The other morning I watched Joy Harjo sit in Oprah’s garden and remind us that “all poets are mystics and seers.” This is the absolute truth, even though I rolled my eyes. I scoffed, probably, because I’m a Pisces, and I don’t like feeling pressured by the universe’s incessant synchronicities suggesting that, perhaps, I am still a poet.
Spring is synonymous with the idea of rebirth; it’s when plants “come back to life,” and animals respond in kind. The world around us is, once more, teeming with excitement. But implicit in the idea of any start is a stop, and the older I get, the more gray grows between those two speeds. Life and death are two sides of a coin, and poets and mystics spend their days divining messages from beyond the veil, calling back the messages, poems, songs… or skrewtapes.
Physical death is not the only way we die. We experience emotional and existential death, too — small, sustained bouts of dying. We break down. Things fall apart (word to Achebe). I like how Dostoyevsky puts it in The Brothers Karamazov: “You will burn and you will burn out; you will be healed and come back again.” Brothers was his final novel, and he reportedly struggled for two years to get it done. He died a few months after its publication, as if succumbing, at least metaphorically, to birth complications. As you’ve probably noticed by now, it’s the subtle synchronicities, tiny, glittery breadcrumbs, that catch my eye. I feel the same way about Biggie’s Life After Death, released on March 25, 1997, a couple of weeks after he died and a mere two months before his 25th birthday.
If you read the first installment of this column, you already know that I’m the daughter of a musician. You should also know that my mother is a medium and I’ve always been enamored with music and ghosts. This month’s column is all about synchronicity; it’s about celebrating the ways humans refuse to die — living forever on record. A track from Demi Lovato’s new project wafts into an entry from one of Georgia’s bedrock rappers, and ends on a song that may as well be Nipsey featuring Mustard.
Demi Lovato, “The Art of Starting Over” (Dancing With the Devil…The Art of Starting Over, 2021)
When Demi Lovato sings “New beginnings can be lonely / Thank God I got me to hold me,” I picture an unborn baby holding its own little body in the confines of a mother’s womb, bracing for the next tremor pushing it out into a new world. “I think God has a twisted sense of humor sometimes,” Demi says in episode two of her recently released YouTube series, Dancing With The Devil. The series and album of the same name come on the heels of Lovato’s much-publicized brush with death. In 2018, while touring, shooting a documentary, and celebrating six years of sobriety, things came to a screeching stop when Lovato suffered a relapse and overdosed on drugs. What followed was a revolving nightmare that included several strokes, a heart attack, multiple organ failure, and pneumonia, among other complications. When she sings about “starting over,” it’s without the trite, pop-star meanings the phrase might conjure in our jaded minds.
Demi’s voice tiptoes over the soft-rock accompaniment with an almost bashful admission: “I’m like a watch, I’m unwinding like a clock / The universe is trying to remind me.” By the end of the fluttery track’s brief, less than three minutes tenure, a Lovato who’d begun the track with trepidation boldly exorcise herself, belting the declaration: “I let the darkness, I let the darkness out.”
2 Chainz, “55 Times” (So Help Me God!, 2020)
2 Chainz describes his sixth studio album, So Help Me God! as a sort of “time capsule of quarantine.” The album cover follows a trend relatively familiar among artists of using baby pictures as album art. Chainz, though, uses a proof of the junior high school photos he couldn’t afford at the time. Born and raised in College Park, he was already well on his way to becoming an Atlanta rap staple in the early 2000s. At the time he was Tity Boi, half of Playaz Circle, the rap duo who penned the forever southern anthem “Duffle Bag Boyz” with Lil Wayne and inked a deal with Ludacris’ Def Jam imprint.
The decision to change his stage name from Tity Boi to 2 Chainz in 2011 was, at least on the surface, a marketing move. He dubbed the latter moniker as more “family friendly.” Indeed. But to listen closely to “55 Times,” you’ll hear a coincidence-obsessed, church-raised Black boy scrolling through his traumas and trying to settle into the fact that he survived them. The more mainstream and “family friendly” 2 Chainz’ is beloved by the masses, but he isn’t necessarily known for deep, imploring lyricism. He’s known for his unmistakable tone and signature College Park hubris that, record-wise, equates to chart-toppers and bangers.
But arrogance from the mouth of a Black man is itself a kind of lyricism. When Chainz raps on the hook “God keep on blessing me, I’m doin’ something right,” he’s not bragging as much as offering an almost ecstatic praise to the universe for the difficulties he’s survived, and for an improved state of being. Chainz’s angst is almost always palpable here, except in the split second or two when he’s saying the words “55 times.” The anxiety in his voice goes dull — as if one synchronicity, a tiny, glittering breadcrumb, can quell the pain of two angst-ridden verses.
Mustard Featuring Nipsey Hussle, “Perfect Ten” (Perfect Ten, 2019)
“You don’t know who swimmin’ naked ‘til the tide come in.” So begins “Perfect Ten,” a track Mustard and Nipsey Hussle recorded a month and a half before the latter musician’s untimely murder in March 2019. In an interview with Variety, Mustard laments the loss of both an artist and friend: “That was the last song we did together,” he explains.“He thought he had all the time in the world, for music and everything else that he wanted to do.” But to listen to Nip’s message on “Perfect Ten,” I wonder if Mustard is wrong about this one. Something in Nip’s voice sounds premonitory — as if laying down the track is a sacred act, mystical. In the refrain, Nip takes on the customary role of OG and checks the youngsters with Black uncle questions like: “Where your backbone, where your code at? Where your heart n—-? Where your soul at?” But the last couplet is the kicker: “Ain’t no guarantees, but you know that. N—- die everyday, can’t control that.”
“Hussle fell to the ground, suffering at least 10 gunshot wounds,” so The LA Times records of Nipsey’s homicide. “Stay 10 toes down,” Lauren London says, quoting Nipsey during her eulogy to him. Mystic and a seer. Am I crazy for thinking he knew? I keep going back to the track’s opening parable, on its surface a stylish quip about nakedness and tides, and trying to put into words the so much more I know it means. There’s something cryptic, unthinkable, and irrefutable in the certainty that belies his words. A certainty that’s more of a reminder that, naked or clothed, we humans are all so small against the tide; and as French poet Rene Char puts it: “We have only one recourse in the face of death: Make art before it happens.”