A note before we begin-
The seeds of this essay were planted in 2017. It’s a year I struggle to recall fondly. It’s also a year that brought us three important works from three artists I admire. For that I am grateful to it. In April, it gave us Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. In October, Julien Baker’s Turn Out The Lights. And in November, Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us.
The seeds of this essay were watered in 2018 when I wrote down its bones after a trip around the country that I’d taken in search of something I wasn’t sure was there to find. At the time, I was lost; Lamar, Baker, and Abdurraqib provided map, lantern, and compass. I was just starting to learn how to hope. Their works showed me that I could; that it’d probably be hard, but I should.
The seeds of this essay have grown roots and limbs and leaves in the time since. I have grown hopes and goals and dreams in the time since.
And now, years later, it looks like we may again be getting three new works from this inimitable trio in one trip around the sun. Julien Baker’s new album, Little Oblivions, was released just as February came to a close. Hanif Abdurraqib’s new book, A Little Devil in America, hit shelves in March. If the rumors are to be believed, Kendrick Lamar’s follow-up may also be on the horizon. A not-insignificant part of me hopes he includes the word Little in its title.
I don’t yet know what direction these new works will point me. Revisiting this essay and the trip it recalls showed me how much had changed in the years since the ones explored here were released. Trying to have enough patience for the person I was back then to sit with these words again and shape them into something more true was hard and weird and unexpectedly so. Doing so made me realize that even though a lot of things have changed, some things remain the same. I no longer wander through life in a hungover haze, but I still explore new places alone more often than not. I still don’t always know where I’m headed, but I have a stronger sense of where I’ve been.
It’s through this sharper lens that I look back now.
“Stay humble” is spray-painted on the sidewalk on a corner in Pilsen across from where I’ve ducked into a coffee shop because it was there and I was hungry, but mostly because I needed to hide from a man who had wanted to make sure I knew Chicago had killers.
He might just have been trying to be friendly, but he’d walked beside me in heavy silence for a few blocks before abruptly asking where exactly I was headed. He’d also asked where my husband was; I hadn’t corrected his assumption. The gloves I wore blocked out the harsh wind and hid my otherwise naked ring finger, conspiring in my lie of omission.
I’d told him I was “staying with friends” because I’m always “staying with friends” even when I’m thousands of miles from anyone I’ve ever known. Sometimes, far from home, a friend is just a familiar face inviting you in from the cold so when I saw the mural of Frida Kahlo painted on the outside of the coffee shop a few blocks from where I’d shaken hands and shaken him off, I’d taken it as a sign.
“Stay humble” is spray-painted on the sidewalk on a corner in Pilsen and from my seat by the window I can no longer see it but I know it’s still there and I’m thinking about Kendrick Lamar who tells us to sit down, be humble.
And I’m also thinking about the Lyft driver from the day before who’d reached to turn the music down before asking, seemingly as a dare, if I liked Damn. How he had admitted that he’d thought I was maybe thirteen years old, dropped his jaw and swerved the car a little when I told him how old I really was and that, yes, I listened to Kendrick. How he’d shaken his head and chuckled to himself before turning the music up.
And I’m thinking about how he had told me, proudly, that there would be a lot of f-bombs on our 45 minute drive because he was unapologetic, always had been, always would be. And I’m thinking about how I don’t remember the last time I felt like I didn’t have something to apologize for. How when I’d been walking earlier even the sound of my steps on the pavement had seemed too loud. How the echoes had felt like a thing I should be sorry for because even though I like it, this isn’t my neighborhood to make noise in.
And I’m thinking about the night before when I had made a lot of noise and taken up a lot of space in other places I had no claim to. How I hadn’t quite felt unapologetic but had woken up this morning almost feeling free and big and good until the sidewalk reminded me -
A few hours later I’m sitting in a train car and I’m listening to Julien Baker loudly, waiting to depart and for the chorus to come in. I know it’s a bad idea but I’m still a bit hungover and feeling nostalgic for the good I’ve known but also for the bad so when I say I’m listening to Julien Baker what I really mean is I am waiting to cry.
There are two moments in “Sour Breath” where the instruments drop out and there is nothing but Baker’s voice to hold on to, to orient yourself by. The first is a minor shock, a sudden fall - the air catches in your throat but there’s still something from which to draw your next gasp.
The second is not so kind.
The music swirls, all guitars and repetition, building and building and building until suddenly the instruments fall away again but this time the floor beneath you goes too. And even though the lyrics have warned you that this is a song about struggle- that this might be a song about drowning - you forgot to fill your lungs. As Baker sings, this is a song about swimming hard but it is also a song about sinking fast, and she sings like she knows you might not believe her unless she yanks away the melody and leaves no more room for doubt.
So when I say I am waiting to cry, what I really mean is I am waiting for this moment in this song because lately there have been too many moments outside of the music where it has felt like my world has fallen away completely and it seems like maybe it’s time for the tears to fall too.
But I keep waiting for them to come, past that moment and into the next song and the one after. I keep waiting but my eyes are too busy tracing the way a train going the other direction is casting shadows - rapidly pushing me in and out of darkness. And now I’m thinking that maybe I’m too dehydrated to give in to the impulse anyway.
The night before, I’d gotten to see Hanif Abduraqqib interviewed by Jessica Hopper in a book store in a far corner of Chicago. The tickets to the event had all been spoken for, but I was able to get in because I’d done a thing I don’t normally like to do. I’d asked.
One of the strangers who’d answered my request said something in a loud and hazy bar afterwards that cut through the noise. And now I’m thinking about how he’d said that when Abdurraqib was reading from his work there were moments where “the collective intake of breath” from the audience had felt like a symbol of us all trying to hold it together, together.
And now I’m thinking about another stranger beside me in that crowd who hadn’t bothered trying to hold it in and had given me the freedom to try a little less.
I’m thinking about how Abdurraqib had read from a piece he’d written on Julien Baker’s latest album. In the essay, Abduraqqib talks about how he had his car stolen once and the person who stole it ended up rolling it in a car chase; ended up dying in this stolen car, trapped by the seat belt because they’d swerved to take an exit and missed.
I wasn’t dehydrated then, not yet, so I did cry thinking about how what Abdurraqib might have really been pointing to wasn’t so much the way it had felt surreal to see his car on the news without him in it, but how sometimes “it could have been me” is spoken with horror and awe but also with a tinge of jealousy. I’m thinking about how when I was eighteen I had picked my exit but made the decision to keep driving even though sometimes, not often anymore, it can be really hard to keep the car between the lines.
Abdurraqib talked about how sometimes when he’s driving he misses his exit on purpose to try and recapture the magic of not having a destination. And now I’m thinking about all of the stoplights I’ve sat at in the last six months when I knew I should have been sleeping, but needed to keep moving more than I needed the rest. I’m thinking about all the roads I’ve driven down when I should have been at home but needed the speakers turned up near as loud as they could go to be reminded that it didn’t matter that I didn’t know where I was going because there wasn’t anywhere I had to be.
Hopper asked Abdurraqib where he gets his hope from, given all he’s seen and done. This is a question that sounds brutal unless you know that these two know each other and have for years and that this is something of a homecoming. The question posed is not an attack so much as a friend setting him up for a lay up.
Abdurraqib talked about his hope coming from the opportunity to be a better person next week. Talked about how it comes from the fact that there are now people he wants to see grow old - his friends, his partner, his niece who is already so good at basketball that he wants to make sure he gets to see her improve.
“I bought a plant,” was tossed out as a joke but now I’m also thinking about how this is the kind of hope that gets you through. It’s the glimmers of hope that come from the small things that you cling to that often matter the most. It’s these mundane bits of optimism that sneak up on you, seep into your routine and serve as the tiny symbols that show you care, that you want to stick around to see how it all plays out after all.
“Hurt Less” is the Julien Baker song that Abdurraqib focused on and the one that has that brand of hope- the kind that at once acknowledges that things can be sort of shit sometimes and still propels you forward to a better version of the person you are today.
Abdurraqib used the word “barrelling” to describe the momentum that can come with this kind of hope. To have it is to believe that you could be headed towards something better and are picking up speed.
In his book, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Abdurraqib writes about sadness - about its pervasiveness, its darkness, its sometimes unrelentingness. But he also writes about how the fact of sadness doesn’t have to be all-consuming.
In the essay “Brief Notes on Staying // No One is Making Their Best Work When They Want to Die,” he writes:
“I am sad today, but I held, in my hands, a picture of me on a day where I was not sad. In it, the sunlight leaked over my face in a city I love, and my eyes were wide and eager. I am sad yesterday, and I might be sad tomorrow, and even the day after. But I will be here, looking for a way out, every time.”
And when I read these words, what I hear is Kendrick Lamar. I hear “ELEMENT.” I hear him saying that sometimes it’ll feel like there’s no one looking out for you, it’ll seem like maybe nobody’s praying for you. I hear him implying that it’ll feel really damn lonely sometimes but if you’re patient and if you just keep moving, there will be days where you get to do the things you want to do, days where you get to loudly assert your right to stay in your element, days where you get to stay here.
I hear him saying that if you stick around long enough, the sunlight will hit your face right and you might even get to make staying look sexy.
And in that same essay, Abdurraqib goes on to acknowledge the struggle that getting to that light can be, saying:
“But the way I think about grief is that it is the great tug-of-war… and sometimes, the game has exhausted all of its joy, and all that’s left is you on your knees. But, today, even though I am sad, my hands are still on the rope.”
And when I read these words, what I hear is Julien Baker. I hear “Hurt Less” again. I hear her asking to keep the car running, to any destination, because now she’s realized she’s not ready to give into all that sadness after all. And I hear the sparking tinders of hope that come at the end of the song.
This is a song about driving around in circles to pass the time, about admitting you have sometimes wondered if you want it to keep passing at all. It is a song about darkness until the moment when you realize it is actually a song about finally acknowledging the shadows of sadness that follow you, about facing them instead of shying away. It is a song about hopelessness until the moment when it is actually a song about believing there’s hope to be found. About believing we just might be able to find it together if the key stays in the ignition and the road keeps going by.
It is a song about wanting to try no matter how long it takes, because, as Abdurraqib knows:
“Life is too long, despite the cliche. Too long, and sometimes too painful. But I imagine I have made it too far. I imagine, somewhere around some corner, the best part is still coming.”
And when I read these words, what I hear is everyone, is all of us. I hear Lamar telling us about all the pain and the poison in his DNA, but I also hear him reminding us that there is joy in it, too. I hear Baker singing about learning to live with your demons and your saints, how they might be one and the same. How the things that plague you might also someday be the ones that save you, might be the ones that change your mind. In all of their words, I hear the words of the people dearest to me who have held my hands on the rope when I couldn’t quite manage to grip it myself.
In their words, I hear the echoes of my own still-beating heart.
And now the train that I’m on is pulling out of the station and I’m barrelling towards another unfamiliar city. As I’m staring out the window I’m also clinging to the hope that whatever’s there will be something brighter than what I’ve left behind, something that may illuminate my path towards something a little bit louder, a little less humble.
And though I’m not sure how or where I expect to come across it, I can’t help but hope that I may be worthy of that light when I find it. That no matter what city I find it in, the light will be one I can shove in my suitcase and carry home.
It seems silly but as the miles start to go by and the landscape begins to blurs it also seems right and like Baker sings on another song - I have to believe that it is.
I hope that you’ll listen to the albums mentioned above in their entirety, but if you’d like to have Kendrick and Julien’s words swirled together in your brain like they are in mine, here’s a playlist to accompany this piece:
I am not a timely person, I process things slowly so, with the exception of Kendrick Lamar’s album Damn., the works explored above don’t remotely represent these artists’ most recent work. I hope you’ll spend time getting to know them, but I hope you’ll get current, too. It may take me another four years to find the words to unpack them here, so in the meantime…
Hanif Abdurraqib has published three additional books since They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us was published, and I can’t recommend any of them enough. Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest is a tribute of the highest order. The poetry collection A Fortune for Your Disaster is a book I regret lending to a friend because it means it is no longer within arms reach during quiet moments. And, this year’s A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance is nothing short of an absolute triumph.
After Turn Out the Lights was released, Julien Baker combined forces with Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers to form the supergroup/modern-take-on-Emmylou/Dolly/Linda’s-Trio boygenius, whose EP is still one of 2018s most stunning things. This year, she released Little Oblivions, which I have not gone a week without listening to since it came out in February. The entire thing is a masterpiece; the use of “barrelling” on the track “Relative Fiction” is magic.
All eyes are now on Kendrick Lamar.