Do Albums Still Possess the Power to Change Our Lives?

"At 27, I’m no longer encountering new music that moves me the way it once did."
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Do Albums Still Possess the Power to Change Our Lives?

[Editor's Note: We had Senior Writer Yoh and Managing Editor Donna-Claire Chesman write each other letters asking and answering the question "Do we still need albums to change our lives?" Those letters follow below.]

Dear Donna,

This morning, I awoke to the grim news of John Singleton’s passing. I looked outside and questioned where are the clouds the color of tar? Where’s the downpour weighing more than guilt? Instead, through my windowpane, I see the glowing Monday sun. When Isaiah Rashad said, “I think the sunshine should feel, how I feel” this isn’t what he meant.

Isn’t it ironic how death is the pirate that requires us to bury the treasure after she steals the gold? She gets all our gold.

In light of his untimely departure, Twitter has remained a reliable source of John Singleton content. Thanks to the author, critic, and poet Hanif Abdurraqib, I came across the late filmmaker’s 1991 Rolling Stone profile. At the time of the interview, John was just 23 years old, having just released his critically acclaimed, yet highly controversial debut as a filmmaker, Boyz n the Hood. I thought of you, Donna, because there’s an excerpt that recalls a recent conversation we had:

Singleton’s perspective is one that remains unique in Hollywood. “I’m like a child born of two things — hip-hop music and film,” he says. Along with his beloved movies, he credits Public Enemy’s landmark album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back with changing his life.

When I was younger, in the springtime of my teenage youth, every album I bought, downloaded, or borrowed was based on this innate desire to discover a life-altering experience through music. I didn’t have a map directing me, but I knew if I gathered enough keys, I would find a door that was once unavailable; one that could be what Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was to John Singleton.

In my search, I found a door to Chicago where they served food and liquor and a door to California where they let ghosts ride their whips. I found kings in Atlanta who wore rubber bands as their shoulders leaned and Shaolin monks in New York who loved kung-fu movies. I found men who were ready to die, but also knew of life after death and tribes on a quest who spoke in strange native tongues.

There was a door that enriched every minute, mood, and moment of my waking day and night. I believed the feeling these albums produced would never end. But as I got older, I grew further from expecting a song, album, or artist to be the mind-blowing, life-changing domino that would send my spirit on a new course.

At 27, I’m no longer encountering new music that moves me how it once did. It’s hard to be touched by angels when you know their halos are bought at Wal-Mart, or to be fascinated by genius when great minds are often exposed as plagiarists or pied pipers. It’s not them; I don’t blame the artists or the era.

As of late, I’ve walked in countless rooms and watched tears of joy torrent from eyeballs because of what they witnessed. When I saw Choker—one of my favorite young artists on the rise—live in Atlanta earlier this year, I was surrounded by a youthful audience of believers. The Detroit-born artist is fabulous on stage; how he connects with his fans is remarkable. Those in attendance were genuinely moved by his music and presence. I know it’s still happening; music is changing lives—just not mine.

I’m aware of how Kevin Abstract and Brockhampton’s bravery and creative impulses are positively affecting this current generation of listeners. Although I watched Chance The Rapper’s dream-like come up as a journalist, he’s embedded in the hearts of those who follow him as devotees and enthusiasts. I was once one of them.

Isaiah Rashad’s coming-of-age project Cilvia Demo and Frank Ocean’s dealing-with-age masterpiece Blonde are the last two projects that struck a life-changing chord inside me. I understood how their stories would play as soundtracks for various phases of my life. Discovering those special projects has always been a reward for consuming a lot of music. I question if I’ll find many more, though.

Recognizing that music is no longer resonating how it once did is a feeling I relate to the end of the “honeymoon phase.” That’s when the mirage of love dies, and you’re left with nothing but reality. It isn’t as magical or glamorous, but the affection remains undying. Now, when I press play on a new artist—or any artists for that matter—my ears have a hunger to be impressed. Show me something worth remembering. Over the past four months, I’ve heard plenty of good, some great, but nothing I can call memorable. I firmly believe artists can be bad all they want, but the true sin is being forgettable.

Hopefully, the summer will be good to my ears. I’m getting old, Donna, but not as old as our editor-in-chief, Z. What was the last album or song that changed his life? Knowing him, it was probably The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” [Editor’s Note: Yoh has been fired.] On Z’s next birthday, I’m going to send him the vinyl, for nostalgia’s sake. Let him tell the DJBooth Slack about the good ol' days. Take notes, my friend, that’s how you become employee of the month.

Hope to hear from you soon,
Yoh.

Headphones on table, 2019

Dear Yoh,

This morning, I woke up feeling anxious. There has been so much death and so much loss that has colored the past 12 months. Maybe color is the wrong word. Maybe everything is just marred now by a choking blanket of grief. I am not sure how we all bear it. It’s good to hear from you, my friend, because it means that one important heart is beating and that is all we can ask for.

Death really is a thief, not of the night but of the always. She does not knock. She is not becoming. She is not beautiful. She is startling as a nightmare you have sleep after sleep. Nothing feels safe and nothing feels sacred. That is how John Singleton’s passing made me feel.

But, I can’t live like this, in fear. So, as part of my new morning routine, I wake up with the sun and read the collected poems of Frank O’Hara. I did the same with Lorca, but there’s a different weight to O’Hara. He feels on my shoulder, closer to me, guiding me as I write. You know the poetry book I have been writing? He is my mentor. Even in this letter, somehow, he is my mentor. And you, too.

In that way, I interface with Death every morning. O’Hara is obviously no longer with us. But instead of being hurt, I am nourishing myself. I believe that all the art we consume has the chance to nourish us in the big ways and in the small ways. Perhaps, too, the small ways are the most important. Consider that when I tell you: I hear you when you say albums aren’t setting off ripples in your heart any longer. I hear you when you tell me you’re not looking for a record to change your life. I hear you, but I could not disagree more.

I still need albums to change my life, but not in the big ways. As you said, I don’t need an album to rearrange my state of being and my line of thinking. I don’t need an artist to come in and mentor me. I had Mac and now I have myself to save my life. I don’t need saving, but I need to survive. We need art to touch us in the small ways.

Every morning, after poetry time, I play an album to lift my spirits. This could be Smino or it could be The Pharcyde. This could Big L or Frank Ocean. Any artist can lift my spirits for a moment, and at that moment, my life is quite literally being changed. What I mean to tell you, Yoh, is that I am living minute to minute in my younger-than-you-age. My heart is not seeking out music to rend it capable, it is seeking out music to make the day livable.

I think of Pivot Gang’s latest record. That album changed my life, Yoh, only because I heard the sound of friendship so clearly at a time in my life where I am nothing if not bitterly alone. That album changed my life because I got a taste of something I dearly missed, and when I slipped into the stylings of their brotherhood, I forgot about my loneliness. That is change enough for me.

I was talking to our friend Ryan about this, but I’ll confess to you as well: every day I battle with a crushing craving to take my life. I feel it festering inside me like a sickness I have tried everything to expunge. The only thing that works, the only thing that takes my mind away from oblivion and into the present, the only thing that makes me enjoy life, is music. It can be anyone. It can be any bar. It can be this new slowthai album that has me excited for its May 17 release. Do you know what that means, Yoh? That means I have a life to live until the seventeenth. That is change enough for me.

I read a novel by Amor Towles called Rules of Civility, and in it, a father is on his deathbed. His daughter asks how he lived a life without complaining, to which he says something to the tune of: So long as I could get up and enjoy my morning coffee, there was nothing in life worth truly complaining about. Music is my morning coffee. So long as an album makes me feel something in this otherwise vat of unfeeling we call life, that is change enough for me.

I think, in truth, we agree. Artists have become more forgettable. Albums really aren’t moving us like they once did. I, too, had a time of great discovery where I leapt from grime albums to hip-hop classics, devouring all that I could in this genre I never expected to call home. Every new record was a shock to me. I had no idea saints existed in the grooves of wax.

Maybe there are no more saints, and maybe instead of growing old, I am just growing sicker. I’ll be damned, though, if hip-hop doesn’t continue to change my life one 16 at a time. I need it to. Life-changing events change as life changes. My life is this now, this battle. And so anything and everything that can bring me momentary joy is change enough. These albums are still changing my life, Yoh, it just looks a little different.

I have faith the summer will be good to us. I have faith hip-hop will be good to us for all-time. I may be younger than you, but I am not wide-eyed, I am a survivalist. Hip-hop is in my life’s toolkit, and it will stay that way. Hopefully, after reading this, you understand. Hopefully, Z understands, too, that I am awarding you employee of the month for that, as the kids say, sick burn. [Editor's Note: Donna, too, has been fired.]

Thank you for writing me, I love you very much,
Donna.

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