By October, music had failed me.
In the beginning of the pandemic, music from my youth carried me through the ups and downs of navigating life during a global health crisis. The music I returned to again and again was a strange mix of songs that I associated with specific periods in my life: Motown, Grand Funk Railroad, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, Jimi Hendrix, 1990s hip hop, and jazz. A lot of jazz, but primarily John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Charles Mingus.
All the music that comforted me shared a certain vitality, a vitality that kept me correct and held me together. Each time, for example, when I heard Aretha Franklin sing “Say A Little Prayer,” I was overwhelmed with emotion. Her voice has that effect. It’s clear and true, and other worldly in its power. Whenever I listened to the song, I imagined that Aretha was looking down and saying a little prayer for all of us, keeping us safe.
Smokey Robinson? Perhaps one of the greatest composers of all time, and a national treasure in the United States. Robinson continually demonstrated that a song doesn’t have to be long and complicated to be great and there is great efficiency in his writing. “Tears of A Clown,” with the Miracles, is an exegesis in song writing, a three minute symphony, with a hook for the ages. All Smokey has to do is sing four words at the beginning of the song and you’re all in: “oh yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Grand Funk Railroad was a group that was often mocked in its heyday. The band created bombastic, over-blown rock music that was sometimes catchy but often grating, too. “I’m Your Captain” is the yin to the yang of “Tears of A Clown.” (Yang to yin?) It is a bloated, self-indulgent quasi hard rock song with nonsensical lyrics. “I’m your captain, I’m your captain, although I’m feeling, mighty sick.” Huh? It’s vaguely Homeric but oblique in meaning. Is the narrator on an actual journey or a metaphorical one? A quest? Returning home from war? (The song was released in 1970.) The song features the sound of lapping waves as it teeters off to…somewhere. (“Champagne Supernova,” anyone?) But to my ears, the song still expresses a longing, a yearning for something, a desire to get home. It is a desire and a yearning that many of us have been unable to assuage, at great and painful cost, for ourselves and for people we care about.
There were also hip hop songs that I returned to daily, songs that I played repeatedly and obsessively, much to the consternation of those stuck in the house with me. These 10 songs bucked me up, made me cry, straightened up my spine, inspired me, awed me and pushed me forward, in spite of everything.
But then, when the leaves dropped from the trees, and the days grew shorter, darker and colder, I cracked. Just before Halloween, I turned the music off and, for more than six weeks, I couldn’t turn it back on.
On Christmas night, for some reason, the fog lifted. I don’t have any great insight into what happened. I cannot identify what caused the change in my mood. There was no precise trigger, or event. All I can offer you is a list of songs that brought me comfort. If you’re a hip hop fan, maybe these songs will bring you comfort, too. These songs might be a source of comfort to you even if you’re not a hip hop fan. Give them a listen.
Here, in no particular order, are the 10 hip hop songs that have sustained me in our Pandemic Year.
- Jay Cinema and Jacob Barlow – “Realize,” from the EP Peace of Mind, Mind of Peace (2020): The Yonkers rapper Jay Cinema has an eye for detail and the ability to articulate the boiling emotions of young adult-hood keenly and with empathy, for both himself and those around him. The beauty of this song is that I can relate to it from the perspective of my younger self, and as the parent that I am today. It’s also inspirational and aspirational. In the song, Jay realizes that he needs to tune out the nay-sayers and even the people who love him, to pursue his art and his dreams. It concisely captures the emotional sacrifices required of artists. Sample lyric: “I know my mom, like, ‘boy you smart, please go back to school’/Sorry ma, this is my life/I’m making up the rules.” In October, Jay dropped the album BrwnCinema, with producer Brwnsounds, and it is his best collection yet. The writing is tighter and he sounds more confident in his rapping.
2. Kahlil Blu – “Runway Talk,” from the album Still Lonely: DOG XL (2020). Blu released this song as a single in June and then included it on the expanded version of his latest album, Still Lonely: DOG XL. Blu creates pop music that he happens to rap over, although he can sing, too. His songs tend to be bright; they sparkle and shine, but the gloss sometimes disguises lyrics about depression and anxiety, expressed with honesty and courage. This track is an infectious piece of ear candy that winnows its way into your brain and won’t let go, in the best way possible. You can throw it on when you want to dance around the house, wash the dishes, sing in the shower or if you just want to work on your neck snapping abilities. Verse number two is handled by MAVI, the charismatic artist from Charlotte, North Carolina, who, hopefully, will have his break-out moment in 2021.
3. ZekeUltra – “Carry Me Home.” ZekeUltra released this song as a single in September of 2019, an eternity ago, but the song endures. With its inherent spiritually, and affirmation in the face of obstacles and challenges, it feels like a gospel song, and not just because of the sample. Zeke often preaches when he raps; he beseeches and implores, sometimes with a come on, sometimes with a joke, and sometimes, like in this song, with an appeal to our better angels. Here, Zeke carries you home, and I have probably listened to this song more in the past 10 months than any other. Sample lyric: “I’m cutting’ back/Life wouldn’t be worth it if I wasn’t black/Life wouldn’t be perfect without love attached to it, for real.” Later this month, I will write more specifically about Zeke and his music, but he is one of the best artists working in music today and if you don’t know him, you should. In December, Zeke released the EP From Time. If “Headstone,” the last cut on the EP, doesn’t move you, nothing will. As Zeke might say, “facts.”
4. Nappy Nina – “What You Want,” from the album Dumb Doubt (2019). Nina released the album Dumb Doubt in December of 2019. It’s a collection of beautiful and insightful songs that reflect Nina’s considerable rapping and writing skills. The Brooklyn-based artist is a beat poet with a sharp pen and a smooth delivery. There is a warmth to her voice and in her flow that makes her instantly likable and relatable. This song is jazzy and smoky, the piano lines melancholy, yet hopeful. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire carries us out of the song with an interpolation of the gospel song “This Little Light of Mine.” When the sound of his horn finally devolves into chaos, spitting and sputtering out notes, what you’ll want is more, from both Nina and her guests. Nappy Nina’s new single is “Weight.” In May, she dropped the EP 30 Bag.
5. Earl Sweatshirt – “Inside,” from I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t go Outside (2015). Is there a better artist for a pandemic than Earl Sweatshirt? And, in his prescience, he perhaps created the ultimate quarantine album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt. The song “Inside,” and in fact the whole album, have a complex providence that Earl scholars know well, and doesn’t need repeating here. (It involves the island nation of Samoa.) “Inside” is, at its simplest, a song for staying inside but it is also about so much more than that. Sample lyric: “I blow a spliff before the ink dries on the paper (yup)/And, lately, I don’t like shit, I been inside on the daily (daily).” Earl, on behalf of the world, we feel you. Mightily. Earl Sweatshirt’s latest EP is Feet of Clay.
6. Earl Sweatshirt – “EL TORO COMBO MEAL,” from the album FEET OF CLAY EP (2019). Earl can be morose, but this song bursts forth from the album, and MAVI, who handles verse one, tears it up right out of the gate. He spits as if his house was on fire and he’s trying to put out the flames with his words. About two-thirds of the way in, Earl takes a turn and plays it cool. There are many great lines in this song, so many in fact that it’s hard to pick just one bar. Sample lyric goes to Mr. Sweatshirt: “We gon get it by our own means/Rest In Peace to my Ras G/Raw fruit in the box seats.”
7. MIKE – “GOD’S WITH ME,” from the EP BY THE WATER (2017). The Brooklyn hip hop artist MIKE has launched a thousand rap careers, and that figure probably underestimates the weight and scope of his influence as a rapper, producer, mentor and founder of the arts collective, [sLUms]NYC. MIKE writes about the sacred and the profane with equal proficiency. This song isn’t overtly religious, other than the title, but the piano melody that pushes it to its climax feels liturgical. MIKE raps confidently and firmly here, without the vulnerability and doubt and loss that permeate many of his songs. It’s an anthem to struggle, struggling and strugglers. Sample lyric: “Mama say, ‘you a jewel, let your pearls bleed’/Drama stay in a loop when you thirsty/I been hungry/Still ain’t go uptown/I ain’t call auntie/Maybe when I touch down/Nah, it’s been a long week.” MIKE’s most recent EP is under the dj blackpower handle, BLP 2020 “king of the night.” In June, MIKE dropped the full length weight of the world.
8. Navy Blue – “To Give Praise,” from the album Àdá Irin (2020). The skateboarder Sage Elsesser, who creates music under the name Navy Blue, released his debut album in 2020, Àdá Irin, a beautiful collection of spiritual, contemplative rap, with woozy, crackling beats. “To Give Praise,” which ends the album, and includes a glistening trumpet loop, is a song about perseverance and loss, but also about gratitude and hope. It contains a spoken word outro, but the speaker is not identified. (Mother? Grandmother?) It’s an ending that packs an emotional wallop, and it’s worth a listen all by itself. The speaker’s voice emanates wisdom and calm. Sample lyric: “To give praise, my darling, is to lift oneself up from the muck, from the human turmoil that we’re in, and look around and be grateful for each moment of life/Be grateful for the learning that we get, and to say ‘I’m alive and I’m learning, and I’m grateful.’ All praises due.” These are wise words for our world. Navy Blue released his latest project, Song of Sage: Post Panic!, in December.
9. Ovrkast. – “Try Again,” from the album Try Again (2020). Ovrkast., a rapper and producer from Oakland, California released his debut album last January. The title track is a tribute to the commitment and dedication required for a life in the arts, or really in the pursuit of anything that is important in one’s life. Battling with self-doubt, and feelings of inadequacy are universal challenges and here, Ovrkast. wrestles with these forces and, prevails, producing an album of depth and substance. The chorus of this song is a mantra: “try again, try again, do it all over again, try again.” But in the song, Ovrkast. acknowledges that he must fight off these feelings every time he sits down to create. Sample lyric: “I’m sad and sulking, with my notes open/ Tryna think of words/Picked apart my day to put anxiety to work/I’m sick of thinking I don’t do enough/My quality is hurting/I can’t put the pencil down and start some different verses.”
10. MAVI – “Moonfire,” from Let The Sun Talk (2019). MAVI released his debut album in October of 2019. There are thirteen tracks on the record and no features. “Moonfire” is the last cut, and it was produced by MIKE, under his dj blackpower alias. MIKE triggers a simple, spare piano loop here, adds some effects and a drum machine, and lets MAVI do his thing. It’s a powerful song and MAVI raps with emotion and heart. There’s an overriding feeling of both anguish and wistfulness to the song, and a beauty in its starkness. MAVI’s lyrics are often cryptic, but there is a literary quality to his writing that always makes his words interesting and compelling, even if you are unsure of his subject matter. MAVI is a major talent, and perhaps he will gift us with a new album for this new year. Sample lyric: “My craft is a crap shoot/I bask ’cause I’m a natural/I clash with my antagonist/I laugh, they think the battle’s new/I failed off what I had to see/Got the fuck up/Brush my self off, cursing gravity/Burning rubber to preserve my burnt anatomy.”