"Mask Off": How Future, Evidence & Janelle Monáe Build Community

“We are all wearing masks. That is what makes us interesting.”
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“I think of us, all the people, and the masks we wear, the masks we hide behind and the masks that reveal. I imagine people pretending to be what they truly are, and discovering that other people are so much more and so much less than they imagined themselves to be or present themselves as. And then, I think about the need to help others, and how we mask ourselves to do it, and how unmasking makes us vulnerable…” —Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning

I dedicate an immense amount of my time to decoding the ways in which music guides us to better understand ourselves, to decoding the intricacies of insecurity and identity, to defining the concept of being heard. What I don’t do is spend enough time understanding the ways in which music shows us who we are not, and then, of course, who we can grow to be in those identity-less spaces.

Neil Gaiman opens his short fiction collection Trigger Warning with a passing remark about the practical function and meaning of masks, on airplanes, but also in our daily lives. Much time and many words are dedicated to understanding how music can secure our masks and help us navigate the world by being who we feel we need to be, but what about the ways music unties our masks and lets them dangle? What about the ways music strips us of exterior dressings and allows us to exist bare, and with one another?

There are few things more intimate than passing along an album to a trusted friend and having them affirm your tastes by saying, “You don’t need to tell me why you liked this, it makes perfect sense.” At this moment, by virtue of the music, your mask is down, and in accepting who you are not, you’re being seen for who you are. Free of external pressures, our ability to connect on a human-to-human level is amplified. Music unmasks us just as easily as it secures us, and through these grand reveals, we can foster communities and connect with each other on more guttural levels.

Unmasked, we can say, “I’ve come to know myself, and now I want you to know me,” in the same breath as: “I want to know you.” Peering over our masks, we can extend portions of ourselves and receive them all the same. Unmasked is how I would categorize one of my oldest friends, several beers deep, throwing on a Nicolas Jaar album and ticking up the speaker to maximum volume with a blithe disregard for neighbors. He’s shimmying along to the music, giddy to be free of his mask.

When we get to the ultimate point of sharing the music that unmasks us, to the shimmy in our chairs, our masks ceremoniously fall to the floor. What could be more beautiful?

“I'm tryna get high as I can, can, can / Damn, I hate the real me / Damn, I hate the real me” —Future, “HATE THE REAL ME”

To arrive at this beer-soaked jubilance, though, we must obviously unmask, which sounds Victorian and graceful, but is genuinely closer to shucking an oyster. Shucking is messy and dangerous business, a lot of bleeding and guts are prerequisite to getting at the good bits of the oyster, or ourselves. To expedite this process, we have Future, who sings about the ire of celebrity with more humility than the majority of the emo-rap movement he so obviously helped father.

From the title to the content, to the cover artwork, Future’s latest collaboration with Zaytoven, BEASTMODE 2, is rapt with unmasking potential. The album is predicated upon the image of two lions primed to chase each other's tails, a nagging symbiosis that speaks to the relationship between artist and fan, that speaks to the necessity of masks off. To properly shuck an oyster, you need a very sharp and specific type of knife. Consider BEASTMODE 2 surgical.

Future is emotive and precise on an album with a basic thesis of: Instagram is lying to you, everyone online is lying to you, I’m lying to you, you’re lying to you. With each track, Future wrestles with dichotomies. On “RACKS BLUE,” money cannot buy him happiness, but it’s funded the lifestyle people want to hear him sing about. The subsequent “31 DAYS” reveals the most fleeting things have the most social or material value. At every turn, Future is approaching the final corridor of what he is not: satisfied.

These luxe epiphanies culminate on “HATE THE REAL ME,” whereon Future speaks of vices and coping—a two-piece idea we can all put together—with no flourishes, dressings, esoteric imagery, or expressions. In plain language, man to man, Future is unmasked. And so is the listener. Future is unmasked in the way my buddy, fawning over the Jaar album and the speaker, tells me he wishes he could meet someone that would “boogie” with him at a Nicolas Jaar concert. These brisk and ephemeral admissions are the essence of unmasking.

We see Future, we see ourselves, we take another drink, and in this new light, we can better see each other.

“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… And this a feeling that I can't counterfeit; It's making me sick” —Evidence, “By My Side Too”

Just as crucial to the business of unmasking is the process of receiving permission. No other album in 2018 has given me more permission than Evidence’s Weather or Not. To the larger point, Evidence made this album with his own unmasking in mind, noting in several interviews that he is no longer lowering his voice, that he wants the voice on the track to sound as close to his speaking voice as possible. “I want you to hear me,” he is saying, in so many words. When my buddy imagines himself as someone to catch a Jaar concert with, he is saying much the same.

Much like Future, Evidence weeds through dichotomies in form. Where trap music carouses in the riches Future bemoans, the dusky West Coast soundstage Evidence breathes through is predicated upon a steely exterior. As a result, Evidence’s measured delivery and penchant for stormy production have each song sounding chest-puffed tough. Yet nearly every verse features Evidence firmly telling us there’s no need to front as a tough guy. Toughness is ultimately futile.

Even the series of skits detailing Evidence’s failure to pick up his repaired speakers are a commentary on futility, this time of perfection. When my daily anxieties manifest in an obsession over the enigmatic “enough,” the mask I so eagerly fasten—the sum of my entire “I Am a Machine” persona—is all but torched by the album. Evidence humanizes himself, and in the process, I too am humanized.

When Weather or Not finally swells to a heartbreaking vignette (“By My Side Too”), during which Evidence shows us the value of crying when it hurts, we are all unmasked with ease. This would not have been possible had Evidence not spent the preceding 15 tracks giving us permission to move beyond who we are not. In the process of removing his own masks, he became ever more equipped to support his girlfriend through chemotherapy. As Gaiman writes about the business of wearing masks to help others, Evidence furthers the conversation by removing his mask to fully give love.

I pull the speaker close to my chest and take a sip of beer chosen specifically for my tastes, which is also a type of masking exchange. I’m listening to the turbulent highs of the Nicolas Jaar’s “No,” a seven-minute electronic epic, while my buddy reads aloud the English translation. Masks off, the translation goes one layer deeper: “I want you to hear me,” he is saying.

“I knew I needed to make this album, and I put it off and put it off because the subject is Janelle Monáe… I felt like I didn’t really have to be her because they were fine with Cindi.” —Janelle Monáe, The New York Times.

Janelle Monáe wholly unmasked herself to make her poppy 2018 opus, Dirty Computer. Leading up the album’s release, she spoke with The New York Times about the transformation necessitated by this album.“This is the first time that I released something with a lot of emotion,” she said. “The people I love feel threatened. I’ve always understood the responsibility of an artist—but I feel it even greater now. And I don’t want to stay angry, but write and feel triumphant.”

The triumph Monáe describes is one-to-one with interrogating the practice of masking ourselves to help others. The business of throwing off your mask to help, as Evidence does on “By My Side Too,” is equivalent to Monáe’s desire to get down in the trenches with her communities, to suffer and battle with them, to win with them, and to graciously overcome. Tracking her growth from alter-ego Cindi Mayweather to simply Janelle Monáe herself, we see that there is comfort within discomfort, and Monáe’s lesson of unmasking comes in highlighting the importance of growing pains.

Certainly, there was comfort and security in the Mayweather persona. It was easily recognizable, grand, and most importantly, understood, but it was not enough. In the end, Monáe had to pivot to herself, had to unmask, to make the most important album of her career. The trajectory seems obvious, but braving the unknown by exploring yourself is a hurdle few approach and even fewer clear. Sans mask, Monáe is able to connect with the very communities she feels for, and the people who in turn connect with her music have a common thread to secure their own bonds.

Some cycles are vicious, others are nourishing.

“That’s the album,” my buddy says to me, another beer gone. He boasts a lazy and satisfied smile. Just an hour earlier, I played him The Internet’s Ego Death, an apt title considering the angle of the evening. A comfortable silence befalls the room, through which we hear the other say, “Thank you for listening to me.” The masks are on the floor now, too.

With nothing obstructing our eyes—our views of ourselves and of each other—we have heard and seen each other in earnest. Few things will ever be as beautiful. 

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