“the most immense thing about beauty / is finding it gone” —Charles Bukowski, “the mischief of expiration”
They finally told me I’m Bipolar II. Thank goodness for that; I like having answers. For one, the diagnosis explains the sheer intensity of my character, how I work so hard, and try so hard, and give so much despite everyone around me operating at a much more reasonable base. Everything occupies and consumes me. Everything is thrilling and beautiful, to me. Everything is at once my world and the most fragile thing I’ve ever held. Everything can disappear at a moment’s notice. I am always terrified; I am always on the verge of tears.
I’ve always known I feel too much too quickly—I’ve written as much plenty of times—and I’ve always known my attraction to extremes would kill me. In October 2018, I almost let it. Then I summoned everything I could, and I chose better for myself. The choice had been at least 10 years in the making, but I still made it and I’m still proud.
For the first time in my life, I feel in control of the potency of my feelings. My hunger to put numbers up on the board—eight pieces in a week, 10 pieces written, 10 interviews, ridiculous numbers until I can’t read but feel like a somebody—is finally funneling back into myself. As J.I.D sang over cascading keys on song-of-the-year contender “Workin Out,” first on COLORS and then on his immaculate DiCaprio 2, “I been working hella hard.” I’ve been putting every bouquet of strength I can unearth from therapy and psychiatry sessions back into myself.
When I first heard “Workin Out,” I was still weeks away from choosing myself and choosing to be better. Nonetheless, the song struck me as a personalized anthem. To live so intensely, to feel everything and be so feverish, it often feels like I am pouring into a damaged glass. The water is spilling out everywhere, but I cannot stop myself from adding to the mounting nothingness. Love and hard work, it is very Sisyphean to me, sometimes, and J.I.D knew that about me when he spit: “Look, on everything / I gave everything and got nothing back / Ain't looking for no pat on backs.”
No pats necessary, I have been working. For the most part, that work has been working. Emotionally, I’m far more adjusted; the days aren’t so dark. Less mundane tasks feel insurmountable, and I feel like I have it in me to love myself for real this time. But here’s the thing: mental health isn’t riding a bike. Some days you get on and fall over and scrape your knee, not because you’re an imbecile who can’t actually ride a bike, but because chemistry and learned behavior can only go toe-to-toe for so long before one has to give. There’s no magic pill; there’s no cure-all coping mechanism; there’s no one way to journal off impulsive thoughts.
Usually, this would be where I interject with a truism about how I still have the opportunity to get up after I scrape my knee, but dammit, I do not want to get up. I didn’t want to scrape my knee in the first place. Was that not the point of choosing myself? All of this childish rhetoric is why J.I.D’s “Workin Out” is such a striking song because it so captures the frustration of giving your all to anything and still having to face and overcome the fallout of failure.
There is no greater pain than that of cradling a void in your hands and knowing it is inescapable. You’re going to scrape your knee, and that knowledge is nothing if not the absence of beauty from a life we are fighting every day to make beautiful. Carrying this makes me bitter, a one-to-one with J.I.D’s “I wanna cry cause I'm numb inside / If you wonder why, ask, ‘What's the matter?’” because there comes a point where you just want to pawn your emotions. Of course, it’s easier to blame another person for not being there than it is to accept that lows are not zero-sum. You can do everything in your human power to save yourself from yourself, but the lows will still come and that does not make you—make me—a failure, but my goodness if it isn’t killer.
“I been working hella hard, shit ain't really working out / I been praying to the Lord, shit ain't really working out / I been looking to the stars, keep my head up in the clouds / Shit ain't really working out, shit ain't really working out / Shit ain't really working out” —J.I.D, “Workin Out”
What else is there to feel but anger and disappointment when you do everything you can and still find yourself wiped out on the floor, sinking into a bed of your own misery? The wounded and placid delivery of the hook on “Workin Out” says it all. J.I.D, normally boisterous and jittery as it were, presents quiet and shrunken, as if awestruck in the worst way by his own sorrow. At the least, I am smitten by my sorrow. J.I.D seems to know this, too, and by the second verse, with his focus on an enigmatic woman, he quietly cheers her on despite their undone affair: “Searching for a purpose, I see what you on / The difference in how you be using your gifts / In the midst of the shit that you dealing with.” Later, he adds: “Objects appearing closer than you ready for / Obviously you don't know what's ahead / But that's the reason you can work 'til you dead.” It's tear-jerking.
I can work until I’m dead. That sounds possible and romantic, which I’ve been told is a symptom, but I like to think of it as a virtue. I can and will give all of myself to any project, but when I do not see the results, I can’t help but feel deflated. The crushing weight of “What gives?” energy is often greater than the sum of my willpower. More often than not, as we hear on the “Workin Out” hook, I am simply left enraged and shocked. What could be the point of all of this self-work if the lows still clutch and claw into my heart?
Dejected himself, J.I.D manages to provide some light and levity to the constant pouring into nothing at which we both seem adept. His final promise that objects in the mirror are closer than they appear, that even during the lows I am still moving towards something, that my work is not for naught, prompts me to accept the scraped knee. “Workin Out” gently pushes me to shed my “What’s the use?” thinking. There’s a saying about cracking eggs to make a cake, and I suppose with “Workin Out,” J.I.D reminds me that you have to scrape some knees to make a full life.
This resolve, too, is why Zach Fox’s comedic outro is such a brilliant and sentimental touch. At the conclusion of a breakdown, most of the time, the only recourse is to laugh. Life would be a lot grimmer if we could not turn around and laugh at ourselves, or, in this case, laugh at J. Cole looking a little too regular, a little too close in appearance to someone who always needs to borrow a charger. “Workin Out” validates my frustration, but it also challenges me to be optimistic when tumbling through space where joy seems otherworldly. And “Workin Out” makes me laugh, also when I am tumbling and knocking my head on every abject suicidal thought.
J.I.D crafted a special and particular song, one about the ire of fame that just so happens to be about the ire of caring with your whole body. His star is rising, but he remains human, and so long as he walks that line with his head up, his music will continue to affect change this deep. As Bukowski once wrote, “my thanks.”