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Tome On The Range

On Future And Working Through What Hurts: Essay By Hanif Abdurraqib
The Quietus , September 8th, 2018 09:58

In an exclusive extract from his new essay collection They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Hanif Abdurraqib talks about grief, memory, and Atlanta rapper Future

Photo by thecomeupshow (cropped), CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia

MY MOTHER DIED AT THE BEGINNING OF SUMMER. What this meant, more than anything, was that I didn’t have school or some other youthful labour to distract me from the grieving process, which during the summer felt long, and slow. In past summer months, when I would be home from school, my mother would be the one who would often come home from work first. It took a while, after she died in June, to get used to not hearing her car pull into the driveway, the tires kicking the gravel along the glass windows of the basement, where my friends and I would be camped out, spending time watching TV or shooting on imaginary hoops. She was a naturally loud woman, so her arrivals were often loud, anchored by some warming noise a laugh, or a shuffling of groceries, or a walk that echoed through the old hallways of our old house. The real grief is silence in a place where there was once noise. Silence is the hard thing to block out, because it hovers, immovable, over whatever it occupies. Noise can be drowned out with more noise, but the right type of silence, even when drowning, can still sit inside of a person, unmoving.

By the time I started high school in the summer after my mother’s death, I was so wound up from sitting largely stagnant in my own sadness for three months, I didn’t know how to re-enter a world in which I had to sit and face people on a daily basis. I fought, I found myself consistently suspended, I was the student that teachers threw their hands up about, confused. It was very out of character for me, but I was rebelling against the feeling of anything but grief. When you allow something to grow a shadow at your back, anything that distracts you from it is going to need severing. I think, perhaps, that the key is never letting the sadness grow too large.

In 2014, Future began a run of production that rap had rarely seen. Starting with Honest?, he released three studio albums and five mixtapes in the span of two years. The start of the run coincided with the crumbling of Future’s personal life. The first album of the stretch, Honest, was released in April of 2014, a month before Future’s son was born with singer Ciara, and four months before Ciara called off their engagement, separating Future from his son, also named Future. Allegations of cheating followed, and within months, Ciara was removing a tattoo of Future’s initials from her hand, tattoos that the couple had gotten together shortly after falling in love. It was an intense and public collapse, with Ciara and Future both responding subtly, and then not-so-subtly to the relationship’s end. Ciara, less than a year after the split, was in a public relationship with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, while Future, it seemed, was growing increasingly frantic, detached, and brilliantly productive.

The crown jewel of Future’s run is 2015’s Dirty Sprite 2, which serves as the perfect companion to Honest and stands as one of rap’s darkest breakup albums. On the surface, it’s simply haunted and paranoid: the artist stumbling through descriptions of various drug-fueled exploits. The title itself derives from the mix of clear soda and codeine cough syrup, Future’s drug of choice. But it is more than simply several odes to a vice; it’s a discussion of the vice as a way to undo memory. There is still the boastful Atlanta hustler persona that Future cultivated on his past albums, but there’s also an exhaustion present. On the song “Groupies,” he groans through a chorus of “now I’m back fucking my groupies” in a way that sounds like he’d rather be anywhere else.

The reason Dirty Sprite 2 is such a brilliant breakup record is that it doesn’t directly confront the failing of a relationship, but intimately details the movements of what that failure turned an artist into. It is misery as I have most frequently seen black men experiencing their misery, not discussed, pushed into a lens of what will drown it out with the most ferocity. Future, in a year, watched a woman he loved leave him with their child, and then find public joy with someone else, while he wallowed, occasionally tweeting out a small bitter frustration about the newfound distance. There are as many ways to be heartbroken as there are hearts, and it is undeniable that it is exceptionally difficult to be both public-facing and sad. Future’s golden run was born out of a desire to bury himself. Rather, a desire to be both seen and unseen.

All of the albums released from 2014–2016 were released to both critical and commercial success, which made the run even more stunning. Future wasn’t just creating throwaway works to help forget about his sadness. Dirty Sprite 2 went platinum. What A Time To Be Alive, a 2015 collaborative mixtape where Future outshined Drake at every turn also debuted at #11 on the Billboard chart. 2016’s Evol also topped the charts. In between, there were the mixtapes: Beast Mode and 56 Nights in 2015, Purple Reign in 2016.

All of them ruminated on the same handful of emotions, reveled in the same methods of darkness and escape. I guess, when you work so hard to dodge the long arms of grief, it is impossible to allow all of grief’s stages to move through you. It is difficult to talk about Future’s run without also talking about what the end looks like, or if it will end. He seems to be reaching toward an inevitable collapse. All of us can only outrun silence for so long before we have no option but to face it. I think of this as I turn the volume up on Evol the week after it comes out, an album that deals in all of the various and dangerous forms that love can take. It seems like a small shift in a different direction for Future, who seemed to be sliding back in a more confident, recovering persona. A month after the release of Evol, Ciara and Russell Wilson announced their engagement.

What often doesn’t get talked about with real and deep heartbreak after a romantic relationship falls apart is that it isn’t always just a single moment. It’s an accumulation of moments, sometimes spread out over years. It is more than just the person you love leaving; it’s also seeing them happy after they’ve left, seeing them beginning to love someone else, seeing them build a life that you perhaps hoped to build with them. Sometimes it isn’t as easy as unfollowing a person on social media to not see these moments. When it is present and unavoidable, there have to be other ways of severing emotion from memory. In a 2016 Rolling Stone interview, Future tells the interviewer that he spends most of his days in a dark recording studio, hours with codeine and a notebook, until he loses track of time. It walks a line between punishment and survival, like so many tools of escape do. So many of Future’s songs since Ciara left him are about how much excess he can absorb until everything around him rings hollow, and I suppose this is maybe a better option than albums directly attacking Ciara’s new life. It strikes me as Future understanding that, in some ways, he deserves where he ended up, and the work, the codeine-fueled brilliance, is how he is delivering his pound of flesh while also trying to never be caught by any single emotion.

It is easy to think of anything that makes you feel better as medication, even if it only makes you feel better briefly, or even if it will make you feel worse in the long run. In my high school years, after my mother was gone, I watched my father run himself into the ground. In part, due to necessity: two high school-aged children, active in sports, caused him, as a single parent, to be in several places at once. But he was (and is) also, by nature, someone who takes immense pride in labor, and this heightened when he seemed to be coping with the death of his wife. At a traffic light on the way home from a soccer practice in 1999, two years after my mother died, my father fell asleep in the driver’s seat of the car. The light turned green, and cars behind us honked, eventually jarring him awake. I remember staring at him, the glow of the red light bleeding into the car and resting on his briefly sleeping face. I remember thinking that, instead of waking him up, I should let him rest. That maybe, what we see when we close our eyes is better than anything the living world could offer us in our waking hours. I imagine this is why Future has become obsessed with losing track of time. It is hard to keep missing someone when there’s no way to tell how long you’ve been without them. When everything blurs into a singular and brilliant darkness.

POSTSCRIPT:

It is February 2017 and I am crying in the John Glenn Columbus International Airport in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. It could be the lack of sleep. I just got off of a plane from San Francisco, a city I flew out of at midnight after flying in less than 24 hours earlier. I am back in Columbus for less than 24 hours to do a reading, and then I am flying back to Los Angeles. It is a wretched schedule, one that has caused many of my friends to put their hands on my face and ask me if I’m doing okay, and I am not really, but I smile and shrug and tell them I’ll see them soon. I’m holding a newspaper with my face on it. It is the Columbus Dispatch, my hometown’s biggest newspaper. I learned to love reading at the feet of this newspaper. As a child, I would unravel it on Sundays and hand my brother the comic section while I read the ads, the obituaries, the box scores. I am in it because I answered questions to a kind interviewer about a book of poems I wrote. It seems almost impossible to measure the amount of work (and luck, and certainly privilege) that allowed me to end up here, but that isn’t the entire reason that I’m crying. It is my mother’s birthday. If she were living, she’d be celebrating 64 years today, and I am in an airport holding something in my hands that she might have been proud of, and I can’t take it to her and place it in her living hands and say look. look at what I did with the path you made for me. And states away, someone still living has decided that they aren’t in love with me anymore, and so I am flying thousands of miles for weeks at a time and staying up staring at computer screens until there is nothing rattling in my brain but a slow static to ride into dreams on.

Headphones are around my neck as I cry in this airport newspaper shop, blaring the second of Future’s two new albums, released in consecutive weeks: Future on one Friday, and HNDRXX on the next. HNDRXX is startling in approach and execution. It is Future both unapologetic and unimpressed with himself, all at once. For the first time, he seems truly sad, made plain. It’s an album of broken crooning, finally slowing down enough to undo the vast nesting doll of grief. From denial to acceptance, and everything in between. It seems like this may be the album that ends Future’s run. Both are projected to go #11 on the charts, making Billboard history. HNDRXX is the logical bookend to Honest, which started his run in 2014. Honest, with its performed depth, offered nothing of emotional substance. HNDRXX ends on “Sorry,” a nearly eight-minute song where everything comes apart. It’s Hendrix apologizing for Future, or Future apologizing for himself, or regret piling on top of regret until the whole building collapses. At the opening of verse two is the line, “It can get scary when you’re legendary,” delivered in Future’s signature throaty drone. The endless work, the hiding from that which hurts, maybe leads to some unforeseen success. And the funny thing about that is how it won’t make any of us feel less alone. That’s how running into one thing to escape another works. Distance has a wide mouth, and I haven’t slept in a bed in 48 hours, and the people who miss me are not always the people I want to be missed by, and the last time I stood over my mother’s grave, the weeds had grown around her name so I picked at them with my bare hands for a while before giving up and sitting down inside of them instead. Still, I am in a paper because I chose work over feeling sad for three months, and now I don’t have the energy to feel anything but sad. The woman who works at the newsstand taps me on the shoulder, and asks me if I can turn down the music in my headphones because it’s distracting other customers. She walks away, never saying anything about the fact that I was crying in the middle of her store.

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us: Essays by Hanif Abdurraqib is published by Melville House

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