“It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing.” —Rainer Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I am ashamed of feeling. For someone so obsessed with emotion in music and in my writing, I carry a lot of shame over grieving and mourning. I have difficulty recognizing myself as human with respect to recognizing that I deserve kindness from myself at all times. To feel hurt is natural for everyone—everyone else. The same goes for pride, but I find myself seeking permission before I feel. I cannot lift my shame; my shame exists to be lifted. This is no way to live and makes the process of grief impossible.
When I am grief-stricken, I feel like a failure. My impulse is to escape the emotion as opposed to accept it as a faculty of being alive, process it, and move through it. When we are hurt, we retreat. Sometimes to our vices, and sometimes to the realm of non-feeling. The preteen obsession with numbness has a way of following you to adulthood when the edgy becomes the unhealthy. Yet, because every life story has more than one pain point, the sooner we learn to process grief, the sooner we can access the pleasure that is freedom. Grief does not leave us and we cannot escape it. Rather, it transforms, but that emotional alchemy rests squarely in our evasive hands.
If we consider sadness a sickness, as Rilke does later on in Letters to a Young Poet, our desire to escape grief is merely our body working as intended. If we let the buck stop there, though, as I have, we lose the function of grief and there is no learning, and there is no freedom. “Sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien,” he writes. What is alien is to be tied down by our grief, to be toppled by transition as opposed to swept up in momentum. In the scope of hip-hop, both Frank Ocean and 6LACK stand as the vocal masters of sickness and freedom, of presence and tension, and of exploring the paralysis of emotion.
Frank Ocean is in the throes of sickness, and 6LACK welcomes us on the side of freedom. Together, these two artists illustrate the ugliness and force that comes with truly processing grief.
Frank Ocean has been sick for nearly a decade, with his should-be-GRAMMY-winning nostalgia, ULTRA acting as the pinnacle of what it looks like to be sick with grief. Top to bottom, “Novacane” is dripping in tension, astonishment, and the viscera that comes with having something taken away. Yes, this is a song about fucking, but it is more so a song about coping with loss by avoiding the loss.
“Novacane” is a song about the nasty way life manages to always catch up to us (“Sink full of dishes, pacing in the kitchen, cocaine for breakfast / Yikes”) when we only pursue pleasure and ignore its foil. When Frank sings, “Fuck me good, fuck me long, fuck me numb / Love me now, when I'm gone, love me none / Love me none, love me none, numb, numb, numb, numb,” what he’s really telling us is that he's sick beyond words. He is sick with grief over a spiraling affair to the point of immobility. He cannot confront the reality of the situation and his own hurt. Perhaps he is ashamed like I am, but without question, he is unmoving.
This, of course, is why he introduces “All the pretty girls involved with me” and how little he continues to feel. These girls are not his process and forward movement, they are a lateral distraction. On “Novacane”—surprise, surprise—Frank Ocean is making the mistake of retreat when all his body wants is for him to feel something. “Novacane” is a stunning track that unnerves us because it is a song about the way we deny our humanity, and how easy it is to do that when we talk about fucking. The track ends without resolution, and we could go so far as to argue that “Novacane”’s ultimate resolution comes five years later with the masterpiece that is Blonde, but the moral is that resolution will always come.
Sadness and sickness must pass, regardless of how we process our grief. In that, we can find some solace, but if we move with the sickness, it appears we can find freedom.
“That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, is already in our bloodstream. And we don't know what it was.” —Rainer Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
All 6LACK wants is freedom. His 2016 album FREE 6LACK was a sleeper contender for record of the year and worked on the fringes of tone and color to excavate 6LACK’s grief as opposed to a younger Frank Ocean’s resigned toppling. On FREE 6LACK, 6LACK sounds like he is used to having things taken away. He is pensive and without conflict as he rattles off the aftermath of heartbreak (“Rules,” “PRBLMS,” “Free”). 6LACK flows with his grief as if it were his faithful shadow. His hurt exists as matter-of-fact as his humanity, which is why the record is both evocative and riddled with resolution and “the new presence” Rilke discusses.
“Free” is a celebration of “the new presence,” but also a roadmap to processing grief and pursuing freedom. The track opens with sleepless nights and regret, working off the same motif as “Novacane,” but 6LACK evolves quickly. By the second verse, he is criticizing the subjects of “Novacane,” asserting that freedom of feeling is its own cage, that he has achieved something they never will, no matter how strung out or numb they become. Numbness and sadness both pass, and we are only left with ourselves. It is better to hurt and learn to be kind to what is left of us than any alternative.
We know 6LACK has moved beyond grief, too, because “Free” is not bitter (“Ay, running out of shit that I can say / Wishing you the best and so I pray”) and is near-sagely in its approach. He is kind to himself, to the point of being able to extend his kindness outwards. From all sides, 6LACK is feeling better than anyone could have imagined. He accepts “the new presence” that is his freedom so naturally because as Rilke assures, freedom is laden within us so long as our sadness is treated properly.
One thing FREE 6LACK does not boast is shame. Where emotion makes me into a failure, 6LACK is all the way secure in his feeling. Though, his security did not come without growing pains. Speaking with Pigeons & Planes, 6LACK detailed the six-year process to arrive at “Free,” and consequently, to arriving at his own freedom. In the scope of years and hurt, six is a big number for most people, but there is solace there as well. That is, the freedom will come and there is always some good to work towards. Processing grief has no timeline and however you approach moving forward, there is nothing to be ashamed of as distance is always positive.
With even the most afflicted tracks on the album (“Worst Luck,” “Ex Calling”), 6LACK moves through his emotions with an understated grace. He defines himself neither as shameful nor as unlovable. Not without pain, 6LACK manages to move through conflict on “Worst Luck” without losing himself or his implicit kindness. The hook captures the push-and-pull of a “Novacane”-type sinking sickness and a “Free” approach to heartache; the hook is the transition Rilke pores over.
“Worst Luck” is our natural fear of the unknown, and of the unknown presence, but 6LACK finds it within himself to best fear. There is a difference between the unknown goodness that exists in the place of grief and the “alien” thing sadness wrestles with, and FREE 6LACK is discerning enough to accept that unknown goodness is worth the risk of discomfort.
Discomfort and shamelessness, then, are what grant us freedom from grief and freedom within ourselves. Where freedom is wonderful and wonderfully abstract, FREE 6LACK’s definition is not all too dissimilar from my own. If freedom comes when I accept and cherish, even adore, my own humanity, then freedom means I can experience life in all shades without shame. Processing grief is the lifting of shame, and “the new presence” that has entered my heart is my own.
I am stronger than grief and strong enough to free myself.
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