It’s a rainy spring night, and all I want to do is watch cartoons. With the passing storm raging, streaming is out of the question. I breathe a sigh of relief; this is why I keep DVDs around.
I rummage through a pile of curios I’ve accumulated over 27 years. Old letters from friends I’ve lost touch with; books that I’ve vowed to start reading; and a stack of cartoon DVD box sets. I queue up a DVD, press play, and begin thinking back to when the hardest decision was choosing between Rocko’s Modern Life or Ren & Stimpy. My scattered thoughts melt away as I listen to John Witherspoon’s familiar voice as Granddad from The Boondocks. With a story I’ve heard dozens of times before, his nasal tone carries me through the night.
Our past—the wins, losses, mistakes, and lessons—makes us who we are. Nostalgia imprints like Silly Putty, copying and amplifying the emotions that can turn a good memory into a great story. In that breath, one of Chance The Rapper’s most potent memories is colored orange. “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” a standout track from his 2013 breakout project Acid Rap, finds Chance reminiscing on his childhood through the smoke from a lucky cigarette and the haze of disintegrating relationships:
“I just opened up the pack, in an hour I’ll ash my lucky / Tonight she’ll be yelling 'fuck me,' two weeks she’ll be yelling 'fuck me' / Used to like orange cassette tapes with Timmy, Tommy, and Chuckie / And Chuck E. Cheese’s pizzas, Jesus pieces, sing 'Jesus Loves Me' / Put Visine inside my eyes so my grandma will fuckin’ hug me” —Chance The Rapper, “Cocoa Butter Kisses”
By slotting his experience with Nickelodeon’s iconic orange VHS tapes in between his grandmother’s response to his teenage shit, Chance creates a tether between past and present that’s both unique and wholly accessible. On his “debut” retail project The Big Day, Chance is six years removed from the burn holes in his hoodies and is still carrying on that tradition. Even as a married man with a young daughter, he can’t help but use nostalgia to blur the lines between his past and his future:
“I remember the last summer of the teens / I can’t recall too many summers in between / Will Smith, Genie, Donald Glover, Lion King / My daughter on the swing like the 2017 Cubs” —Chance The Rapper, “Do You Remember?”
These images are 4K clear and potent, but, here, Chance doesn’t solely rely on his words. Chance intercuts much of The Big Day with skits that take place before, during, and after an unnamed wedding ceremony. They all feature iconic Black voice actors from Chance’s childhood. Witherspoon, of Friday and The Boondocks fame, breaks up a fight between brothers on the “Photo Ops” skit, which leads into “Roo,” a passionate rap duet between Chance and his actual brother Taylor Bennett.
On the skit “4 Quarters In The Black,” Keith David reprises his role as Mr. John Garnett from ATL to remind Chance of the importance of staying on the straight and narrow as a husband and a businessman. On “Our House,” the album’s final skit, Cree Summer’s iconic squeak gives life to a little girl who compares having two parents under one roof to keeping all her dolls in one house.
Through these skits—and songs like the Brandy-sampling “Ballin Flossin”—Chance boosts his brand of nostalgia to another level. He isn’t merely reminiscing on TV and film from his childhood and teenage years. He’s integrating icons into his own story and, by extension, his family. Say what you will about The Big Day—it’s cluttered, thinly written, and at its worst is pious to the point of self-parody—but Chance’s decision to smartly employ nostalgia helps to give his life much-needed heft.
Sometimes, our family floats over us in more somber ways. Fellow Chicago rhymer Polo G knows this reality all too well. In the first two bars of his studio debut, Die A Legend, he hits the ground running while facing his past head-on, rapping, “Everything was all good way back in the day / Then whole hood really went wild.” Polo’s nostalgia is steeped in melancholy and lacks the childlike flourishes found in Chance’s music. He uses these old memories to relay a childhood accelerated by gang life and systemic police racism.
A police presence haunts Polo G’s memories as much as the spirits of fallen friends. This depressing duality is perhaps the largest contributor to the pent-up anxiety that pushes his thoughts into murkier emotional waters. On “BST,” Polo details the indifference toward dire situations in Chicago that forced a teenager into drug-dealing and robbing to provide for his family:
“System got the hood fucked up, killers, crack fiends, and some Christians / Lil nigga, all he know is bang, only 16, on a mission / Drug money, out there serving fiends the only time he show his ambition / Kid on the way, mama’s bills late, gotta hustle hard, gotta get it / Block was slow, so he had to rob just to make ‘em smile on Christmas / Caught a case, judge ain’t tryna hear all the things influenced my decisions” —Polo G, “BST”
Standout selection “Deep Wounds” pays tribute to an uncle and several friends whose deaths pushed him to drugs. “I know that death come unexpected, you can’t choose a day / I swear I pop so many pills, shit got me losin’ weight,” Polo raps. Lost souls take a different toll on the ones around to remember the tragedy. The nostalgia on Die A Legend is gripping; it imbues Polo G’s return trip from the brink of death.
Los Angeles’ own Maxo feels similar throbs. Unlike Chance or Polo G, Maxo is currently writing his future. As the title of his major-label debut LIL BIG MAN suggests, Maxo is on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood, literally pulling the bed covers over his head on “Strongside.”
On LIL BIG MAN, Maxo marks each step forward with details that bring that past to vivid life:
“Split the Swisher for the days when I was startled / But I’ma start where it was broken like an audible / Mad at the world, Jill on my audio / You lyin’ to me, life was never golden here / Hard to even keep the trust in who you roll with” —Maxo, “Strongside”
Cigarillos and bops from Jill Scott kept Maxo company during the worst of times—until they didn’t. These details pin the story to a specific time and place that adds weight to the trials of a growing man searching for an inner circle to call his own. That uncertainty is the narrative through-line of LIL BIG MAN. Maxo doesn't have a pot of gold waiting at the end of this rainbow; just his thoughts.
The child whose old, polished shoes shined on the first day of school because his father couldn’t afford new ones (“In My Penny’s”) is now the man whose mother has to listen to a recording to hear his voice (“Lucky”). Through nostalgia, Maxo has bronzed his past to preserve the struggles that would eventually lead to warm and fulfilling music and a record deal with Def Jam.
Maxo’s hopefulness is the spark that makes living through your 20s bearable. It’s that same hope that I hold onto when I’m holed up in my room at night, watching old cartoons and thinking back on days gone by. In the face of a future that feels as bleak as ever, it’s that untainted sense of hope I think of the most.
Through their use of nostalgia, the individual stories of Chance The Rapper, Polo G, and Maxo meet at the intersection of hopefulness. Chance’s daughter will never have to want for the cocoa butter kisses that he missed as a teen. Polo G and Maxo have parlayed their pasts into healthy futures as recording artists.
Rain or shine, these memories are forever.