The Anatomy of Comfort Music

2020 projects from Kota The Friend, Armand Hammer, and Jack Harlow carry the three essential elements of comfort music.
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Comfort music has taken on new importance. I’m talking about the music we turn to for some sense of escapism, rooted reality, or pure joy—the three essential elements of a comfort project. A cursory scroll of any social media platform will prove soothing music has never felt more crucial. 

While we are still looking for music for the “beautiful hashtag” of our current moment, I’d wager most of us music-heads are reaching further and further into our archives and playing the music with which we are most familiar and secure. Looking at some recent examples of the escapist, realistic, and joyful projects released in the hip-hop sphere, we’ll break down the anatomy of comfort music, hopefully to the point of inspiring you, the reader, to assess your listening and indulge in your own comfort projects.

Escapism — Kota The Friend’s EVERYTHING

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Transportive ability is the first and most obvious element of comfort music. You know, the music that immediately brings you to a better, perhaps sunnier and more inviting place. Released on May 22, 2020, Kota The Friend’s newest album, EVERYTHING, is 12 songs and 37 minutes of summertime. 

From the first notes of opener “Summerhouse,” Kota sounds intent on taking us out of our present quarantine lives and into a world where the sun beams down, the cars speed by, friends are packed in together, and we’ve got a “Couple of Ls, couple of blunts, couple of wins / Couple of drinks, couple of girls, couple of trips” in tow. As the first verse of “Summerhouse” progresses, Kota sounds positively enthused. His energy is contagious. By the pre-chorus, Kota inspires cheesing of the highest order:

Sunshine, sunshine, yeah / I could fall in love right here / I could be young right here, I could live it up like, aye / Sit up in the sun like, aye, kick it in the cut all day / Listen to the drums all day, bang-bang-bang

Later, on “Away Park,” Kota digs deep into his memories and sparks in us memories we have yet to experience: “I want that back in the day, circa 2008, beer cans by the lake / Fall in love for the fate, find someone and escape / You pour, I relate, we both outta place, get drunk hop the gate / Build Rome in a day, hold hands ‘til they break.” 

There’s a subtle romance to these bars, and the swirling production—handled by Hello Oshay, Kota, Alex Banin, and Kaiit—takes us right to Kota’s 2008. At the same time, it enchants our present. Kota has us in a time-bending trance, where our setting is anywhere but here. We’re away from all of this—the standard email greeting nowadays being “In light of all of this.”

A little over a month ago, I penned a piece ahead of my big move to Philadelphia with my girlfriend. Now that we’re all settled, but quarantine is still in effect, I turn to Kota The Friend’s EVERYTHING to bring us down to the beach, the park, up against the sunset, and into summer nights filled with lightning bugs and good tidings. 

In reality, she’s in the kitchen cooking a HelloFresh meal while I’m fiddling with my camera in the living room—photographing the cats, of course. There’s something to be said for how seamlessly Kota’s music works its way into my life, how it makes me feel so far away from my present reality, but also makes me feel secure in my current moment. Such is the essence of comfort music, how it brings us there, just to bring us back.

Rooted Reality — Armand Hammer’s Shrines

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On the opposite end of the comfort music spectrum is the need to be rooted in reality. This element refers to the times where we do not want to look away or disconnect. Still, we want to feel a closeness to reality—to understand better, appreciate, or navigate said reality. 

Always true to the hard facts and concrete emotions, Armand Hammer’s latest record, their most lush and loose project to date, Shrines, contains the necessary dose of reality so familiar to both billy woods (See: 2019’s Hiding Places and Terror Management) and ELUCID’s (See: Duncecap’s Miserable Then, and ELUCID’s discography) collective solo works.

Back in 2018, I asked Armand Hammer if they spoke the truth, to which ELUCID replied: “When Armand Hammer makes records, or when I make records, I don’t think that I have the truth. It’s true to me, and maybe other people can jive with that, but it’s more like a personal statement when I make music.” billy woods seconded this notion, and within this deeply personal answer is the magic of Armand Hammer’s rooting music. They make grounding works by speaking to a truth laden within them, as opposed to working at truisms or universalities.

“I would say that every time that I’m really proud of myself in rapping is when I said something that I think is essentially true,” woods told me two years ago. Shrines is an “essentially true” record, dealing with grim reality while also injecting humor as the gentlemen are so intent on accomplishing. woods’ straight-laced imagery contrasts against ELUCID’s more obscure poetic leanings, and together, they blend to represent the world in which we live. They represent a world devoid—on the surface—of peace and answers. They represent the need to dig and excavate and define life for yourself.

Shrines is a comforting album because of the work it asks of the listener because it brings the listener nose-to-nose with truth. Because the breath of reality is hot on our faces, we can take comfort in the simple fact we are engaging with our world. It’s not the most apparent method of self-soothing, but it can be the most effective. At the very least, it stands to be the most cathartic.

Pure Joy — Jack Harlow’s Sweet Action

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An offshoot of rooted reality is our need to find joy in our current moment. The music which sparks the most happiness in us is nothing short of precious, and such is the case with Jack Harlow’s catalog, and his most recent EP, Sweet Action, featuring his now-Platinum single, “WHATS POPPIN.” 

The swagger and ease Jack brings to this EP make it an immediate confidence boost and a staple of my comfort music quiver. There’s not much thinking to do here. You put on Sweet Action, and you simply feel good. In an era where information and misinformation overload are rampant, having a project that instantly releases a dose of good energy feels necessary and, in some ways, powerful.

“When you’re recording, what keeps you excited is you can feel there’s inspiration in the writing—even if it’s something simple,” Jack told me during the release week of Sweet Action. It’s the natural simplicity of his themes on “I WANNA SEE SOME ASS” and the groove of “OUT FRONT”—the vocal trick of “pussy runs the world” on that song in particular—that breeds comfort. 

“Flows are coming easier than ever,” he said. “It’s like dancing. Especially when I’m freestyling.” The fluidity of Sweet Action makes it the perfect comfort project, for it sparks joy with ease and puts a smile on your face not dissimilar from the way Kota The Friend’s imagery relaxes you.

“The goal is to get out of thinking and into feeling,” Jack ultimately concluded during our talk. Stepping into feeling makes Sweet Action a product of immense breeziness and cheer. Though I rush to intellectualize everything in my life, Sweet Action’s seven-song runtime breaks me away from that tendency. 

The project is an invitation to enjoy life as it stands, to praise the present. The music on Sweet Action, the way Jack finds sticky melodies and crafts endless earworms, invites us to fall for life as it stands. In contrast to Kota taking us somewhere else, and Armand Hammer bringing us closer to the essence of reality, Jack turns reality into a dance party. He is the DJ and the main event in one.

Packed with vocal and emotional tricks, Sweet Action exists as perfect comfort music. At every turn, Jack dazzles and distracts, just to whip around and enhance our surroundings. I play Sweet Action once a day, a byproduct of its brisk runtime, and I feel myself growing more and more comfortable as it takes hold of my morning routine. Jack Harlow makes joyful music to live with, music to uplift any situation. He summons smiles and conjures laughter. And I’ll be damned if a good laugh by way of jeering lyricism isn’t a cure for an aching present.

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