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Evidence, Phonte & the Struggle to Accept Life’s Fragility

I wasn’t prepared.

I've never considered myself invincible.

Having almost died at 17, I never even had the opportunity to feel invincible. Instead, the youthful delusion I subscribed to was life and death as static and opposing entities. Modern medicine and the escapist pit that is new media have removed and desensitized us to unexpected death. The notion becomes: we die when we’re supposed to, and we’re supposed to die when we are old. Of course, this is not the case.

In truth, life does not approach death so much as we walk a fine line between the two and hope the wind blows in a favorable direction.

I say all of this is to say, I wasn’t prepared for my grandmother's recent hospitalization, despite her age (79) and her rapidly deteriorating health. At a time when I needed it most, though, Evidence’s Weather or Not was my saving grace.

Weather or Not is a series of confrontations, and while I was unequipped to confront the fragility of life directly, Evidence gave me a lens through which I could break my own denial. Take “Throw It All Away,” a song, ostensibly, about money, but following my grandmother's first night in the hospital, it became a song about object permanence, about life coming and going with an uncomfortable ease, and about the difficulty of navigating grief.

“I got some money, I'mma blow it all today / They say 'Michael, don't throw it all away' / And my reply was 'There's more on the way' / When I said it, I was walking in the rain.”

It’s harrowing to think of living as a utility, but it is. Life is inflated, dynamic, and flimsy like a dollar bill. The enigmatic “They” begging Evidence to save his money speaks both to our propensity to waste what we don’t understand—youth, primarily—and to my propensity to react with my whole self in the face of tragedy.

There’s an easily missed brilliance to the distancing technique in a line like “They say ‘Michael, don't throw it all away.’” The song hinges on the wrenching dig of this bar, and our voyeuristic tendencies in regards to advice. We can always better ourselves through the flaws of others, and Evidence’s willingness to critique himself creates a space for me to do the same, and thus the hard truths become palatable.

My grandma entering the hospital is a sign that death is as in motion as life: the rain coming down, the unaffected imperative of Weather or Not as a title. These are the facts of life—when life does not ask, and my only option is to be stronger. My desire to throw myself into grief only speaks to my denial, but listening to this song is like talking to myself in the throes of a panic attack. If you’re willing to talk to yourself, you’re willing to grow.

Growth comes in the form of a grander realization at my grandmother's rehabilitation facility in February. By this point, “Throw It All Away” is by far my most played song of 2018. A nurse serves my grandmother a hot lunch under a cheap blue cloche and my grandmother begins tearing the bread into fine pieces. I consider how the elasticity Evidence raps about can only stretch so far—he’s also in denial. There are no infinite rebounds, and life eventually bounces out and out until we realize we have no control. In that way, suddenly, “Throw It All Away” becomes a plea to cherish the present.

“It's the ignorance that causes all the bliss in my surroundings / 'Cause dealing with reality's like drawing out your boundaries.”

The fragility of life, for the moment, is a call to action. Fear is, for better or worse, a brilliant motivator. In spite of the inevitable, ripping pieces of bread is my grandmother’s only way of exacting the remains of her agency. The boundary she draws with her bread is her purpose, and purpose would not hold weight if life were eternal. Our sitting together in the rehab facility cafeteria would mean nothing if death was out of the question.

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On the final track, “By My Side Too,” Ev confronts his girlfriend’s mortality, wrestling with the urge to look away while trying to support her. Here, the potential energy of death and its aftershocks are impossible to navigate at a distance, but our bodies tell us to run.

“Hard to watch shit like this like give a fuck if you thug / Don't give a fuck if you seen it all you ain't seen this.”

I sit with my mother and she tells me she has nothing to look forward to, that her life is no longer worthwhile. We talk while she does her hair in silence and cries without a yelp, wipes her eyes and begins to put on makeup. My mother watches her mother die, while I watch my mother contemplate her own death, and I contemplate the reality of it all—all of this while we are still breathing.

The fragility of life is instantly humanizing. Constantly interfacing with death must be the most human condition. The suffering housed within more suffering increases our empathy, and there is a passing of a torch: I hold my mother more now than I have memories of her holding me. She tells me she is tired of crying, but I could never grow tired of loving her. Evidence tried to look away when the chemo was being pumped into his girlfriend, but he resolves to watch the procedure because teetering on a precipice inspires presentness—that’s love.

Phonte’s first solo record in seven years, No News Is Good News, has a title that could not ring truer. When a particular name flashes on your phone, the universe has no problem putting two and two together before the word “hospital” leaves anyone’s mouth. 

On Friday, I returned from a short run to a missed call, a voicemail, and the news that a dear friend tried to take her life with a cocktail of pills that should have done the trick. The impulse is to lay down, ache quietly, and plot a timeline of "I love you"'s.

“Dusted off the Xannies and the Adderalls / Destined to lead us all to the catacombs / I guess I can't be mad at all / It's just reality / So I let melody be medicine for malady / Sing a simple song, fuck the formalities.”

On “Such Is Life,” Phonte takes his woes in stride. The changing landscape of music rattles him, but change is inevitable. A majority of No News Is Good News features Phonte going toe to toe with the inescapable consequences of time's passing.

I pressed play on “Such Is Life” while signing into the crisis center of a different hospital, hyper-conscious that I’ve been spending too much time in hospitals. The juxtaposition of each visit is rude and obtuse: my grandmother approaching eighty and my close friend nestled into her twenties. Age is no armor. The odds are, as it turns out, that there are no odds. Everything must be taken in stride.

The alternative is a song like “Expensive Genes,” where Phonte raps about Blackness, "the most expensive gene of all,” in a soul-baring way that strips him of the superhero tint we ascribe to artists. To call the song cautionary would be reductive because it plays as matter-of-fact as the rest of the record. Phonte is hyper-aware of his mortality and whether or not he is better for it is secondary to the constant presence of death he must navigate.

Phonte keeping himself steady on the line of life and death allows for moments of celebration. The clinical resolve of “Such Is Life” ultimately dissolves until the core of the track emerges, the battle cry that demands joy in the face of tragedy. As fragile as life is, as easy to unwind and mourn, there is equal space for goodness to fill the tension cracks.

“I'm walking on the verge with a verve / 'Cause I deserve to sing a joyful song and not a dirge / Through all the darkness I emerged.”

Last Thursday, the life of someone I love was trapped in a voicemail, loudly at stake, but by Sunday she was laughing at my jokes, in the flesh, seated across from me. 

Life is fragile to an unnerving degree, but this realization leaves as much opportunity for good as for bad. As immediately as life can end, it can also thrive. On Thursday we could lose someone, but there is always the chance for laughter. There's never a wrong time to tell someone you love them and to make someone smile.

This past Sunday we laughed, and we can always venture to laugh again.



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