Lately, I’ve become increasingly obsessed by music, emotion and personal experience. How incredible is it that a minor chord sounds sad, that a major chord sounds happy? How can a collection of sound waves, sonic signals, make us feel something. Really, what’s more profoundly human, more fundamentally beautiful, than a succession of minor chords that can make us wish we were still children, asking our mom to pour us another bowl of cereal? And no, I’m not stoned (right now).
And then what could possibly matter more than music that makes us feel? That’s what a great live show is, right? People coming together and collectively recognizing that we share a common bond - that whether it’s angry or energetic or sad, this music being played right now makes us all feel the same thing.
While lists and rankings and debates have their place, if music’s fundamentally about a feeling, and we’re not writing openly about how music makes us feel, what are we really writing about? That’s why I’ve been pushing myself and the DJBooth staff to write more subjectively, more personally, more honestly, and last week Lucas really took things to the next level with his Black Milk review. As both a man and a man working in hip-hop, it’s not easy to publicly say that music hit you hard enough to make you cry, but that’s exactly why people connected so strongly with that piece. Because whether we’ll admit it or not, we all have those songs that make us cry, and those tears make us feel isolated. To write so openly about those tears created that same connection that comes from a live show.
So we’re going further and taking turns writing about music that’s made us cry, and I’ll go first because fuck it. Be the change you wish to see in music writing, or something. There were a lot of options on the table for me - when the guitars really kick in on "Isle of Cheetah," the closing of this Districts song - but since this is a hip-hop site, ultimately I had to go with Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me”.
I was waiting for my coffee at Starbucks when I got the call my father-in-law had died. We’re so sorry for your loss it was a massive heart attack in his sleep your wife isn’t answering her phone you’ll have to tell her.
The barista says my name. I get my coffee.
For a moment I considered simply pretending like I had never heard that news. The weight of the responsibility was almost surreal. The moment I told my wife her father was dead would be the moment my daughter would never look to the crowd of her high school graduation and see her grandfather, would be the moment my family would, in a very real and specific way, be broken forever. If I had the power with just a few words to take all of that away, then maybe by staying silent I could hold it off forever.
That moment passed. So this is what being a man truly is. No one to save you. Just you and the terrible thing that must be done and only you can do it. I got in the car and sat down, began to cry violently, talking to myself. “What the fuck am I supposed to tell her? What the fuck am I supposed to tell her? What the fuck am I supposed to tell her?”
I stop crying. My father-in-law, his cooling body, becomes not a person, not the guy I spent all those nights barbecuing with, but a task to accomplish. A job that needs to be done, because it does. I put on the mask, drive to my wife’s school, say her dad is dead, a massive heart attack in his sleep, I’m so sorry. Buy plane tickets. Arrangements to be made.
Two years later, I’m driving late night in L.A. and I’m listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me.” I’d already heard it at least 50 times, had always been blown away by the songwriting, but tonight, for reasons I can’t really put into words, it cut me even deeper. All of these people, dying, dead and buried, who will sing their song? Phil Joaquin Torres wasn’t a celebrity, his death didn’t inspire a Twitter trending topic. If not me, who would sing about him? Was I singing him? My grandmother? My aunt Janet? Jim? And who would sing about me? Am I worth it? Did I put enough work in?
And that night, in that same car, something broke inside and that same violent cry came out of me. By the time I got home I’d regained control, wiped any trace of those tears from my face, but ever since then hearing “Sing About Me” brings a tightness to my chest. I’m listening to it now as I write this and I'm trying not to cry because that’d be so fucking cliched but the music makes me think about how my death will someday crush my daughter, just like my father-in-law’s death crushed my wife, and the room is getting very dusty.
Last week someone asked me how I thought Logic’s Under Pressure compared to Kendrick’s GKMC, and I didn’t know how to answer. Under Pressure is an expertly crafted album from a very talented artist, but none of the songs on it make me cry driving in late night L.A., and so how can it possibly be better? And then if someone has their own late night drive moment with Under Pressure, how could that possibly matter less than my own experience with “Sing About Me”? As a music critic I could write an article comparing and contrasting the two, pretend to offer some definitive conclusion, but as a human I know that’s a facade, just a fraction of the real reason we listen to music.
We listen to music because it makes us feel something.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]