“Perhaps, after all, I was never this… I was nothing, but waves passed through me, sometimes faint, sometimes stronger, and all these scattered echoes afloat in the air crystallized and there I was” —Patrick Modiano, Missing Person
The funny and damning thing about internality is how much it depends upon the external. Long before it can become the work of stitching together and accepting, it is the work of hunting and gathering. Identity forms before us, and then we step into it and pour hours into getting the fit right. Consider the relationships we form with music and artists, and how no matter their vulnerability in song or press, we never truly know these people. Yet, we still use them to come to know ourselves.
These are the waves passing through us: the music we use to define our darkest moments.
In 1978, French writer Patrick Modiano penned a novel wherein the main character is at a loss for his identity and spends countless hours stalking his past. He has a single photograph of himself and three of the most important people in his unknown life. He spends the novel speaking with outsiders who once knew the people in the photo, drawing threads in his head, and recovering memories seemingly from thin air. The process is a bit fantastical, frustrating, leveling, and wholly dependant on distance—sound familiar?
We are so far removed from the lives of our favorite artists, and yet we pull away more life lessons from their work than we do the people we interact with every day because when a mirror is hung at a distance, we're more inclined to squint and sputter forward until the picture becomes clear. Hip-hop has the uncanny ability to embody identities that have yet to manifest in us, but we feel them rumbling every time we press play.
So, then, if Modiano’s protagonist has a photo to guide him, what do we have? Well, perhaps there is nothing more telling about us than the sum of our fears. That’s the connection: you look in the mirrors these artists are holding up with their albums and find you are looking squarely at what terrifies you. You watch the fear move in lockstep with your movements, often exaggerated because albums are living things, but also caricatures. Suddenly fear compounds, but we’re people, so we cannot look away.
“I got these ideas, I got a lot on my mind / And it's so hard to put 'em in a lot of songs / I try to put 'em all in one, you know / Just what I'm feelin', what I'm goin' through / I've been drinkin', so please bear with me” —Big K.R.I.T., “Drinking Sessions”
Big K.R.I.T.’s 2017 double album, 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, is a hall of mirrors. Through his duality, the raucous K.R.I.T. side and the vexed Justin Scott side, the MC-producer personifies one of my headiest fears: alcoholism.
The fear, of course, is not unfounded; it is also mirrored. Holes in the wall from smashed plates, unforgivable rage, a looming threat of aggression, and that one night my father ran out into the street during a thunderstorm to prove to 14-year-old me I could never hope to kill him. Perhaps the most frightening memories are the ones where he chooses not to stop, where after one drink I’m already pleading for him to slow it down, but it’s over by then. For him, one drink informs the next 20, despite him assuring me that he’s in total control.
Echoing back to those late nights, the bombastic and erratic qualities of the Big K.R.I.T. side of the album represent my fear of losing control, both to the potential of addiction and of myself. There’s the daunting worry that I’m only at my best when I’m drinking, which is echoed on “Get Up 2 Come Down” when K.R.I.T. spits: “I'm tryna dig deep, ginger ale and Hennessy / It keep me in the zone, all night long til’ the clock strikes twelve / One mo' then I'm out of the front door.” It’s the looming question of “How far will the pre-game take me?” when one drink holds so much weight in my memory.
On this half of the album, K.RI.T.’s energy is a peeling veneer—the bass knocking is his heart pounding—and for all its turn-up quality, we learn from the first few notes of the Justin Scott side that this was all a cry for help. Whereas Modiano’s protagonist winds through the streets of Paris and finds himself in stuffy apartments discussing murder, war, and identity, and K.R.I.T. gets lost in hedonistic good times, I shift uncomfortably when offered a drink.
But one drink is so commonplace, and I’ve been fine lately, so what’s the issue?
The issue is the unknown outcome, the fear of the Big K.R.I.T. side and the subsequent fear of having to enter Justin Scott's side. Rancor moves so seamlessly into regret, you rarely realize you’re a passenger. The evidence for this cycle is endless. My photograph is always in my hand, be it the shameful times I’ve attempted to drink myself to death or seen so much of my father in myself, I have to wonder how much toxicity also slipped through the gene pool.
“I can't hold it back, can't control these tears, I mean after all these years / I'm still the kid writin' poems, too shy to eat in the cafeteria / I'm two cups in and three shots away… It's hard to protect your feelin's when you so exposed” —Big K.R.I.T., “Drinking Sessions”
On the Justin Scott side of the album, K.R.I.T. does not choose to expose himself—he must. Justin Scott manifests my fear of the overturned and undone, how easily precious things can crumble under the weight of addiction and helplessness. The Justin Scott waves are “sometimes stronger” and when they compound before me, they’re cement-heavy and root me in place. The fear becomes so potent, I wonder if there could ever be a line between myself and Justin Scott, but there must be.
There’s absolution to the aforementioned distance now; I am neither side of this album, but wholly myself. I can appraise and feel my fears, but the externality allows me to leave this record without being crippled by anxiety. Acknowledging and reveling in that distance, how it supplants identity so thoughtfully, gives me the chance to retool and reassert myself over alcohol, over anything.
By the end of Modiano's novel, entitled Missing Person, the protagonist is left considering the grief of childhood, realizing that his quest for himself is asymptotical. I can take solace in that unending quality. K.R.I.T. concludes 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time with the gospel “Bury Me In Gold,” wherein he ultimately declares he will save himself, that opulence is not required to be holy. Big K.R.I.T. is holy, so while he embodies the sum of my fears, an identity that shadows me at its most harmless, he also has the potential to embody my overcoming. I can take solace in that, too.
We are the sum of our fears, of the waves that move through and crystallize before us, and we draw our identity from tragically unknown personas. But that distance is tantamount to growth. It forces us to see the whole picture—however exaggerated—and gives us the opportunity to pull the most relevant threads back to ourselves.
We see our darkness in our music, but if we approach these mirrors in earnest, we can also see our light.