Skrewtape is a music column curated by Alex Ashford, an award-winning poet, educator, and music writer. The title draws on such disparate influences as DJ Screw and C.S. Lewis, reflecting her chopped up Southern heritage and philosophical thoughts.
Memphis rapper Young Dolph was murdered on the day Lord Infamous, a founding member of Three Six Mafia, was born and the city literally shook. The same news channel that reported the violent and shocking events of Dolph’s demise would report that tremors had been felt in Memphis from an earthquake in Missouri later that same evening. The South is known more for churches than earthquakes, so it will come as no surprise that a scene straight from the Good Book comes to mind as I write this. It’s the scene from the end of Matthew: Jesus dies. The earth quakes.
I’m not saying that Dolph was Jesus. But it brings me peace to see the metaphor: That a man who gave so much love was so deeply loved in return that the elements reacted to his departure from this life.
In her poem “Love,” Assata Shakur writes that “love is an acid / that eats away bars.” Love eats away separation, in other words. Separation: the hardest thing in the world to get past for the living. And still, the poem doesn’t end the way I want it to. “The shotgun has two barrels / We are pregnant with freedom / We are a conspiracy.”
We hold God inside us and for that, we are hunted down and killed, is my paraphrase.
I’m still not completely sure I know what “love” really is, outside the overwrought tropes I’ve become accustomed to. But I spent the summer getting clear on what it’s not. And just like that, decade-long “friendships” came crashing down. What I thought I knew underwent a transformation of tectonic proportions.
When my sister reads Tarot, she likes to pull a clarifying card. She says it helps to read the character and mood of the ancestor she is working with. She is “coincidentally” born on November 16, one day before Lord Infamous. In their honor, I’ve included a classic rap horror tale from Three-Six Mafia told exclusively by Infamous himself, along with the rest of the picks for this month’s column.
Charlotte Day Wilson featuring BADBADNOTGOOD, “I Can Only Whisper” (Alpha, 2021)
“But here, the poet floats in a well… I look up at everyone else…”
Toronto artist Charlotte Day Wilson’s debut album, Alpha, lies suspended in a musical hinterland. In her world, even the utter paralysis of longing manages to sound gutsy and lovely. “I Can Only Whisper” is about an aftermath — longing for someone now out of reach. As striking as the song’s glistening harmonies and production are, the lines themselves stand out more. Day is a sleepwalker adrift in a textured, elevated soundscape where her voice is the most important and resonant instrument of all. The song is pained in its delivery and has a hymn-like reverence for the woman our narrator longs for. Nowhere are the vocal acrobatics richer or more distinct than the hook, where Day and BADBADNOTGOOD’s voices play, chase and flit, airy and waiflike, over minimalist instrumentation. The lyrics are glassy and haunted, too, in a Sylvia Plath sort of way. “But here, the poet floats in a well… I look up at everyone else…” seems to depict a body levitating on the metaphorical pyre of longing — as if losing a love is itself a kind of death. Isn’t it?
Drake, “Love All” featuring Jay-Z (Certified Lover Boy, 2021)
Certified Lover Boy is haunted by its creator’s own assertion that it’s a “combination of toxic masculinity and acceptance of truth that is inevitably heartbreaking.” Drake wants me to think he’s not taking himself too seriously, even as he secretly broods between the lines of CLB’s massive 21-track spread. In “Love All,” repeated Drake motifs show up once more: “…lotta 42 on the flights I’m taking …lotta falling outs helped me build foundation…” Simple enough and thoroughly felt — he’s sad about the disloyalty but has learned applicable lessons. Though the most succinct takeaway comes from HOV, Husband of Bey, favorite rapper of many (including me), who dutifully explains: “N—- wanna kill me and y’all still widdem / n—- y’all chill widdem and y’all wonder why we not friends …” before leveling his foes with this gem: “Best thing I can do is not chill wit’ you when I could destroy you / that take some fuckin’ discipline.”
The record’s real driver, though, is Biggie, whose spirit looms heavy. The song opens with a sample of Life After Death’s “Intro,” which picks up where “Suicidal Thoughts” leaves off. One of the darkest records of Biggie’s career, “Suicidal Thoughts” finds Biggie phoning Puffy in the middle of the night to report his plan to end his own life. The track ends with the sound of a gunshot. Life After Death begins in the aftermath of this trigger pull and was released two weeks after Biggie’s real-life death in March 1997. As the record’s resident rap ancestor, the ghost of B.I.G. wants to remind us that self love sometimes requires separation. When HOV says “Those the closest to it be the very ones that envy,” I hear Biggie loud and clear.
Young Dolph, “Hold Up Hold Up Hold Up” (Rich Slave, 2020)
In 2017, a disgruntled someone shot 100 rounds at Young Dolph’s car while he was in Charlotte, North Carolina for CIAA weekend. He somehow walked away unscathed. He used the publicity to his advantage and named his next album Bulletproof. Later in the year, he was shot three times in Los Angeles and once again survived: the stuff of legends. His 2020 album, Rich Slave, is a study in contrasts, as the title suggests. In the opening track, “Hold Up Hold Up Hold Up,” he proclaims “We was down for so long, didn’t have no choice but to go up…” and frames himself as a “Rich n—- still in the neighborhood store eatin’ cold cuts.”
The image of a rich Black man eating a cold cut sandwich at his neighborhood corner store reads, on the surface, like a victory, and it is: He’s shown that he can walk the proverbial tightrope between two worlds; a once poor Black kid turned rich must always find a way to balance. No matter how dangerous being back in his hood may be “love is an acid / that eats away bars.” He’s at the corner store in his city out of love. And, yet, Dolph is shot down in front of Makeda’s, his favorite cookie store in his own hood. “We are pregnant with freedom,” Assata writes, “We are a conspiracy.”
Clarifying card: Three Six Mafia, “Anyone Out There” (Chapter 2, World Domination, 1997)
In the late ‘90s, when word of Three Six Mafia made its rounds among the Greater Memphis/North Mississippi musical landscape, I can still clearly remember it being called “devil music” by the old heads who tried to make us believe we were going to hell for listening to it. We listened anyway, because it was some of the most metaphorically brutal music we’d ever heard. It’s not just the gangsta rap-scapes of murder stories and minutely-detailed crime vignettes the group borrowed from their west coast pioneers; Three Six mafia added the built-in horror of the blues to rap. In their special brand of Memphis horrorcore, there are worse things than physical death itself.
“Anyone Out There” is special, specifically because Lord Infamous, a brooding Scorpio — with, arguably, the worst luck of all the group members — tells a sordid tale of Memphis local Scarecrow. Scarecrow is the rapper’s alter ego, an asylum escapee who ends up buried alive: an attempt at freedom ending in the worst way. But the real horror is in the hell that befalls our protagonist before the insane asylum.
The metaphor of being “buried” is a recurring motif in Lord Infamous’ life. He co-founded Triple Six with his brother, DJ Paul, only to end up doing time as the rest of the group rode the wave of success that came with their Oscar single from the Hustle And Flow soundtrack. As a clarifier, think of Lord Infamous as Patron Saint of Invisible Black Boys — illuminator of those obscured from the spotlight they rightfully deserve. If Dolph’s untimely demise was connected to his hyper-visibility, Scarecrow’s was certainly connected to Infamous’ feelings of invisibility. Shortly after his death in 2013, DJ Paul told Rolling Stone that his brother “was the kind of person that never cared about having a lot of money or this or that.” It harkens back to Drake’s words in “Love All”: “Never had a lot, this is all I need.” Because, like Assata says: Love is contraband in hell.