Helplessness might be the human condition. You know, that festering fretting. That obsidian-colored nightmare of a feeling turning you pale. Helplessness is a one-way ticket to ego death. But in a lot of ways, helplessness can be easy. After all, it paralyzes you. No movement required—just that and just so. You lie there and mull over yourself upon heaping waves of dread. From the shore, it’s looking like a riptide. But you can’t do a thing, so you don’t panic. At least, you try not to panic. Maybe, you panic in fits. That might be the human condition, too.
But anyway, I’m here to talk to you about Tyler, The Creator and Mac Miller, and the helpless communion made on their aching opuses IGOR and Swimming. These albums, at two specific points, shout at each other over the fences of our good sense, loudly enough for the whole street to hear them. But quietly enough for their engagement to remain the searing secret of the avenue. “RUNNING OUT OF TIME” calls out to “Come Back to Earth.” These songs speak to each other the way art often does, by fruitful accident. There’s no way Tyler wrote “RUNNING OUT OF TIME” with Mac in mind, and yet the overlap of the language, of the themes, the completeness of this newfound conversation, it feels too uncanny to ignore.
“Wade in your water (Wade in your water) / Your waves wash over me / I drift to the deep end / Don't save, don't save, don't save / It's a low tide (I'll be fine) / I found peace in drownin’” —Tyler, The Creator, “RUNNING OUT OF TIME”
Just look at the first verse of “RUNNING OUT OF TIME” and how it recalls the body of “Come Back to Earth.” Images of chopped waters washing us over, saving, turning tides, peace, drifting and drowning, all allude to the single verse and bridge of Mac’s Swimming opener. The particulars of the language links leave us enthralled and bemused. From one track to the other, we start to piece together a more significant, more robust theme. It’s about the water, and so much more than the water.
On “RUNNING OUT OF TIME” and “Come Back to Earth,” we have speakers embroiled in conflict. Conflict feels inescapable. Deny it all we like, but these songs weave together to rile up that truth. “RUNNING OUT OF TIME” features Tyler’s speaker caught between self-actualization and co-dependence. Mac’s speaker is swinging between optimism and pessimism. Tyler’s writing suggests deep obsession and self-destruction. Mac’s suggests incredible vexation and skepticism. Putting these songs together, we get the sense nowhere and no one has a modicum of security. Control must be a myth.
Both artists are so helpless. We don’t realize it fully until the songs are in conversation and we case their language. Think about what Tyler’s saying for a moment longer. His melodies are candy, but his words are tipped razor blades. Tyler’s more than aware of the danger he’s in, and yet he doesn’t want help. He has accepted suffering. He’s just laying there beneath the surface of an unforgiving sea, waiting for his ship to possibly come in. “RUNNING OUT OF TIME,” from title to content, is about a complete loss of control. Nothing is working. This feeling is disturbing. But rather than delve into the wild side of helplessness, Tyler chooses to show us resignation at its peak. It’s a controlled rot.
Compare this to Mac’s writing, the slow decay of it all. He goes from drowning to swimming, and we assume all is well. His waters are as stressful as Tyler’s, but we open with the impression we’re approaching the forgiving shore. Except, the verse ends with mentions of hell and a lack of self-awareness. Mac makes it seem as if bitter truths have clung to his body like leeches, but he cannot begin to peel them off and face them, which brings us to the bridge, a spitting rain, and a loss of footing. He’s drifting and mostly cynical. But he’s fighting to believe in the good. Where Tyler, The Creator is resigned, Mac Miller appears restless.
Together, there’s chaotic energy to these songs, shredding the placidity of their instrumentals. The totality of helplessness only evidences itself when we look at the music paired up. We find an unexpected wholeness emerging between the shared lyrics and themes. One is fallen, and one is fidgeting, and both are in place. We begin to understand helplessness for all its terror; how it seizes us and how we seethe. The blanketing feeling becomes tangible, something to be turned over in our hands curiously. It’s not demystified but personified. We’re caught unawares by this music. First, the peaceful lull, and then, helplessness is all we can hear. Tyler and Mac capture the feeling’s creeping movements.
Listen, they’re saying, this isn’t going to be easy. None of this is going to be easy. You want someone to love you back? You better be ready to be sick upon your soul, to be gutted with something rusty and ill-fitting, to be chained to your irrational mind. Do you want to feel like yourself again? You better be ready to jump at the first rush of dopamine, to not trust the sun, to wonder is it the mania or is it the real thing. Do you want something, bad? You better be ready to writhe. It’s so ugly, but we can’t look away. We stare until we understand.
Putting these songs together, we realize conflict is inevitable; helplessness will eventually leave us horizontal. It’s a full picture of the stages of losing control and losing yourself. And there’s no resolution. There’s no nice way to end this—though, both artists try to soothe us with gorgeous arrangements—but to admit sometimes we’re fucked. Just that and just so. “RUNNING OUT OF TIME” and “Come Back to Earth” piece together to form a portrait series of the damned. Sometimes, the most striking pictures are these unruly candids.