The Art of Translating Home Into an Album

All we'll have are memories, pictures, and these unique artists and albums to remind us that home was here, and home is sweet.
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The Art of Translating Home Into an Album

Home isn’t just where we lay our heads and feed our bellies. Home is an extension of what orbits the unique spaces where our time is lost, and lives are lived. Every city has buildings, street corners, and landmarks that provide, for natives, the warm comfort of familiarity. 

Waffle House is the color of public school buses and bumblebees. Charcoal black and sunflower yellow buildings appear throughout my hometown on almost every corner. They say, without words, "Welcome to Atlanta." Anytime I travel, upon return, the 24-hour breakfast franchise is a visible representation that I’m back. Home is here, home is sweet. 

For all the physical symbols that speak home to the eyes, there is an equal number of sounds that speak home to the ears. Childish Gambino’s 2013 Gangsta Grillz mixtape, STN MTN, is named after his East Atlanta birthplace, Stone Mountain, Georgia. Throughout the tribute project, he steps into old shoes worn by fellow countrymen who made their name and left their mark on the black mecca. Radio mainstays and club classics are revived and remixed, but no song provides the homemade nostalgia created by “Childish Gambino @ The Atrium.”

Nightlife in Atlanta is what science was to Kypton. Even as a child, before you’re old enough to realize what nightlife means, there’s a sense that something is happening downtown once the sun sinks in the West. Part of the Atlanta radio experience growing up was hearing promotional ads for clubs. No matter the number of shootings or shutdowns that would occur, the radio stations would always have new commercials as ecstatic as the last. 

Gambino’s fictional interlude, despite being radically exaggerated, took me back to car rides long forgotten. The feeling he left me with was the familiar sensation of seeing Waffle House fresh off a flight. 

Vince Staples created a similar experience by beginning and featuring Los Angeles radio host Big Boy and his morning show crew throughout 2018's FM!. Big Boy’s voice has been synonymous with L.A. airwaves dating back to 1997. As a staple in California’s hip-hop culture, he is inseparable from the music community—and Vince knows this. His albums often read as odes to his home, inspired and influenced by the Long Beach that raised him, but FM! goes one step further by including homegrown representation. 

It’s the thoughtful, region-specific skits, features, and interludes that help Vince Staples reimagine Los Angeles radio with the same authentic, fever-dream vision as the version of Atlanta Childish Gambino creates.

The two found distinct entry points to manifest the unique identities of their cities, speaking to natives while also providing accessibility to tourists who can’t relate or recognize their significance. To them, Atrium is just another club, Big Boy is just another personality, and Waffle House ain’t no IHOP. 

Accessibility isn’t something Solange considered during the making of her newly-released fourth studio album When I Get Home. Following A Seat At The Table, her 2016 magnum opus, Solange reached a spectrum of fame and notoriety that towers where she once stood. With mass appeal comes the keys to crossing over. Yet, that requires music that appeals to the masses. Instead of a broad, worldwide focus, the kind that could make you a superstar, Solange chose to turn her sights on Houston, Texas—to the Third Ward that raised her.

“When you go through something like that, you yearn for things that remain same. And I know, any time in my life, I can come back home to Houston, Texas—to Third Ward. So I quietly rented a home in Third Ward off Wichita and started to write new music, but more than anything reflect on my journey. There’s nothing like coming home, getting off the plane, getting in the car, listening to 97.9 The Box. Nothing like it.” —Solange Details New Album 'When I Get Home' in Houston's Third Ward

Houston is present in the DNA of When I Get Home; the city has a body with landmarks referenced in the form of song titles like “Binz (Binz St., Houston),” “Beltway (Beltway 8),” and “Almeda (Almeda, Houston).” 

The city speaks by the vocal presence of celebrated natives like Phylicia Rashad (“S McGregor (Interlude),” Pat Parker (“Exit Scott (interlude),” Geto Boys’ Scarface (“Not Screwed! (interlude),” Devin The Dude (“Dreams”) and more. There’s also the cultural representation of late DJ Screw who appears as a legacy sound. 

Elijah C. Watson of Okayplayer recently detailed how samples are chopped, vocals are pitched, and even sequence fluidity is a touchstone of Screw’s innovative technique. These are just a few co-stars that help shape When I Get Home in the image of Houston. 

Kiana Fitzgerald of Complex, herself a Texas native, does an excellent job examining the album’s nuances in her latest piece: "Why Solange’s ‘When I Get Home’ Feels So Much Like Texas." It’s necessary writing, similar to the booklets found in hotels for visitors who need a guide. But Solange is not your guide. She’s at home, relishing in all the joys and pleasantness home allows. There’s an intimate atmosphere the music creates by not explaining itself; by not regarding who wouldn't understand. Solange invites us to experience a version of the Third Ward she knows, as a black woman who loves her home in the literal and the abstract. 

For some listeners, When I Get Home is like viewing a Museum of Houston Culture without context, but for others, it’s akin to being summoned into Solange’s hidden Wakanda.

Unlike his Houston sister, Travis Scott found a way to honor their city without exclusivity. ASTROWORLD, Scott’s third studio album, is his most commercially inclusive and homebound. By musically resurrecting Six Flags AstroWorld, a defunct theme park from his childhood, the rager rapper was able to curate a face-melting, gonzo acid trip that doesn’t leave Houston as it's setting. 

Centralizing the city of his birth is important to the psychedelic adventure; it’s analogous to Hunter S. Thompson’s relationship with a location in his famed novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. There’s no fear or loathing without Vegas; there is no ASTROWORLD or Travis Scott without Houston, Texas. The two albums—ASTROWORLD and When I Get Home—show how vastly different two artists can approach sharing tales from the same city.

“The Texas-centric moments on ASTROWORLD are Travis at his most authentic. His long-hyped record would have sounded completely different without the Lone Star State embedded in its most personal tracks. With this album, Travis is proving that no matter how individual your sound becomes, there’s always a way to incorporate the timeless elements of your history and pay homage.” —"ASTROWORLD Is Houston's Long-Overdue Return to the Spotlight"

Building fictional concepts around the nuances of actual locations is how artists can best translate home through their music. It’s the city of Compton, in all its pain and glory, that you hear on YG’s 2014 debut album, My Krazy Life. That’s the frosty cold and multi-cultural diversity of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which Drake showcase across his fourth studio album, Views. Coming of age in D.C. with a lust for life is encapsulated by GoldLink on 2017's At What Cost. Each of these albums displays the beautiful middle between real and surreal that is only possible when imagination meets tangible places.

Home is able to take many forms, and can mean different things to many people; it’s impossible to perfectly compose an image of a place that existed before you and will continue to exist after you’ve returned to the soil. That is why albums that represent the genuine reality of cities are necessary. These artists are capturing and documenting the everchanging. 

Home won’t always look like how we remembered, won’t sound how it once did. All we'll have are memories, pictures, and these unique artists and albums to remind us that home was here, and home is sweet.

By Yoh, aka Yoh House, aka @Yoh31

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