Two days into spring and the snow won’t stop falling.
I’m still learning to accept that everything happens in cycles, the seasons, my moods, good music and bad news. In the valleys of our lives, there is the struggle to just feel something, to feel anything. I emphasize “just” because it’s a very deprived word, it signals a need unmet and a lust for more. “Just” signals confusion, meandering, and darkness, but it also alludes to a horizon and to the necessary fight for daybreak.
Sometimes we have to fight to feel in the same way that spring is now struggling to break through the winter or how everything teeters on a seemingly endless precipice.
Few things feel worse in these moments than cycling through albums and having every song, no matter how grandiose or lush or symphonic fall flat. But there is music made for and from this teetering, music that is steeped in desperation and clawing towards the unknown better. The way rappers like Nolan The Ninja, Danny Brown, and Jazz Cartier belt to the point of turning syllables to putty, strikes an otherwise insatiable chord and allows a little life to reverberate back into my frame.
In the fight to feel anything, all three artists use their edge to take the edge off, bringing some much-needed balance back into our lives.
Nolan The Ninja
Nolan The Ninja is an easy artist to connect with because he raps like he just fought his way out of a sewer and wants for nothing more than a breath of fresh air.
The Detroit MC is caustic on the mic, and where snow is literally trapping, Nolan’s “Lex” weaponizes desperation and depravity to best the storm. He is not the bearer of springtime, but hearing the wiry strain in Nolan’s voice does let a little light into the frame.
“I'm trying to be retired 'fore I'm 35 / Word to Chris, I ain't trying to work to stay alive / I'm tryna witness how that Lex feel / Hop on the lodge off the tire squeal, forreal”
The yearning and hunger on “Lex” compound into an acute hook. These are “just” lyrics for a just cause. Nolan The Ninja just wants a Lexus; I just want it to stop snowing. He just wants to eat off his artwork; I just want to feel better. These desires are so simple, and therein lies the intensity and madness of feeling just short of your needs. This must be why Nolan’s fine and stringent delivery sounds like smashing head first into a window or like each hairline crack pitching through the glass. In that same breath, his persistence is a source of empowerment. His drive is a notice that we can and will feel through these lows.
In a similar vein, fellow Detroit bruiser Danny Brown released a mixtape (XXX) dedicated to looking over the edge of a cliff. Where Nolan could lean into his upper register, Danny Brown’s voice is a one-man circus act. On the epic and finalistic “30,” Brown moves between his stringy rap voice and the deeper alternative to amplify the severity of his mental state.
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With two vocal ranges at play, Brown is both chasing down and hiding from an untimely death. Within that drug-fueled, depressive cacophony you can hear a man who just needs everything to stop. “30” is not Danny Brown’s suicide letter, but a desperate plea for a second to catch his breath.
“Kurt hoped the drugs would make the pain go away / But all these thoughts up in my head made the sane go astray / So step inside the mind that revolves around the rhyme / And every time he close his eyes, visions of white lines”
Within Danny Brown’s two voices, there is an implicit warring quality to his lyrics and delivery that mimic the endless trudge back up the mountain. He is the musical personification of “Why is nothing working?” When you are so desperate to feel anything, encountering an artist who appears to be on the brink of unraveling in a distant but not dissimilar way, unlocks something potent and is supremely validating.
On “30,” Danny Brown is the cracking facade and the ruins, but on his most recent album, Atrocity Exhibition, he is also the promise of recovery. Atrocity Exhibition remains as focused on drugs and mental health as XXX, but with a level of refinement that’s understandably absent from his sophomore release. Confronting his demons with a fresh and admirable poise must imply that Danny Brown is healing, and that strikes an important chord, too.
There's also the bona fide “In Case of Emergency” artist: Toronto’s Jazz Cartier. Cartier’s booming and cavernous voice take desperation a step further—the man’s vocal is somehow steeped in despair as well as triumph. On “The Downtown Cliche,” the 25-year-old raps with such intensity, his bars transform into animalistic vocalizations. Yet, these razed and raw emotions never get the better of him.
All at once, Jacuzzi sounds like his knees are scabbed from begging while his shoulders slack from supporting the weight of a crown and gold chains. On “Dead Or Alive,” he captures the torment of the liminal space that is the valley. Where Nolan is just entering the arena and Danny Brown is slowly easing his way out, Jazz Cartier is in the throes of the fight the feel more.
“No, no, no! They want me dead or alive / They want me dead or alive, I'm just tryin' to survive”
Here, Cartier’s desperation informs his dissent. There is an unexpected agency to his belting. Not only does he help you feel again, but he also drives the listener to become more self-possessed, to find some way to stand tall and do for self—no matter how trapped they may feel. The leveling mixture of pomp and depravity in Jazz Cartier’s music will get you back on your own two feet.
When it won’t stop snowing and the emptiness inches closer to being all-consuming, these are the artists smashing their own emergency glass. Working off more than simple aggression, Nolan The Ninja, Danny Brown, and Jazz Cartier use their voices to capture the exhaustion and desperation of constantly being on the verge. Their music is striking and affirming, and bats away at the loneliness and isolation that comes with sinking into the valleys.
They ensure you feel less alone, and when you feel a little less alone, you’re eventually able to just feel better.