Time hovers o’er, impatient to destroy,
And shuts up all the Passages of Joy.
June is upon – the long light, the sticky swelter, the million or so varieties of heat-borne irritation – and with it comes the perennial question: What is your summer jam? Are you Team Carly Rae or Team Selena? DJ Khaled, perhaps? Late-arriving Lorde?
These are great, essential, fortifying questions. And yet, love this annual ritual and its styles of disquistion though I absolutely do, I confess I haven’t as much heart for it this year. The fault isn’t these singers’, and even less these songs. The truth is my thoughts keep cycling back and back to what was, I would insist to you, the Most Beautiful Song of last year – back to 2016, and to all that was mystifying about it. And, I guess, to its hardlanding, now, in 2017.
What I mean, really, is that when I start to think of unextinguished beauty inside gruesome times, my mind returns to a young Chicagoan named Chancellor Bennett.
Sometimes he goes by Chano or, more colloquially, Lil’ Chano from 79th. You’ll know him as Chance the Rapper. He won a Grammy a few months back which, if it means not a thing else, means you will know him. He’s legit-famous now, bona fide.
Amid the blight, the compassless malignity of the past year, we must take our solace where we may. Such, at any rate, is my take on the ascent of a performer as deliriously good as Chance, as brilliant and as winning, into superstardom. It’s like a little bubble of pure happiness, riding the surface of so much frothing horror.
It can be hard, though, to stay dialed in to the straight-up joy of it all, at least for me. And I’m not talking about any indie-snobbishness, some I-knew-him-back-when recrimination. It’s something else. I’m thinking rather of the strange way that things that once had such power to please us have come lately to seem, you could say, artifactual, tokens of a time now lost. They flash up like visitations, these once-near pleasures. It’s as if they speak to us from inside the locked chamber of some vanished moment, wherein we had contrived to imagine that other futures than this, than 2017, were possible.
“I’m thinking rather of the strange way that things that once had such power to please us have come lately to seem, you could say, artifactual, tokens of a time now lost.”
I think of it I suppose as one among the lesser symptoms of the immense ugliness of now: a queasy out-of-jointishness of time.
This, as it happens, is something of what the Most Beautiful Song of 2016 is about.
I’ve been semi-infatuated with Chance the Rapper since – and this is a fact I can carbon-date – April of 2014, though alas I can’t take any least early-adopter cred for it. Chance is the first artist of whom I had heard nothing, not the faintest intimating breath, before having a track of his propelled unbidden into my aural orbit. What’s more, I was introduced to him neither by indie rag, online product aggregator, nor the happy misfiring of some clairvoyant algorithm. That introduction came, far more ignominiously, from my kids.
If there is an opposite of hipster cred, a coolness anti-matter, surely it is this.
By “kids” I mean my youngest stepdaughter, although if I’m being technical about it I ought to describe her and her sister as my ex-stepdaughters. But technicalities: whatever. For some time ours has been one of those loves that goes by no ready-to-hand name, though we’ve held ourselves together, we three, just fine all the same. It’s not always the easiest or least heart-pricking thing, loving children to whom you are attached by no ballasting official title, but the truth is it’s also been an improvisatory sort of joy, a thing we have conspired to invent, moment to moment, with scraps of memory, familiar idioms, whatever’s around.
As I’ve written before, songs – exchanged over many years, in millions of mixes, over many kinds of distance – have of course been much of what’s around.
Back in April of 2104, a new kind of distance was about to dawn. I had just then accepted a job that would take me away from them. This was exciting, but it filled me, too, with queasy disquiet. The oldest had just gone away to college but the youngest was a junior in high school, still living there where I was, in Maine. She was the first person to whom I confided the prospect, the suddenly real possibility, of this life-upending departure. Her response, over dinner out one late-winter night, was a thing I would keep with me over many turbulent months. It was memorable, emphatic: “I think you should go,” she said, a bowl of noodles steaming in front of her. “You love Chicago.”
And so, that April, for my birthday, with one of those sudden flourishes of care with which teenagers can rattle you out of all your older-person knowingness, she surprised me with a mix. The sweet and wondrous joke of it – a mix! She made a mix for me! Here, in her own hand, was an addition to that treasury of songs we’d amassed over the years. This one was called CHICAGO.
And what should close it out but a beautiful lilting rap track, a singsongy number strung over an elegant little piano jam. And that voice! The overspilling exuberance and cartwheeling dexterity! A jazz track bending toward hiphop rhythms and given over to one young man’s kaleidoscopic riffs on an array of by-gone delights. (“Remember jacket shopping after listenin’ to Thriller?”) The inventiveness, the seamless grading of the raps into floating melodies and back, and above all the fucking sweetness of it: I fell for it, hard, by the second listen.
Come to find it was by a young man gaspingly named Chance – only three or so years older than the kid herself, she told me – and when I realized he was from Chicago my heart, my bruised middle-aged heart, shook with pride and startled happiness.
And this is precisely how wrought up I was about the prospect of leaving, of maybe abandoning these girls I so loved, who were not in any official sense my children: it took me hundreds of listen, spread out over nearly a whole fucking year, even to notice that this song wasn’t on that mix just because it was a Chicago song. The track, which is called “Everything’s Good,” opens with a little conversational interlude, a recorded conversation between Chance and his father, his father who is telling his son how proud he is of him, how he’ll do anything to help him out should he need it, how he loves him.
“Thank you – love you,” Chance says.
“Alright, son, love you too.”
And then the rap commences.
Whatever else it describes, “Everything’s Good” is a song about a young person loving his dad.
Oh, I thought. Oh.
It came over me one bright day training home on the Brown Line, the north side coming into leaf around me. I closed my eyes, tuned myself in to Chance’s exuberant fluencies. A wave of something – call it an unclenching of heart – went right through me. I opened my eyes and it was a new day, a new Chicago.
One of the truly great critics of the last decades, a scholar named Hortense Spillers, observes that “the dancing voice embodied” is “the chief teaching model for black women of what their femininity might consist in.” She suggests that in “the motor behavior, the changes in countenance, the vocal dynamics, the calibration of gesture and nuance” of black female vocalists, we can find edifying transcription of ways of being in relation to, but also nimbly apart from, the given scripts of black American womanhood, their distortions and confinements, their punitive enclosures.
We don’t much struggle to hear, in the dancing voice Chance commands, something similar being transacted in relation to black masculinity, with its multiple and contradictory entailments, its simultaneous presumptions of danger and indolence, violence and incapacity. Chance routs such presumption with a voice long on irrepressibility and exuberance and animated by joyous swagger. But there’s so much else as well, a density of affects circulating in fine-tuned calibration: tendernesses and sudden vulnerabilites delicate professions of humility, of gratitude, of reverence unchastened by its proximity to secular pleasures. And with this, also, in its timbre and especially in its quick flights from speech into melody and back, a vivid strain of melancholy. An always-present nearness of grief.
And listen, I get that you might say too, of the relatively low frequency at which anger is kept, that this is a voice leaning more black-bourgeois than otherwise. (The deep impress of early-Kanye, for instance, is hard to miss.) That’s fine as far as it goes I guess, though I confess I have a pretty limited patience for white listeners eager to dismiss some rapper or other as, in this want of performed hardness, insufficiently authentic. (“Yeah I prefer something a little more street” is the calling-card of young gentrifiers nation-wide.) Listen to a capering hyped-up track like “Angels,” about his (and my) beloved, besieged Chicago. (“Too many angels on the South Side…”) Here is a song that understands unplacated joyousness to be less the opposite of protest, of heartbreak or fury, than an underused resource for their expression.
The Most Beautiful Song of 2016, which is called “Same Drugs,” tilts more melancholic than otherwise. Another piano number of extraordinary melodic sweetness, borrowing something of the stateliness of gospel balladeering – complete with a crooning chorus, strings – it finds Chance in a mood of youthful retrospection, contending with the movement from precincts of childish wonder to, oh, whatever it is that might follow. For this song, though, youthfulness, comes not in the guise a bucolic innocence lost, some confected unworldliness. It is offered instead as a different sort of haven, the scene of adventurousness, and daring, of a secret shared pleasure in transgressiveness. The chords ring out, and there’s Chance:
Do the same drugs no more
We don’t do the, we don’t do the same drugs
Do the same drugs no more
It could just be a sort of joke – we do different drugs! – but the keyed-up yearning in Chance’s voice makes the lines say something else as well.
And it’s a love song, sort of. The girl to whom Chance sings these lines is called “Wendy,” and in this swift little gesture the song folds itself into the mash-up mythologies that traverses the whole album, in which Chance figures himself by turn as Simba, Peter Pan, Jesus Christ. (It is, in its range, a fantastically winning roster.) Then there’s the bridge: the piano drops away, a gospel choir rising up in the silences between each line, and there’s Chance’s voice:
Wide-eyed kids being kids, why did you stop?
What did you do to your hair?
Where did you go to end up right back here?
When did you start to forget how to fly?
As an old person, you can listen to this and be jolted by the directness of its encounter with real loss, its hard intimation that the next phases of post-youthful life will mean diminishment and constraint, a translation of whatever was magical about their secret hoarded days into something more ordinary and unglowing. Adulthood isn’t all deadness; there are still drugs to be had. But there is division and distance. And there’s the intimation, too – what did you do to your hair? – of an expanded, enforced demand for compliance not just to adulthood but to the supervision of white people.
The world, in all, has come for them, and it’s the world we know: narrowed, flinty, mean. Overbrimming with occasions for black grief.
For all that anticipated sorrow, though, there is not much you’d call fearfulness here, no turning away from the call of the life yet to come. What you find instead is a soaring insistence on the still-uncancelled possibilities of wonder in the world. That is what sounds out in that dancing voice embodied: it is the voice of a young man so vividly eager for the world, and for the chances of grace yet to be found there, but pausing on the brink of it, taking measure, counting out his losses.
In mid-2016, in my little Lincoln Square apartment, that one line flared up before me, filling all the rooms of thought for a few days: When did you start to forget how to fly? What a song! I thought – to be able to risk, and to get away with, a line that could so easily fall a treacly sort of flat.
What you find instead is a soaring insistence on the still-uncancelled possibilities of wonder in the world.
And with it came the piercing thought that somewhere in America – upstate New York, rural Maine – were two beautiful young women, neither of them little girls anymore, readying themselves however they might for the turbulent passage from youth into, oh, whatever comes after it.
I’d hear it, and they’d wheel into clarified vision, the both of them, seen in all the brightness of the poised, dauntless, venturesome people they were well on the way to becoming. There they were, with all their undimmed eagerness for the world. And I thought, too – I admit it – of the losses that were coming for them, different from Chance’s to be sure but in some glancing conjured relation to them. The kinds of diminishment, hurt, demanded compliance. The pains that nothing – not Chance, not me, not even the most gorgeous assembly of pop confections – could keep from them.
I remembered, in a quick short flash, the summer day I left Maine. The movers had come, the apartment was empty, and when I found the youngest out in the city, hugged her goodbye, I was startled to see tears standing in her eyes. She was seventeen; I hadn’t seen her crying in – what? – years and years. My breath caught in my throat.
“It’s gonna be great,” she said, and gave me a steady gaze. “You’re gonna be great.”
All of this came hurtling back to me one night last summer. By then Chance had hit, was in fact set to play a massive show, essentially a Chance-themed festival, at a baseball field on the south side. Those tickets vanished in hot minute, gobbled up by scalpers, to be resold at 1000% mark-up. In distressed response to this, Chance staged a surprise pop-up show, announced at noon on Twitter, at one of the little venues where he’d gotten his start.
This venue is a handful of blocks down the road from my apartment.
I happened to be idly Twitter-scrolling at the right time. One frantic bike-ride later, and with a sense of the semi-miraculous beginning to dawn around me, I found myself standing on a corner on North Clark Street, two tickets in my hand. We went.
The “we” here, I should say, is me and the woman with whom I’d spent much of the previous year falling into an escalating, self-surprising kind of love. Somewhere along the course of that otherwise nauseous and darkening year it had happened – if “happened” is the word for something as diffused into the atmosphere of days. You go along, and go along, and then one day realize that every yawning-awake morning is Stevie Wonder singing “Hey Love.”
To see a show with someone you’re this kind of newly-in-love with is, as you probably know, its own sub-species of joy. Every least thing, from the train ride to the beer-stuck floor to the swirl of sound that eventually engulfs you, partakes of the radiance you two are making together. It was that kind of night, elating, a sweet interfusing of old loves and news.
And there was Chance himself. The girls had seen him before (of course they had) and he was just what they’d said: a hyperkinetic wunderkind, pinwheeling across the stage in a gleeful master-of-ceremonies romp, an atom-bomb of tweaked-up, fantastically persuasive charm. Watching him, that whole bright theater of kindling brilliance that was his on-stage self, you knew you were in the presence of someone about to be a star, a superstar, to ascend any minute into, say, Rihannaish-levels of fame. There was an exhilaration in this, certainly, and we were held by it, all of us singing back to him each and every rapidfire riff and phrase.
But there was also – and there was no way you could ignore it – this other sort of gravity at work, some wordless counterbalancing force. These intimate venues, these local shows, these human-scaled gatherings of friends and fans: they were speeding away from the young man standing up before us, without question. And as he thanked us, and sang, and laughed, and barked out verses in call-and-response little set-pieces, you could watch him reckoning with them, with this, as things very soon to be of his past, bits of a life superseded, gliding away into irretrievability.
Later I’d say that I could not recall a show so overspilling with joy that was also so elegiac, so crosscut by anticipatory loss
It’s something we all know so much better now, isn’t it? The sense of bright possibility blinking out? That bittersweet undertow?
We took the train home, leaned against one another, felt humming between us that sweet sensation that comes of being out in the vastness of the city night, riding its circuits, nodes on its flashing grid. An August warmth hung in the air. We talked about the show, the winning delirium of it, about Chance, about the top-knotted frat-dudes lined up in front of us on the floor. (Our bro-overlords, she likes to call them.) I texted some blurry pictures to the girls, who texted back in excitement and mock-envy. Outside the windows the city – this beautiful, fucked up, unruined city – pulsed and flowed.
The fall, the winter, this new gruesome year: it all, seemed a long way off, a rumor that hadn’t arrived.
Pete Coviello: The best barfighter around.