon of drawers and nimble enough to scale the silver trunk and brave enough to poke my finger into the tear, that might offer to the simple touch a measure of tranquility or reassurance.

Life is difficult for those of us who have not learned the location of our brain’s off switch. Thought, as much as it is our own story’s narration, comes in degrees. Sometimes, trains of thought putt-putt along at a reasonable pace, allowing for logic and reason, but other times, those trains are barreling down the tracks at unstoppable speeds, so fast that what emerges is startling, awful, and amazing all at the same time. Some of us think like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and others think more like Gabriel Garcia Marquez–but the point is, the latter often becomes a force of its own. Thoughts emerging from characters in this book trailed on so far that they lost connection with the character, seeping into a more generalize ethereal feeling that encapsulates the whole novel. Howard, our thoughtful and epileptic protagonist, is both a victim and a beneficiary of these thoughts–while they often throw him into epileptic fits, they are also his most personal, most sacred feelings. I connected and empathized with this, not as an epileptic, but as a person both blessed and cursed with the sorts of thought patterns that run through Howard’s mind. They are beautiful and fantastic and surreal until you are pushed to the edge of what’s familiar, and look out, over the edge into the black.

Death, for instance, is one of those topics that often pushes me, my heels grinding in the dirt at the edge of my mind, towards and into that darkness. It isn’t bad, necessarily, but it is unknown, and uncomfortable, and sad. From pages 64-66, Howard’s son George ruminates on what it means to live and die (sorry it is so long–I could not bring myself to shorten such an incredible passage):

Eighty-four hours before he died, George thought, Because they are like tiles loose in a frame, with just enough space so they can all keep moving around, even if it’s only a few at a time and in one place, so that it doesn’t seem like they are moving, but the empty space between them, and that empty space is the space that is missing, the last several pieces of colored glass, and when those pieces are in place, that will be the final picture, the final arrangement. But those pieces, smooth and glossy and lacquered, are the dark tablets of my death, in gray and black, and bleached, drained, and until they are in place, everything else will keep on shifting. And so this end in confusion, where when things stop I never get to know it, and this moving is that space, is that what is yet to be, which is for others to see filled wherever it may finally be in the frame when the last pieces are fitted and the others stop, and there will be the stopped pattern, the final array, but not even that, because that final finitude will itself be a bit of scrolling, a pearlescent clump of tiles, which will generally stay together but move about within another whole and be mingled with in endless ways of other people’s memories, so that I will remain a set of impressions porous and open to combination with all the other vitreous squares floating about in whoever else’s frames, because there is always the space left in reserve for the rest of their own time, and to my great-grandchildren, with more space than tiles, I will be no more than the smoky arrangement of a set of rumors, and to their great-grandchildren I will be no more than a tint of some obscure color, and to their great-grandchildren nothing they ever know about, and so what army of strangers and ghosts has shaped and colored me back to Adam, until back to when ribs were blown from molten sand into the glass bits that took up the light of this world because they were made from this world, even though the fleeting tenants of those bits of colored glass have vacated them before they have had even the remotest understanding of what it is to inhabit them, and if they–if we are fortunate (yes, I am lucky, lucky), and if we are fortunate, have fleeting instants when we are satisfied that the mystery is ours to ponder, if never to solve, or even just rife personal mysteries, never mind those outside–are there even mysteries outside? a puzzle itself–but anyway, personal mysteries, like where is my father, why can’t I stop all the moving and look out over the vast arrangements and find by the contours and colors and qualities of light where my father is, not to solve anything but just simply even to see it again one last time, before what, before it ends, before it stops. But it doesn’t stop; it simply ends. It is a final pattern scattered without so much as a pause at the end, at the end of what, at the end of this.

I have thought on countless occasions of the grandfather I was never able to meet–of the uncle with few friends and family to carry on his memory–of my aunt, her ashes mixed in with those of her two dogs. When you consider the entirety of a life lived, its legacy held simply and solely in memories and minds, bits and pieces, it makes you want to cry. This book made me cry, and it was wonderful.

 

NEXT POST: The Autobiography of Gucci Mane by Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin

The Potential Impact of “Evicted” and Other Ideas

Book: Evicted

Author: Matthew Desmond

Genre: Non-Fiction, Social Science

In an interview from Tupac: Resurrection, the late rapper famously proclaimed, “I think that rich people should live like poor people, and poor people should live like rich people, and it should change every other week.” Though impossible to put into practice, this idea sought out a way to engender empathy in a country that tends to ignore its most desperate citizens. Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted, took a cue from Tupac, choosing to live in Milwaukee’s poorest areas for several years as he did research for this book. The result is a work of empathy that those detached from the world of food stamps and rent assistance can connect with–and not in any voyeuristic, urban-decay-vacation kind of way. Instead, Desmond artfully reveals the American relationships that keep our poor on the meandering road of destitution. With these relationships operating primarily in the housing sector, he makes it very clear where the heart of America’s poverty problem lies.

BUT, as Desmond mentions in the “About this book” section, he wrote it in the third person voice for a reason. Eviction isn’t about its author as so many ethnographic studies are–think of a book like Gang Leader for a Day, which is as much about Sudhir Venkatesh’s experience as it is about Chicago’s gang life. Refreshingly, Desmond takes a step back from his own project, and lets the stories of Arleen, Scott, Doreen and others play out before our concerned eyes. And play out they do, as I had to remind myself a few times that I wasn’t reading a novel. If there is any shortcoming here, it is in the book’s marvelously crafted narratives that force the reader to remind his or herself that someone’s belongings really are being piled on the sidewalk–that Vanetta’s son really will have to forge a motherless life while his mom sits in jail–that Arleen is truly out of housing options with two children to take care of–that the stories present a real opportunity for true empathetic understanding. If presented as the author watching people experience poverty rather than people simply experiencing poverty, I think that potential for understanding is somewhat lost, and books like these wind up being mostly entertainment.

But alas, Mr. Desmond allows his subjects to dominate the narrative section, leaving his own experience and thoughts for the epilogue and the “about this book” section. This format worked for me in a rhetorical sense as well, given that the solutions and ideas Desmond presents at the end are preceded by a whole book’s worth of evidence. One of the ideas he has to curb poverty by way of housing is to implement a federal, universal housing voucher for all people under a certain income. This plan sounds costly and idealistic, but when you consider the many costs associated with eviction–homelessness, mental illness, hunger, etc–it actually wouldn’t cost much at all. The real question is, how much do we value our impoverished population and do we want to help them? Up until now, the answer to that two-pronged question is simple–we don’t. At least, we don’t value them as rightful American citizens, but rather as income generators for those opportunistic folks who know there’s plenty of money to be made off the poor. Desmond makes the point that poverty isn’t one-sided, as exploitation of the less fortunate is as much to blame for poverty as anything else. Raising the minimum wage is a cool thing, but it becomes much less cool when rents are rising right with it.

Another idea in this book, this time from the narrative piece, really resonated with me. Larraine, a trailer park resident Desmond follows throughout the book, frequently spends money on frivolous things to the chagrin of her friends and family, who often end up denying her help. At one point in the book, she buys a couple hundred dollar make-up kit instead of paying her utilities bills. In another, she uses the entirety of her month’s food stamp allowance on one meal, featuring lobster tails and other luxury foods, only to eat scraps the rest of the month. To implicate Larraine as her own enemy here, the primary catalyst for her constant struggles, is tempting. But, for Larraine and many others who experience grinding, daily poverty, those infrequent splurges represent perhaps the only material joy they get to have. For someone is born into poverty and remains poor, the horizon is awfully hard to see. Desmond says that for Larraine, poverty is a constant that she has submitted to and doesn’t expect to escape. Those few moments of relative freedom, in being able to buy what one wants, are precious.

And finally, a meta-note for this post. At the various times I was reading this book, I continually found myself without a pen. That is the reason for the lack of quotes here as well as the sort of scatterbrained form. More so than my other posts, which are all essentially reactions, this was a true, gut reaction. Next time, I’ll be sure to have a pen so my thoughts are a little more organized. Nonetheless, I HIGHLY suggest reading this book, regardless of where your interests lie.

 

Next post: Tinkers by Paul Harding

 

 

 

 

 

Pieces of Infinity: A Taoist Exploration of Eyedea’s “Here for You”

Book: The Way of Chuang Tzu

Author: Thomas Merton

Genre: Philosophy, Religion

In my last post, I mentioned that Thomas Merton’s The Way of Chuang Tzu would be the next topic of discussion. Being a handy guide for both learning Taoist ideas and understanding the historical context around them, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Merton begins the book by situating Chuang Tzu alongside other ancient Chinese philosophers such as Lao Tzu and Confucius. Once primed with some contextual knowledge, he launches into various Taoist poems and fable-like stories–or what he refers to in his note to readers as “free interpretative readings” of Chuang Tzu’s works. Having read another of Merton’s books, the fantastic and worthwhile Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, I am trusting of his interpretations. However, as I’m not a religious scholar or an experienced Taoist, I thought I would connect the Taoist ideas here to something I know much better: hip hop.

Deceased Minnesota rapper Eyedea made music about the struggles of living. His lyrics gravitated towards topics like mental illness and human connection rather than the various rap tropes that typically (and often unfairly) define the genre. My favorite of his songs, “Here For You,” reflects a Taoist belief system that would have made Merton smile.

The song opens with dialogue from a somewhat obscure movie called Pushing Tin, in which John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton converse:

Billy Bob: There is a way out of this mess and shit. You just cant think your way out of it. Thought is your enemy.

John: I know, I know. I got to think less. I had that thought actually.

Billy Bob: You have to let go.

John: Let go. Let go of what?

Billy Bob: Let go of you. I mean, think about it, what have you done for you lately?

John: I’m having trouble following you there, Russell.

Billy Bob: You have to jump in.

John: Jump in back on the scopes?

Billy Bob: No, in the water.

John: The river?

Billy Bob: Yes, jump in the river!

I have never seen Pushing Tin (it has a 48% on Rotten Tomatoes), so I’m not sure how this conversation is meaningful to John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, but for Eyedea’s purpose, it provides a psychological lens for understanding the rest of the song. Chuang Tzu’s poem “Man is Born in Tao,” begins with the words, “Fish are born in water. Men are born in Tao.” Though Cusack fails to understand, Billy Bob essentially wants him to go with the flow. Overthinking and worrying are symptoms of man suffocating outside of Tao the same way a fish would suffocate outside of water. When we resist the flow of life by constantly overthinking and attempting to control events, we inevitably suffer like Cusack does in the snippet.

For nearly the entire first verse, Eyedea uses the “life as river” analogy to relay his message about non-control. It might be an overused comparison, but it works wonders for Eyedea’s purposes:

Were all born into this river without knowing how to swim
And eventually we learn how to keep this water under our chins
Some times this rivers so cold to be in
Freezing my soul, solidifying my skin
Regardless of how far I see, I never see my travels end
Were carried by the current, being driven by the wind
The scenery we pass, we’ll never see again
So we store it up as memories and don’t let go of them
Were under a spell thinking the river should go straight
We set goals and desires to control our own fate
But all the pain we experience is a result of our expectations
Because it’s the rivers nature to twist and turn

In Chuang Tzu’s “When Life was Full There Was No History,” he reminisces about prehistory–a time when people “loved each other and did not know this was ‘love thy neighbor’, when people lived freely together giving and taking, and did not know they were generous.” Though Chuang Tzu appears to be taking aim at the political environment of his age, his words can be applied in a much more personal way. Expectations, hopes, goals, and dreams seem harmless, even positive, but from a Taoist point of view, these all point towards a specific vision of oneself. Legacies and histories are born in expectations and hopes, either setting oneself up for disappointment when they don’t happen, or disillusionment when they do. In a recent television show I was watching, a wife screamed at her husband, “Life doesn’t happen to you! You make it,” or something like that. For both Eyedea and Chuang Tzu, letting life happen to you is the only way to achieve anything resembling inner peace.

About seventy-five percent through the verse, Eyedea has encouraged his fellow humans to let the current take them, but he has not provided enough of a reason to do this. What is the river, who controls it, and why should I let it control me? The last six lines apprehend these questions:

I stare up at the naked moon, and she stares down at me
Outside thoughts boundaries, I’m all I look outward to see.
The universe is not something separate from yourself
I know you feel alone, but that’s why I’m here to help
I know you feel alone, but just look up at the stars
And everything that is out there is what you really are

Outside thoughts boundaries, I’m all I look outward to see is perhaps more Taoist than anything in Merton’s book. We need to trust the river’s guidance because the river is us. Our consciousness may have become detached from the life force that we all share, but we nonetheless share it. We are all, like the wonderful Neil Degrasse Tyson likes to remind us, star stuff. If we can remember that we are quite literally made of the same stuff flowing down the river and shed the oppositional stance we take towards everything that is perceived separate from ourselves, then we may flow down the river of life without worry. Good and bad, in this equation, are indistinguishable, as the river simply flows.

In his second verse, Eyedea takes the river idea a step further. If we are all the river, then we are all in each other as well:

Now I want you to know
The role you play is part of the whole
Without you it couldn’t be, and I mean that with compassion
So if you ever need anything, I mean anything at all
I’m here for you; all you gotta do is ask man
I’m here for you, in the same way that you’re here for me
Each person in an intricate piece of infinity
I feel that if you could see what I see
Then we as humanity could be free
I’m here for you, not for any self centered reasons
But because existence is interdependent and all is related,
Connected as different manifestations of one single mind
You ain’t isolated from the world even though it feels like that sometimes

In this verse, Eyedea has a suggestion for anyone that feels lonely, unloved, forgotten, or undervalued–look within yourself, for we are all there. Chuang Tzu’s story “Confucius and the Madman” considers utility and the cost of such. Seeing Confucius, the madman approaches him and says, “The grease that feeds the light devours itself. The cinnamon tree is edible: so it is cut down,” and so on. After a few more examples, the madman says, “No one seems to know, how useful it is to be useless.” Usefulness is related to control, which is in turn related to ego. Why do we need to be useful when we are all one entity? Rather than railing against utility, Chuang Tzu is concerned with uneven ideas. It is not that the madman is better than those other things that are useful, but rather he is equal to them. There is no usefulness without use, no you without me. This interdependence is the place where a several-thousand-year-old Chinese philosopher and a modern-era Rhymesayer meet. Each person, as Eyedea posits, is an intricate piece of infinity. If we are one, then I guess we are as alone as it gets–together.

Miss you, Mikey.

Next post: Evicted by Matthew Desmond