Artists of all stripes pass away every day, but there’s a subtler tinge to loss of life in the line of hip-hop.
Is it the genre’s vocal history of polarizing lyrics? Is it the edgy, dangerous, criminal appeal of its associated lifestyle? Or is it the stark juxtaposition of successful rap and hip-hop artists’ lives seen before and after fame that makes their deaths so poignant, especially when untimely? It’s as if some can’t escape a difficult past, succumbing inevitably to its insidious pull with time.
This year’s many prominent losses included both Mac Miller and XXXTentacion.
Both artists were particularly expressive and daring in their musical pursuits and both have passed away at remarkably early ages. Both were rappers and both had significant difficulties throughout their lives. Miller may have died to an overdose and XXXTentacion, or Jahseh Onfroy, was gunned down in his car. What did their music have to say about their lives?
Struggles and Strife in the Life
Both Onfroy and Miller mentioned dealing with depression. In and outside of their music, depression came to the forefront.
Onfroy claimed an ongoing struggle with deep depression and devoted his entire debut album to it. He touched on the profound way he’d hoped listeners might experience his music in his albums’ intros.
17’s opening, “Explanation”, contains the following: “I put my all into this in the hopes that it will help cure or at least numb your depression. I love you. Thank you for listening.”
“I put my all into this in the hopes that it will help cure or at least numb your depression. I love you. Thank you for listening.”
XXXTentacion made it clear how he’d hoped others would come to use his music; for healing. Through commiseration and vicarious expression, his aim was to heal; heal both himself and others. If only his assailants had listened.
Mac Miller’s music, in contrast, seemed more of an escape of sorts.
In “Come Back to Earth” Miller wrote, “I just need a way out of my head. I’ll do anything for a way out of my head.”
Before escaping his own head for good, Miller made music he could breathe in. Before passing, his most recent releases were unabashedly alternative and genuinely relaxing. Jazzy and down-tempo for the most part, his music may have been a mood he aspired towards; mellow and accepting of himself.
“I just need a way out of my head. I’ll do anything for a way out of my head.”
Much of Mac’s career was spent in the clutches of chemical addiction. His struggle, though personal, was made public by his own actions and outspoken moments of openness. Unfortunately, open as he was, he might not have had support enough to sustain himself.
Death and a Deafening Cry
The loudest sounds we make shake our minds where no one else can hear.
Silent suffering shows the littlest signs, like water heating in a closed kettle; nothing but a squeal escapes. An artist’s work makes for a mirror to their innermost thoughts. The kind of suffering an individual can’t put into words… The kind they can’t consciously reach and drag out of themselves… It all bubbles up readily during the creative process.
Mac Miller’s 2018 album Swimming is swimming with his deepest thoughts. Lyrics like, “Can’t trust no one, can’t even trust yourself, yeah” in a song called “Self Care” don’t just come out on a whim. The same can be said of Onfroy’s songs. On “NUMB”, with a line like “I’m drowning in my tears again…”, there is no accident or stylistic element to be overlooked.
“Can’t trust no one, can’t even trust yourself, yeah”
Miller lied unresponsive in the company of his friends at the time of his passing. If drugs are responsible, then clearly the company of friends couldn’t come closer than that of chemicals for him. In the case of XXXTentacion, a violent end chased him down after a short, violent life. Could such tragedies have been avoided? Maybe.
Changing With the Times
We need to start listening to what artists are actually saying in their music. It’s great that people come together to support the families of the deceased, but it’d be a lot better if we could help people before lives are lost.
A lot, if not all of the problems these artists go through are problems many of us are familiar with in our own communities, families and/or selves. Thanks to social media, our capabilities to reach distant people have changed dramatically. The chance to reach out with support at the right time to save someone from the wrong choice is higher than ever before. It’s not like we’re sending smoke signals or hoping they leaf through the pamphlet we sent them in the mail. A quick supportive message can make a world of difference.
It’s great that people come together to support the families of the deceased, but it’d be a lot better if we could help people before lives are lost.
Besides offering genuine support to those we suspect could use some, perhaps curbing our tendency to glamorize the negative aspects of an artist’s music could help as well. There’s nothing glamorous about XXXTentacion’s assault. There’s nothing truly glamorous about deadly violence at all.
Ultimately, violence comes from violence. A damaged soul fuels a violent heart and a violent heart acts with fatal force. But a little change in a troubled world can go a long way towards making it better. It’s possible a little change can change lives if we let it.
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