(January 9, 1971 – October 31, 2020)
After I found out, I put him on immediately. I knew it would be different now, and I needed to find out how.
The voice had changed, without him alive. The tone, which finds the seam between solemnity and silliness, acquired the quality of an irreversible judgment. The flow settled into its ideal groove; the language became lapidary. The juggled words had landed. But the finality was not deadening. It felt like the beginning of a new way of knowing him.
I had been pushed to this point urgently, yet without fear, and I was absorbing this fresh difference, becoming at home in it. He was still speaking to me; he still had new things to say. He had just been freed from linearity, a concept that he had done so much to ridicule and dismantle. I saw a plane extending ahead of me that he had created for us, and which he could never leave as long as we were on it with him.
No other rapper companioned my own strangeness within the English language like he did. He broke into English, robbed it of its normality and formality, and returned it de-familiarized. He found himself, and he found me, in that dislocation.
The strangeness of the lyrics wasn’t just his own; it was that of the world that he made us sense anew. He exposed the disfiguring, shoddy inadequacy of received language by flowing in tandem with things as they are.
The construct of identity. The facade of human meaning. The absurdity of coherence. The illusion of continuity. A trustless world where everything was unreliable except villainy, perpetrated by and against us.
Pockets of sorrow, encapsulations of grief, are all over the records. Poverty, homelessness, obscurity. Degradation, defilement. Sheer unfairness, boundless hypocrisy. Unanswered grievances, objectless yearnings. Debauchery as the inevitable response to senselessness. Betrayal.
There was less abstraction now he had been confirmed as human. I could feel the raw flesh behind the mask: the years of living, and of waiting for the right words to exhale that experience into a new life in art.
He wasn’t under the yoke of emotion, despite containing so much of it; he wasn’t defined by seeking to cast it off. He mastered pain by flowing through it, beyond it. Pain became flow: the way to not hang on.
It wasn’t the records that had been changed by his death, it was me. With his passing, I found out what I already knew: He had always been rapping from the other side of time.
Words by Mardean Isaac
Photography by Hayley Louisa Brown
Filed under: Essays