Childish Gambino, JAY-Z & Why Great Art Doesn't Need to Reflect Your Reality

You don’t have to be a parent to experience the joys and terrors of parenthood.

Sincere terror bleeds from the heart of Childish Gambino as he begs on "Baby Boy.” Please, the singer humbly requests, singing with soaring vocals as if he’s making the request on his knees. Please, he repeats, again and again, hoping that somehow these words capture a feeling too raw to be conveyed by what’s between the pages of Webster.

Sorrow has been devoured and sorrow is what vomits from his lungs as he attempts to keep his son from being removed and ripped away from him. This is his pride and joy, the apple of his universe, the happiness he refuses to cease pursuing―all of this is captured in his trembling, aching deposition as if he’s asking a powerful deity to spare him the most excruciating pain.

The worries and fears Gambino summons from the depths of his spirit touched me despite those very worries and fears not existing in my childless world. Not having a son doesn’t negate the emotional empathy that causes a wave of sadness to submerge me with each new listen. I feel for him, and that feeling is why the song left an unforgettable presence after "Awaken, My Love" ended. "Baby Boy" provided emotions beyond my understanding but captures them in a language that translates: the language of uncertainty, grief, and longing. Emotion is what keeps us connected, linking cables to our soul. 

Is it possible to forget Scarface’s voice on JAY-Z's “This Can’t Be Life”? The moment when he says, “You don’t really know how this is,” where his voice suddenly rises like the pressure of a busted pipe and all his emotions begin to flood out? Every word that follows is said in a painful quiver as if finishing the verse is all that’s keeping the tears from stampeding. There’s a sense of possession; no matter if the song was for JAY-Z or Jaz-O, he was going to utter a few words to comfort a friend suffering from an unbelievable loss—a loss he couldn’t fathom. But the reality of losing a child became too much to bear for the man who once wrote a song about watching a man die. His hurt becomes your hurt, the gripping sadness pulls you in like a whirlpool with a current too strong to escape. Face attempts to apply spiritual ointment to a scar that will never heal. You don’t have to be a parent to sympathize with this level of distress and compassion.

JAY-Z’s maturation through fatherhood is allowing a transparency in his music that he has rarely shown in his career. You don’t get a song like “Jay-Z Blue” on Magna Carta Holy Grail without him realizing how his mistakes pose dire consequences for his family. Despite more press surrounding his recent openness on 4:44, Jay has been painfully honest throughout his catalog.

One of the best examples is “Where Have You Been,” the final song on The Dynasty alongside Beanie Sigel. Bean’s begins by wiping tears from his eyes. There are few rappers who are respected for their rawness like Beans, but this was a rare scene in which his armor was removed and a man dealing with growing pains of a fatherless home laid bare. He is brutally honest, a father and son conversation that the world is allowed to witness. He can barely finish the verse without breaking down in tears.

Pain and purity mix to give you the perfect portrait of a broken home. Jay doesn’t follow Beans' tear-stained verse with tears of his own, but rather with a deep resentment of being abandoned. With fury in his eyes, his tongue is practically on fire as he goes on a tirade that ends with him overcoming despite being left and unloved. Rage and pride are the ingredients of Jay’s middle finger cocktail. Imagining history repeat itself and him leaving Blu Ivy feeling the way he once did only adds to the emotion.

My father and I have a relationship that is nothing like the one described in “Where Have You Been,” but I can’t finish the song without carrying the waves of sadness and anger both artists exhibit for their fathers. When the music is this real, you don’t have to relate to also be moved. You never forget the feeling of music that moves you.

I remember being moved to tears by “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” Maybe because I have a younger cousin named Brenda in my family and the song left me visualizing the scenes Tupac rapped with an actual face. “She wrapped the baby up and threw him in a trash heap” was such raw imagery that you're left with countless emotions swirling like a mini tornado in your heart. You sympathize with this young girl who is a baby herself, and the crying newborn who has been placed in the home of Oscar the Grouch. She can’t leave the baby, but her inability to care for this fatherless child brings about a string of unfortunate attempts that lead to prostitution and murder. It’s a well-crafted universe of bad decisions, predating MTV, showing us teen pregnancy as a source of reality entertainment. It wasn't worth TV coverage when Pac made the song, and maybe that's what made it so real and raw. How do you not feel for this child? Brenda and her baby were real, and they’re still real.

Pain, sorrow, and rage aren’t the only emotions that move the soul. I can remember a sense of elation while listening to The Game’s “Like Father, Like Son” during my first listen to The Documentary. The Compton rapper documents the birth of his son and being overcome with an overwhelming amount of anxiousness and excitement. Everything about the three verses displays a father who just can’t help to share, holding up his first son like Simba ready to take over Pride Rock. A sequel was made for The Documentary 2, a tribute to fatherhood.

Daughters” by Nas is the other side of fatherhood, dealing with children who are no longer babies but adolescents on the way to adulthood. You see Nas trying to jumble being a good father and realizing how he could’ve and should’ve done more for his daughter. It’s a refreshing reflection that puts Nas the astounding storyteller in new shoes, especially when you contrast “Daughters” to “Poppa Was a Playa.”

Eminem can also be found in this boat. No matter how many lyrical miracles he’s able to conjure, two of my all-time favorite Em records are “Mockingbird” and  “When I’m Gone.” His daughter has always been a source of inspiration; even when he was burying his wife’s corpse on the beach, Hailie was there. Gruesome, but you can always feel his love for her. “Mockingbird” and “When I’m Gone” both showcase stardom collapsing upon him, devouring him internally. “Go out there and show them that you love them more than us,” he recites at the end of “When I’m Gone” from the perspective of his daughter. Trying to keep it all together while everything falls apart. Even the worst nightmares of being a dad in rap can be felt by those who aren’t fathers and those who don’t rap.

Happiness is what we chase, the Road Runner to our Wile E. Coyote. I’ve heard the greatest joy—a bliss unlike any other—is the feeling that comes with having a child. But that’s not the only feeling; being a parent is a 128 Crayola crayon box of emotions. Sometimes the best art is the kind that doesn’t reflect your reality. When art can throw you into a completely different world with a plethora of undiscovered sentiments, new perspectives are born.

I like music that takes my ears and my heart to places they haven’t been and leaves me with an impression to muse upon. The terror of “Baby Boy” and the triumphant of “Like Father, Like Son” showed me two sides of being a new dad, the same way “Brenda’s Got A Baby” and “This Can’t Be Life” present how unfair life can be to the young and innocent. From the hardest hoods to the sunniest suburbias, it's impossible not to feel these lyrics if your heart pumps blood. 

Maybe one day I’ll be a parent and have to face these feelings firsthand, but for now, I’m fine living vicariously through the songs and stories of artists who have mastered the language of allowing art to imitate life.

Bless hip-hop and the storytellers who paint worlds with their words.

By Yoh, aka Baby Boy Yoh, aka @Yoh31