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Abe Beame takes solemn drives in a vintage Mercedes-Benz.
Life is a series of down endings and there’s an entire industry built around how to cope with your pain. The conventional narrative is often constructed around the glass half-full philosophy. The idea that the struggles you endure only make you stronger and better equipped for the next challenge. Everything happens for a reason. “God” doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.
Much of the history of struggle rap has embodied this sentiment. “All That I Got is You,” was a revolutionary personal confession that pulled away from the “Tearz” and “Millie Shot Santa Clause” style of anecdotal tragic hood narrative. It related the embarrassment and depression of growing up poor in harrowing but ultimately humanist terms. And it makes sense: it’s human nature to want to believe that suffering is for something, that there’s a reward waiting for us somewhere down the line. It’s the very kernel of religion.
In the years since, many rappers have forwarded this concept. Artists like Scarface, Boosie, Kevin Gates, Trae, Z-Ro, NBA Youngboy and Gunna have displayed a specific talent for working dark. Their music, like the world, has been getting increasingly hopeless and nihilistic, but they pull up just short of total despair. Rod Wave is at once ancient and progressive in his insistence that the trauma he’s experienced in his life as a young, poor person of color from Florida is not a path to redemption. He plainly states at the age of 20 he’s been ruined by the cycles of poverty and violence he miraculously survived and continues to resent. That this was all for nothing and the only outlet he has is the therapy of his music. He claims in his lyrics he’s been here before, and you can hear the old soul at work in his wisdom.
The divine is very present in Rod’s catalogue. On his new album Pray 4 Love, and on his debut, Ghetto Gospel, he shows simple and powerful taste in production. He gravitates towards basic piano loops and Tracy Chapman blues licks. The songs are short — three minutes is an opus for Rod. He gets through what feels like a few distracted, intensely personal bars larded with gospel, drops a hook with its own gravitational field and gets out. It only serves to underline the sense that he’s making something older than rap. The religious intimations of his two album titles extend to his music. They play as hymnals.
Rod is one of the most singular artists working today. There’s no mainstream singles and few features besides his executive producer and favorite rapper Kevin Gates. Nothing is uptempo or even remotely hopeful. He appropriately references Pac, who would fuck with him, on “Ribbon in the Sky”. He has songs with 10 million-plus plays, but his “hits” are downers that almost celebrate the pain and nihilism they’re drenched in.
If this sounds like a tough hang, it both is and isn’t. There’s nowhere to catch your breath on his records. There are plenty of love songs, but Rod’s relationship with love is like a velociraptors relationship to an electrified fence. You could easily mistake it for fear. He sees it as pain that doesn’t hurt yet. When you consider his album title, I assume he’s referring to love from God, not another person. But Rod has an otherworldly gift for melody and a haunting voice. It’s ethereal and beautiful which offsets how staggeringly bleak it all is. His trademark is a quivering sob always threatening his delivery. It’s music you feel. This uneasy alliance of loneliness, fear and misery related in aching beauty may have a particular resonance for some. If Fiona Apple isn’t the soundtrack for your current circumstances, this might be.
Some nights, after my family goes to bed, after seemingly everyone on Earth who has managed to maintain a human sleep schedule goes to bed, I sit in my living room with nothing to do. I’m tired of the finite contents of my fridge, the sight of the room I’m in, I don’t feel like drinking anymore, I don’t have anything to write about, I don’t have the attention span for even one more movie. In these moments, without my kids around to give me purpose, to put a silver lining on all this and strain to maintain some sense of normalcy for their benefit, I succumb to the suck, the wanton unfairness of all of this, the potential that nothing good or meaningful will come out of it, how fucking stupid this all is and how useless and hopeless I feel. And for a while, I scroll through my phone without even really seeing the screen and listen to Pray 4 Love.