Heartbreak feels incomplete without the image of a car in the distance. A car, parked, acting as the setting for our devastation. A car in the rain, the patter of droplets scoring our sorrow. A car speeding off as we are left to lick our wounds.
There are myriad images of cars and heartbreak, and in hip-hop and contemporary R&B, the iconography of cars to accompany heartbreak is rich and runs across the county, across time, and across stylistic differences. If we are all equal when it comes to pangs in our chest and the great loss of love, then, too, we are equal in our use of cars to underscore uniquely American heartbreak.
To that point, we can look at the bodies of work by Frank Ocean, Kaash Paige, and Juice WRLD, as emblems of how we deploy car imagery to magnify—or humanize—the pain of a break-up. Consider this piece less of an investigation and more of a candid observation, which began with looking in my notebook, and at my streaming preferences, and wondering: What’s the deal with all these cars? Let’s dig in.
We know Frank Ocean has a deep obsession with cars. From a 2016 piece in GQ: “In an essay taken from his magazine Boys Don’t Cry and posted to his Tumblr, Ocean muses, ‘How much of my life has happened inside of a car? I wonder if the odds are that I’ll die in one.’”
The GQ essay continues tracking Frank’s use of cars across his catalog, but fails to pay special attention to “End.” It feels impossible to discuss the way Frank employs cars without thinking about the setting of “End.” A quiet heartbreaker of a track, several months ago, I wrote:
“Over a sample of Frank’s own ‘Voodoo’—a track released to Tumblr in 2012—we are met with a couple talking in a car—oh, how Frank loves cars—as it rains all around them. As the couple talks, we can barely make out what they’re saying, but given the track is called ‘End,’ we know this cannot be good. It would be very Frank Ocean of Frank Ocean to set the breakup of channel ORANGE to the tune of a song featuring rowdy lovemaking. But that’s Frank; he deals in juxtapositions.”
Taken together, my essay and the GQ essay prod at a nugget of truth: Our lives unfold in cars, and when life unfolds, it is not always the beautiful thing we so desperately want for it to be. Sometimes, life ranges from messy to downright cruel. Life bleeds us dry. Pain comes in awesome waves and sweeps us away. All of this is anchored, in the American heartbreak canon, which is Frank Ocean’s canon, to the image of a car. As I wrote in April, “End” has happened to all of us in some capacity. We’ve all slumped against a stiff passenger’s seat and rested our heads against unforgivingly cold or hot windows while the world proverbially ended all around us.
Beyond “End,” too, there’s the cover of 2011’s nostalgia, ULTRA., which features an orange E30 M3 with BBS wheels, as the GQ essay is so kind to point out. “This is the beginning of his obsession with this particular model of BMW,” they write.
Too, I argue, placing a car front and center on the cover of an album with a song dedicated to the sound of American Heartbreak, we get all the threads we need to sew up the conclusion that Frank views the car as more than a vehicle. It is a symbol of aching and moving on. It’s easy to imagine nostalgia, ULTRA. made in the wake of being broken and Frank attempting to fit himself back together, as he explained of his process in a resurfaced 2011 interview, cryptically: “part Rubix-cube/ part roller-coaster/ part watching paint dry.”
In an essay titled “Nostalgia, Ultra: A Look At Frank Ocean’s Vintage Intimacy,” Okayplayer’s Elijah C. Watson breaks down Frank Ocean’s iconography through the lens of what we enjoy remembering. The weapon of nostalgia is emboldened across Frank’s work. To be sure, this relates to the car imagery for one simple reason: So many memories take place in cars, and we are drawn to the dour.
When you see the car on Frank’s 2011 cover, and you remember all the memories you’ve made to nostalgia, ULTRA., each thought surges forward like you’re tripping. The car imagery is potent—it works to remind us of where we’ve been and where we’re going.
Kaash Paige, 19, deals in honesty and intimacy. Her 2019 debut EP, Parked Car Convos, released through Def Jam, speaks for itself as it relates to this piece. As I wrote in our first interview: “We find it most comfortable to be honest in small, quiet spaces when the lights are low, and the stakes are [unreasonably] high. We all know how it goes, those late-night conversations in parked cars or on fire escapes; how we bare our souls so easily under cover of night and with the promise of secrets kept.”
Just look at the cover of Parked Car Convos, featuring Kaash peering back from the passenger’s seat of a typical sedan. We understand the viewer to be jammed in the backseat of the car; there’s a sense we’re in the mix. There’s a sense we’re not exactly alone with our thoughts and feelings, but with all eyes on Kaash—the driver isn’t visible—there’s an equal sense something important is coming. The Dallas native looks as if there’s something heavy on her heart, and she’s about to unleash that heaviness regardless of whoever is in the car with her.
What I failed to include in my Kaash Paige intro was the sadness that transpires in these tight spaces when “the lights are low, and the stakes are unreasonably high.” How a day can end with the worst news you’ve ever heard. Across the EP’s 21 minutes, Kaash does not shy away from heartbreak. Lines like “And, girl, I be missin’ you, but just not today,” “Pourin’ out my heart, trying to tell you what I been through,” and “I be lonely so I know that you be lonely, too” all culminate to form a picture of American heartbreak through the lens of a young woman trying to find herself.
“In a parked car conversation, you talk about everything,” Kaash told me. “Stuff with your friends, stuff with your boo. It’s either deep and intimate, or real goofy. When I made my EP, it was just stuff I was talking about on the daily: females, smoking gas, traveling the world, hanging out. The EP was describing my everyday life in the car with somebody, just being real.”
Sometimes reality stings. Sometimes, when you park the car, you’re pulling into the beginning of the end of something you cherished. So it goes, so it goes, so it goes.
The late Juice WRLD’s vision of heartbreak skyrocketed him to success. On the cover of his 2018 debut studio album Goodbye & Good Riddance, released through Interscope, there’s a hand-drawn car speeding off, leaving a woman behind burnt rubber. We see someone flipping this woman off; presumably, this is Juice. Here, the image of the car is also the image of moving on and festering in that moving on. Where Frank Ocean’s cars are often stationary, and in the thick of bad news, much like Kaash Paige’s parked car, Juice WRLD finds himself in motion. This action does well with his music, which was always in the throes of processing heartbreak.
In terms of car imagery, we can pay special attention to “Hurt Me” and “End Of The Road.” In particular, “Hurt Me” opens: “Turned to a whole different person, drive my whip / Crash my whip, off the drugs, I’m swervin’.” Here, Juice WRLD uses cars and motion to symbolize his desire to escape himself, his feelings, and the general agony of heartbreak. We know he’s having a hard time as he’s using drugs, which across his discography have been invoked when he’s been in the throng of a deep depression (“I take prescriptions to make me feel a-okay”).
On “Hurt Me,” Juice WRLD wrestles with his past while looking towards the future: “Ex-girlfriend keeps calling my phone / But the bitch can’t hurt me, so I’m not worried.” Of all the songs on Goodbye & Good Riddance, “Hurt Me” is most clearly a rendition of the scene on the cover. From his spiteful tone, we sense his ex has so profoundly hurt Juice that he’ll take any number of pills and put the pedal to the metal as intensely as possible to speed away from the site of the incident.
Juice WRLD’s music brings up another image, one of us in the driver’s seat. Instead of being a passive observer of our world ending, in the realm of Juice WRLD, we are active participants in trying to escape our pain. Think about the number of times your hands have tightly gripped the wheel as you leave the scene of a dastardly conversation. Throwing the car in reverse felt powerful then, didn’t it? How you could stave off the reality of the situation so long as you stay in the car. And it’s easy to get reckless while you drive, no? Easy to test your limits. That’s the Juice WRLD ethos.
On “End Of The Road,” we get the reverse emotion of “Hurt Me.” Juice declares: “I’m drinking, driving in the Bentley coupe, so / It’s hard for me to drive, I move too slow.” Here, the substances catch up to Juice, and his pursuit of escape becomes his peril. Taken another way, too, we get the impression Juice WRLD cannot escape his pain; it’s too ubiquitous. This makes sense if you consider the title of his 2019 sophomore album, Death Race For Love, the final of his lifetime, which implies more cars, more motion, and more pursuits of getting over it.
As Goodbye & Good Riddance transitions into Death Race, we’re left with the understanding that the car, for Juice, is a central place of becoming. Though his approach differs significantly from that of Frank Ocean and Kaash Paige, we cannot shake the imagery from our minds. When we think of cars and Juice WRLD—or of Frank Ocean, or Kaash Paige—we think of immeasurable loss and danger. Such is the strain of American Heartbreak. So it goes, so it goes, so it goes.