“It is the road that teaches us the best way to get there.” —Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage
Before coping mechanisms, I took vodka shots. Sometimes a many, sometimes a few. Sometimes with a chaser, sometimes straight. The scene was real glamorous: my parents’ basement, one blown out speaker, a treadmill repurposed as a bar top, a handle of Three Olives, and a crate of water bottles, for balance. My buddy and I would order sandwiches at the deli before descending into the basement, for the purposes of getting some carbs into our stomach. Everything was calculated and everything seemed fun.
It was, to a point. We had just gotten our hearts shattered and there was little between us in the way of emotional support. What am I to do when the person I love most sits across from me, wasted, and on the brink of tears? Red in the face and with bloodshot, worried eyes, we saw each other as mirrors of our greatest trials. Rather than help the other feel through it, we figured if we just drowned out in shots together, we could at least get around the issue.
The basement was rank, with ducts hanging low from the ceiling and yellowed insulation sticking out of the walls. The floor tiles were smashed from years of skateboarding, bass guitar practice, pretending I was in the band, and anxious tantrums. The faux leather on the chairs was peeling and the couch was stained-stiff. Even so, I wanted to drink my way out of thinking or feeling anything ever again; drink my way to smiling for the sake of smiling and laughing for the sake of hearing my voice without any grief attached.
For so long, I was beseeched by pain, and those good times with my buddy in the basement were the trap door out. If we all live as escape artists, I considered each shot another trick in my quiver, and for the most part, it worked. That is until we got to talking about my feelings and it all warbled out of me, as it was always going to. Then we were both reddened with cheeks streaked by tears, but somehow it was better this way. It was better together.
So, of course, there was music with this entire ordeal. The two of us would queue up three songs each to soundtrack the night, a nice mix of hip-hop and whatever he was into at the time. We’d cycle songs through the night and I had my go-to's: “All Night” and “Smoke Break” from Chance The Rapper, some selections from Kendrick and Mac, and Young Thug. The music selections were boisterous and carefree, things to shout to and music you’d want to start a fight to. It was about a total release of self, into another, easier going self. I can’t hear “All Night” without thinking of the wince that follows every downed shot, and the jeering and smiling that came shortly thereafter. I wouldn’t want to hear “All Night” in any other way.
Then there was the most important song of the night: “Collard Greens.” ScHoolboy Q’s weed-loving duet with Kendrick Lamar, and a signal that the horizon was brimming with fast good times. I knew my body well enough to know when to queue this one up for it would signal that I was sufficiently drunk, but never too drunk to rap the track word-for-word in a trance. For those keeping score at home, that would be five or six shots of vodka, which to this day feels like gargling gasoline.
Looking back, those nights were not about alcohol. They were about music. Those nights were about me surviving to “Collard Greens” tumbling jankily out of the speaker so I could rap for five worry-free minutes. The track is not a riot, but it is rambunctious. It is a total undoing, in the most playful of ways, of both Q and Kendrick. They play off each other and lob punchlines back and forth, with some broken Spanish to boot. Their friendship made me smile, the song made me happy, and all the while I was drinking because I thought I would never be happy again. Save for the drama, it was a sweet, somewhat ironic, scene.
Now, I’m all about understanding how to live until my next joy sans heavy drinking, but in those other-life moments, “Collard Greens” was my joy. A joy I brought upon myself, which is redeeming if only because I can look back and realize I was always an agent of my own happiness. When I felt a victim to my feelings, Kendrick’s verse, his declaration of Godliness, made me feel invincible. At the announcement of “Beotch!” I would silence the room and leave my body to transcend into my higher self and spit his verse with fervor as if nothing had ever hurt me. That’s how music and hip-hop save: they tell us that our voices matter and that we do not have to be in pain. For this moment, if only a moment, we can experience something pure and untouchable. Something that cannot be taken away by circumstance.
We use music to bring us to our next joy; music is the coping mechanism now, not the vodka. All the while, I was not waiting to get drunk so much as I was waiting for “Collard Greens” to come on. I would have felt loose and free of woe with or without a drink, it was merely a vehicle of the occasion. The promise of goodness was the music. The promise of joy—the guarantee of joy—came from the music. You can lose yourself in a drink, but when you lose yourself in a verse, you rarely wake up with a headache.
My story of rapping “Collard Greens” drunk in a basement is silly and hyper-specific, but it speaks to a universal quality that all music has: it unlocks us from ourselves. Everyone has their “Collard Greens,” their basement story, and their moment of unfiltered catharsis and pleasure when it comes to hip-hop. What rap does better than any other genre of music is to turn the key on our higher selves and allow us to be one with the person we want to become. That person is free of anxiety, is outgoing, and is loved. Hip-hop is the road that teaches, and we walk that road triumphantly. And hip-hop helps us realize that we have always been our higher selves; all we needed was the music to get there.