What’s more glamorous than jumping out of a parked car in a bank parking lot to throw up?
Or, going to the hospital to find out you have a benign brain tumor crushing your pituitary gland?
Or, learning that you’re going to need brain surgery sooner rather than later?
Or, flipping a near-death experience into the blueprint for how you listen to and grow with your favorite albums? But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.
Before the surgery, I spent two horrifically sterile weeks in a pediatric intensive care unit getting my sodium levels stable. Without getting too clinical: if your sodium drops too low too quickly, you get headaches followed by nausea, followed by a possible seizure, punctuated by an untimely death. I was 17. This was capital “a” a lot to handle.
I spent my days in PICU getting various tests done, having blood drawn. My head pain was an excruciating blend of searing, stabbing, and throbbing. Meaning, I couldn’t look at anything for longer than 20 minutes without having to close my eyes and cradle my head. Anything more thought-provoking than a cooking show was out of the question.
Thankfully, I had my music.
The album I listened to the most while in the hospital was Blue Slide Park. Mac Miller’s joyous celebration of his youth and love for Big L-inspired punchlines did what it could to deliver me from my droning days. Now, Blue Slide Park is far from the perfect album. It’s derivative in its themes, immature at its worst and endearingly childish at its best, and one of Mac’s most distracted projects. In more ways than one, though, the album was exactly what I needed.
On the surface, the album was an obvious out. I’d much rather be party-hopping with Mac Miller, imagining myself stunting on everyone, and gawking at Mac’s throwing up nightly, then surrender to the incessant clamor of the MRI machine. Anthems like “My Team” kept me company in the way I imagine the nurses were trying to when they suggested banal activities like “hospital bed yoga” and another round of watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
More importantly, Mac didn’t know where he was going with that project. His uncertainty in the music mirrored my hopelessness. Most mornings, I would wake up already in tears, certain that my life would total up to the groan of the hospital bed adjusting to my restless body. The regrets set in immediately: I hadn’t written enough, read enough, heard enough, worked hard enough, anything enough.
And my biggest fear while in the hospital? I hadn’t taken my time with my life.
Blue Slide Park sounds like a mad dash to experience as much as possible, but that rush muddies the tracks into two categories: happy party song and sad party song. Without knowing it, the mistakes Miller makes on his debut album capture the mistakes I was lamenting while in the hospital. The stupor of anxiety I was prone to thinking myself into dulled every experience I had, but I never believed that forward-thinking could be such a hindrance until I began spending my time in a hospital.
After my surgery, my approach to life and the music I listened to fundamentally changed. I began to slow down and fall into a deep love with singularity. A near-death experience lends itself to finding your focus. I became more zealous with my writing, more dedicated to taking deep breaths. The near-cloying urge to do as much as possible every second of every day was replaced with a new sense of mindfulness that I also found in albums stewing in a monolithic emotion: Atmosphere's God Loves Ugly, Aesop Rock's Labor Days—and more recently—Noname's Telefone, Mac's Faces, and Isaiah Rashad's The Sun’s Tirade. You can criticize God Loves Ugly for not having enough movement, but I would still call the project aptly contemplative.
On God Loves Ugly, Atmosphere's sophomore album, Slug dissects his vices from every angle, leaving no stone unturned in terms of self-reflection. I imagine he is better for it, able to walk away from the making of the record with a stronger understanding of who he was at the time. Pre-op, I would have found the album to be a slog. Post-op, I regard God Loves Ugly as one of the most constructive self-meditations to ever be put on wax. Ant’s beats on the album force Slug under a microscope and, in turn, I’ve learned that there can be no growth without a few ugly close-ups.
Noname similarly immerses herself in the brightest shades of grief and loss on Telefone. I imagine her coping with the gravity of alcoholism and abortion, of losing her friends and loved ones, by living through the feelings as opposed to running. While Mac Miller jogged between a swath of underdeveloped emotions on his debut, Noname is able to overcome by becoming one with her pain. Had Telefone come out while I was in the hospital, I’m not sure if I would have been ready to fully appreciate her message, but it would have been the perfect record for the time nonetheless.
I’ve gotten more out of my life and my music by adopting this new methodical mantra. Taking my time with things has allowed me to accomplish more and make more meaningful connections with my music. Albums that I would have missed have conversely soundtracked some of my most triumphant days. Imagining the fall without Isaiah Rashad’s woes on The Sun’s Tirade seems impossible when I consider how his confrontations with addiction and depression got me out of bed and into the daylight.
I’m fortunate enough to be able to say that my tumor was the best thing to ever happen to me. Brain surgery refocused my approach to life and my taste in music, all while teaching me an important message: you don’t progress by running as much as you could by letting yourself take a moment to sit down.