On Lucki and Voyeurism

Colin Gannon explores the key themes of the Chicago rapper's recent mixtape.
By    March 28, 2019

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You can find Colin Gannon hitting up happy hour with Mindy St. Claire in the Medium Place.

Lucki is honest. The 22-year-old Chicago rapper’s verses are more internal monologue than boilerplate introspection. He raps in a catatonic drone, piercingly and laconically, about his broken mind and his inability to unshackle himself from opiate addiction.

The following are staggeringly brutal confessions that encapsulate this dread: “Percs really hurt my stomach, but that’s how I feel free,” “I need grandma picture with me, I won’t sip if she near me,” “My fans worry about my health, so I ain’t sipping in public.” His music succeeds in its morbidity, not as triumphant chart music, nor as delectable, bombastic fodder for viral dances on YouTube or Tik Tok compilations. Quite devastatingly, he even juxtaposes the neediness of romantic relationships with his addiction, questioning his self-worth in the process: “Want me all to yourself, the molly want me too,” You ever thought you’d be in love with a fiend?”

Lucki’s latest project, Freewave 3, is superb, arguably his best yet, but it’s also a disconcerting, tormenting, and morally mystifying listen: Should listeners enjoy such transparently obvious documents of pain? Treading the line, in a roundabout way, between the raging “separating art from the artist” dilemma and the tortured artist mythology, it’s a particularly prickly question.

On occasion, squalid images of drug use and unforgiving bleakness can override the music. Oftentimes the confessional lyrics are difficult to digest without considering their real-life implications. Particular drugs have long been chemical signifiers for music scenes and art milieus, generational markers like LSD in the ‘60s and heroin in the ‘80s. Musicians naturally proceed in writing lyrics, and composing songs, that reflect varyingly chemicalized mind-states: From the serotonin-rush come-up, to the heavenly apex, to a soul-sapping comedown. Lucki, on the other hand, writes over minimalistic, synthetic-sounding beats with such incredulous amounts of specificity, so matter-of-fact, that listening to him utter them aloud feels grossly voyeuristic.

In isolation, you’d wince hearing these ugly, wilting admissions. Atop snapping drums and brooding atmospherics — surrounded by non-sequiturs about relationships and cars — they sound jarring at best, genuinely worrying at worst. Almost from day one, Lucki’s bare-boned lyrics have been freighted in gloom, but six years after the release of his debut—and three years since he left his teens behind him—he’s become less tethered to experimentalism and ways of coping with mental anguish, and more associated with a sad, deathly resignation.  

To listen to Lucki is to often obscure unambiguously real problems and even realer anguish. Hearing him rap that his mother is collecting and sending him images of kidneys, fearing for her son’s life, can leave anyone shook. But if I don’t listen closely, I can easily and inadvertently reduce his experience to something selfishly ingested on a commute. That trivialization, although widespread in art, nags at me. Realistically, you can’t denounce listening habits or urges, and you can’t admonish people for their preferences; pontification is an exercise in uselessness. Yet there should be greater space for a nuanced, mindful and yes, ethical, consumption of music.

In the real world, people are growing increasingly aware of how their daily purchases offset harmful domino effects on the planet and other people—an industry unto itself. Take the ethical quandary that Michael Schur’s razor-sharp NBC comedy The Good Place philosophizes.  In one episode, the characters, who are in the afterlife hectically trying to figure out why everyone on earth is being sent to The Bad Place—hell in other words, since it’s a meritocratic points-based system based on a mathematical analysis of actions on earth—are dumbfounded when they come to understand why: Every menial task undertaken on this incomprehensibly interconnected planet holds unintended, unethical ripples, from second-hand pollution to furthering inequalities to the funding of child labor practices. The same logic can be applied to music then. Maybe some light reconsideration—a semblance of wariness—is warranted when listening to artists who pose grave danger to either themselves or others.

Already in 2019, there have been two noteworthy rap albums which alternately dangle and angle a microscope over drug addiction: Freewave 3 and Juice WRLD’s Death Race for Love. On the first verse from the new album’s opening track, titled Empty, Juice WRLD raps that he “problem solves with Styrofoam” and that his pill addiction is “killing him slowly”. Last year on 2018’s unavoidable Lucid Dreams, a swirling Billboard hit that catapulted him to global fame, Juice WRLD sung-rap slowly for emphasis: “I take prescriptions to make me feel a-okay.”

Juice WRLD’s mode of lyricism—though naked—asks that listeners empathize. It’s messy, wallowing, and tweenish, a maudlin sentimentalism redolent of the self-pitying pop punk tropes he grew up internalizing. He’s grown from a rowdy scene—loosely categorized as Soundcloud rap—that often ritualizes self-hatred to the point where self-reflections read as showy and thin. Crucially, Juice WRLD’s soppy verses are also premised on the listener extracting some kind of personal meaning, or higher understanding, from his songs—a crude, drug-fuelled exhibitionism quite unique to rappers of Generation Z. Not one to proselytize, Lucki’s music hits you as uncaring: Whether people listen or not, it goes out into the ether regardless.

Of course, addicts, and those battling abuses writ large, have their own stories to tell—nobody’s suffering should be ranked, diminished, minimized or forgotten. Musically, in stark contrast to Juice WRLD’s earnest over-writing, Lucki’s free-flowing style reports live from the source of pain, live from the scene of withdrawal. His music is nightmarish. His songs are sewer-dirty soundscapes, characterized by their sparseness and their emptiness and their cloudy, palliative haze. There’s echoes of Codeine Crazy Future in Lucki’s lyrics, as there are in Juice WRLD’s, who often sounds like he’s doing his best impression of his idol. Future, many forget, has admitted in interviews on a number of occasions that he has exaggerated his drug habits.

Regardless of this, drug abuse has become a stylistic crutch at times for the Atlanta rapper, who possesses a greater arsenal of pop talents, whereas with Lucki it’s his all-consuming everything.

In his raps, Future, who is a dozen years Lucki’s senior and has reached a certain level of maturity, also refers to what ignites his addiction: narcissism, traumas, past demons, current vices. “I would listen to Future and get goosebumps for real,” Lucki recently told Pitchfork. “Sometimes kids tell me my music saved their life, that shit makes me feel so good, when I listen to [Future’s mixtape] Beast Mode I understand that feeling.”

“Music often invades our ears in public, uninvited,” Carl Wilson recently wrote in Slate of the spectre of Michael Jackson’s music in the wake of the Leaving Neverland documentary. His music is ubiquitous, therefore it is near-impossible to edit his music out of your life entirely unless gatekeepers make that decision for you. The heinous allegations (obviously) render the stakes utterly incomparable. Yet the opposite can be said of lesser known artists with cultish fanbases like Lucki: You actively seek out his music, you listen attentively to what he has to say, you repeatedly engage with his art, you see him perform live, and the cycle is repeated until fandom is all that there is. Listeners may feel part of something larger, but for all intensive purposes, they’re part of the machinery that drives his artistry, a fixture in how Lucki chooses to excavate anxieties and pain and sadness. It’s consumption, no matter what way you twist it.

If you listen, are you complicit in furthering his drug dependence? If you buy the album, do you question whether you’re funding his addiction? It’s a difficult, complex subject to broach—one that nevertheless demands attention. The rap listening world at large tends to gravitate towards self-destructive paeans, from Future to Kanye to Mobb Deep’s Prodigy to Notorious B.I.G. Music writer Lawrence Burney, writing in Noisey in 2016, argued that an “emerging antibiosis” between artists and listeners was demonstrating itself. Where, he wrote, “our desire to see artists abuse themselves for our entertainment not only limits the capacity for empathy but, in turn, encourages them to continue digging themselves into psychological and physical holes.” While listening to a song does not incriminate you morally, it may, or should, burden you.

Rather than being a cultural flashpoint that results in think pieces at the New York Times, or a topic that whips up endless debate on “Music Twitter” threads, the questions surrounding the consumption of art created from something as crippling as opiate addiction are these: Are you willing to accept human suffering as part of the art? Is it this suffering they endure, and the scars they bear, what makes their art essential? Out of context, not many will admit to agreeing with the latter. Yet, many rap fans will contend—tacitly or otherwise—that Eminem’ most fruitful period came mid-addiction; they’ll say transcendent drug experiences and grim withdrawal nightmares are what propelled much of Danny Brown’s most arresting music.

For many reasons, I think Lucki’s music—especially Freewave 3—is essential, not least because it is musically transfixing. Most of all, it’s challenging, even after countless listens. An uncompromising depiction of addiction with novelistic detail so excruciating at times that looking away feels like a callous opt-out to witnessing Lucki’s invitational soul-bearings. On his recently released debut album, the UK rapper Dave—fairly even-handedly it should be said—frames tracks as individual sessions with a therapist. Lucki, meanwhile, doesn’t have that luxury. There is no guardian angel shepherding his thoughts on tracks—all that exists is a biological craving to self-medicate, and that is the vortex pulling him inwards, downwards, asunder. Addiction punctuates his every waking moment the same way it punctuates every musical crevice in his songs.

In many ways, Lucki’s music can be mapped onto that of Trainspotting, the 1996 film adaption of Scottish writer Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name. When it landed on the silver screen, it immediately drew two visceral responses: One of critical consensus and fanfare, a post-Thatcherite masterwork portraying the perverse, grisly realities of heroin addicts in an abandoned, economically decimated inner-city Edinburgh; and the other halve comprised of culture war wrecking balls—right-wing lawmakers, middle-class parents, Christian fundamentalists—who railed against such films for “glamourizing” and “fethisizing” drugs.

I am reminded of the film’s most famous scene—where the protagonist, Ewan McGregor’s Renton, is enduring a torrent of hallucinations in a skin-crawling episode of cold turkey—when I’m cornered into some of the darker corners of a Lucki song. “Does it lead anywhere? Say anything? Not really,” film critic Roger Ebert observed of Trainspotting. “That’s the whole point. Drug use is not linear but circular.”

In his recent self-effacing interview with Pitchfork, Lucki’s forthrightness is like watching the characters in Trainspotting interact, professing their love for being high and their need to sober up in the same breath. Lucki is asked about his open nature on social media. “Like I could be really on there talking about how my stomach hurts every day,” he says, seeming to rebuff the idea that he is as open as some people perceive. “‘Cause I get high and I get withdrawal [symptoms],” he explains why. His responses, tellingly, in their starkness, hark back to his lyricism—a blunt, plainspoken depiction of drug use which allows you, the listener, to confront drug abuse head-on.

Of all of his releases, Freewave 3 feels most alive despite being ostensibly unfeeling: An uncompromising, hi-def portrayal of a real person attempting to withstand drug abuse. A new directness poses more questions than answers, though: When does drug music become a cry for help? However toneless his voice sounds, he appears a young man fraying, someone struggling and tearing themselves apart slowly before an audience of thousands. When Lil Peep died, there was some hand-wringing about drug rap, but maybe there were not enough good faith arguments put forward. A recent Rolling Stone story suggested that Lil Peep was surrounded by a circle of enablers, from musician friends to label people. Was anyone else culpable?

Obviously, Lucki is a talented rapper who appears to be enjoying his his art, and he is incredibly loyal to creating honest, diaristic rap. But is the listener complicit in furthering a mysticism to what is human suffering? He never intended to make music this dark, certainly. He only writes what he knows, like most people. As it turns out, this is darkness. It would unfair to say it is complete anhedonia.

Lucki can at times sound lucid, smitten, unnumb, funny, unconquered. For every opiate-addled bar, there’s enough ad-lib emoting and incisive lines to leaven the weight and avoid his dipping into navel-gazing—in all seriousness, he’s too wily and slippery a lyricist to fall into this hole of solipsism. “Still tell everybody I love ‘em  / But I keep ‘em out of reach,” he raps on Believe the Hype, a song that sounds as if it’s suspended in a lake of lean. But these moments of light are far and few between, and are drowned out in codeine.

From arms-length, Lucki’s music can be understood by examining modern pop culture: the morosity that dominates the charts; the breezy misanthropy circling social media feeds; the millions of kids across the world who screamed along verbatim to Lil Uzi Vert’s cries that the world is pushing him to the edge because all of his friends are dead. But Lucki goes much further than reflecting a cultural bleakness: He is an embodiment of a particular kind of pain, one which is difficult to grapple with but ultimately delivers a vivid snapshot of opiate addiction, the kind millions go through on a daily basis throughout America and across the world.

“The way that you help somebody out, reach out to someone, offer them a helping hand, offer them a hug, whatever,” Juice WRLD said recently of breaking addiction. Maybe he’s right. And perhaps the only meaningful way fans and critics alike can lend a helping hand to Lucki is by recognizing the true ugliness of his music.

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