What is the future? What is the past? What is the present? Why is the Financial District empty at 11 AM? Hello??? Can anybody hear me????
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I began thinking particularly compulsively about the hereafter when I started taking time to delve into Matt Martians and his low-key brand of far-out Afro-futurism: the future, I began to realize mid-phase, is the only thing that no human being on Earth has any widely credited acute knowledge of. There are extensively believed, somewhat credible firsthand accounts of what happens after death. Just as much, if not to an even greater extent, there exists a widespread slew of eyewitness accounts that provided enough insight into the paranormal over time for us to build an entire artistic subculture off of their collective essence – how do we know the exact course of action for when the ghost of Mary I of England appears in our bathroom mirror, and not remotely the same for an in-house fire (although it is debatable, for some, which of the two circumstances is more life-threatening)? The intelligence of modern man extends without restraint: hexes; the occult; finessing the stock market; unearthing ancient spiritual practices. And still – regardless of our wits – we do not know a single thing for certain about what tomorrow may look like.
The future was heavy on my mind when I was woken up by my twin sister early this morning. My sister has a soft way of knocking that quickly becomes irritating when left to persist for too long. Rather than make that swift flick-of-the-wrist motion that allows for the kind of hearty pound omnipresent in high-rise corporate headquarters, she pushes her balled hand into the wood for about four sporadic repetitions; she doesn’t ‘rap’ at the door, she taps at it. I was being woken up early – 5:30 AM as opposed to my preferred, remote learning-appropriate 11:something – because I had promised her that I would attend an all-important cooking showdown she was to compete in downtown, with a scholarship to her dream culinary school being on the line. A large part of the reason for which I had obliged was guilt: her school holds annual galas in which student-chefs showcase their skills for the best in the business, and I had not ever been to a single one, by choice. The remainder of the pie chart, selfishly, was the allure of a mini-road trip to the Financial District. How much of my to-listen playlist will I be able to knock out in an hour and thirty minutes? I was scoping out the entire thing in my head, divvying up album lengths, checking the morning news with crossed fingers for slower-than-usual traffic rates.
“It becomes increasingly hard to contemplate the future – let alone through an afrofuturist lens – when the music makes you feel as if the present moment is inescapable.”
Vince Staples’ generally favored 2017 LP Big Fish Theory was what I wound up deciding on for the drive there, because although I was supposed to have listened to it years ago, the circumstances were never just right for me to do so. Generally, there are certain albums I only allow myself to listen to when I am happy. This was one of those albums. The year I was initially planning on hearing it for the first time (2020, surprisingly), I had an acute plan as to how I was supposed to achieve this obscure goal of happiness, after which I would reward myself with the new music: win that big national youth journalism medal (I lost big-time); be invited to talk about your award-winning work on a panel at the Met Museum (again: I lost big-time); be accepted to that competitive pre-collegiate summer program ($13,000 is not the best amount to ask your parents to whip out for one 3-week experience); listen to the Vince Staples album on your way to visit Syracuse University on the first day of spring break. None of this, of course, happened as planned, and I wound up pushing the album to the side because it only really served to remind me of a sadder version of myself. Today – conversely – I was particularly happy because of the fact that I would be missing school for the sake of the road trip. Every piece I had read about Big Fish Theory up to that point, too, painted the LP as the sort of self-directed, forward-thinking, musical time-travel masterpiece that would prove to quench my curiosity about the future if anything at all. It only made sense for me to capitalize on the moment.
We exited the front door at 6:15 AM on the dot – which was, in a very weird way, perfectly in concordance with the suggested departure time given by Google Maps the previous night. I was trying to go into a mental wormhole about the ways it could have been possible that we inadvertently predicted the future, but I did not have the resolve to seek it out as thoroughly, because it was – again – 6:15 AM. There was a thick layer of fog outside when we hit the highway, which would not go anywhere for the remainder of the day. It struck me as deja vu. The last time I listened to an album in the backseat on a foggy early-morning trip was the spring of 2019, when I first heard The Ooz by King Krule. That was a much earlier wake-up, 4 o’clock-ish, and my family and I were on our way to Boston for a college tour the day after Easter. Most of the parallels were too vivid to overlook: moist highway pavement. Yawn-filled Spotify forays. Last-minute, half-awake emails. Once again, I wanted to speculate about how we could have predicted the future in advance; and once again, I was too groggy to do so.
With the way Big Fish Theory started out, I was hyped out of my mind to finally be tapping into some audio-tactile iteration of the future I had been obsessing over. It seemed indubitable that the new-age-oriented reviews I had read were more than kosher: even Staples himself, I learned whilst reading the album’s Pitchfork assessment, referred to it as both futuristic and afrofuturistic over the course of its rollout. Opening track ‘Crabs In A Bucket’ sounded like something constructed as a direct, prototypical brainchild of whatever timeless factory Yeezus was manufactured in. Staples sneered about haters who wanted to see you at the bottom – antagonists who elevated themselves over you in futile hopes of escaping inevitable failure – generational battles within the American socioeconomic system that would not be won any time soon. (Battle with the white man day by day / Feds takin’ pictures doin’ play by play / They don’t ever want to see the black man eat / Nails in the black man’s hands and feet). I was invested, paying every word close attention, bopping my head. The rest of the album, in stark contrast, was so boring that I was angry when it ended – not because it was over (that was the good news), nor because it stirred me with its messaging (which it did, but not as grippingly), but because it was supposed to represent my reward for a happiness I had long fought to achieve. And it did not feel like nearly enough.
Big Fish Theory is, without mistake, a very forward-thinking project. There was one assertion about the record made by the Wire that I thoroughly agreed with while reading it in the backseat: “What’s most thrilling about Big Fish Theory is that it doesn’t sound leftfield or challenging,” the piece mused. “Instead(,) it provides a scintillating snapshot of both the state of the art and the untold history of underground black music for the past 30 years.” Afro-centric lyrical choices, put into conversation with production-adjacent elements ranging from London to Detroit, makes the album equal futuristic principle on a conceptual level: when you weave ghosts of the past so methodically into any telling of the ongoing story they work to provide context for, just like 1+1=2, some discourse surrounding the future is guaranteed to be a byproduct. What made my listen boring, rather, was chiefly staked in delivery. A message of BFT’s poignance was not, in its respective era, best fit to be brought forth by means of drilling the point down one’s ear rather than allowing him to interpret it for himself. By track twelve, the futurism got boring, because it was presented in the same vein as it was in all the other tracks; same 808s; same glitchy melody; same miscellaneous noise. Big Fish Theory stops a listener on the sidewalk, grabs them by the shirt collar, and screams in their face: “I am the future!!!” whereas something like Yeezus conveys the same message by simply emerging from a time machine within eyeshot.It becomes increasingly hard to contemplate the future – let alone through an afrofuturist lens – when the music makes you feel as if the present moment is inescapable.
By consequence, I was a bit more hungry post-listen for something that would make me feel as if I existed somewhere else in time. The sky was getting closer to the blue-tinted gray it would remain at for the day; the fog was not going anywhere. I checked the GPS mounted onto the car’s A/C system. We would be at the site in a little over 50 minutes. Frantically, I began to forage through the extensive to-listen playlist I had started two years prior as a direct result of a similar moment to this one. After a few skips – Forever Changes (1967), Bad Brains (1982), Causers of This (2010), Ted Nugent (1975) – I fixated on something that would not take me into the future, but into the past: a deluxe version of Matt Miller’s 2010 breakout studio mixtape K.I.D.S (Kickin’ Incredibly Dope Shit).
It did not take me long to realize that it is much harder to listen to Mac Miller’s earliest work when you know how his story ends. K.I.D.S sees him as a young, upstart, freshly-graduated MC hellbent on surpassing his idols whilst maintaining his pretty boy swag through the battle scars. The music, the drugs, and the grind top out his list of priorities. The latter two serve more as side-effects than lonestanding motives in comparison to the overarching former.
“When you’re young, not much matters,” he says, without any instrumental backing, in the tape’s opening seconds. “When you find something that you care about, that’s all you got. When you go to sleep at night, you dream of music. When you wake up, it’s the same thing. It’s there on your face, you can’t escape it. Sometimes when you’re young, The only place to go is inside, that’s just it. Music is what I love. Take that away from me and I really got nothin’.”
“-the hustle had to continue, because, after all, I was living in right now, and there was no real way for me to revel in the past for eternity.”
The album artwork of K.I.D.S seems to only accentuate Miller’s point. It’s very simple – in a lightly saturated photograph, he sits on a wooden bench, sneering in a backward cap, shorts, and a school backpack, alongside tattooed peers who tote boomboxes and cigarettes – but it anywise serves to make a near-identical statement to the one N.W.A famously made years ago: We’re here. What are you going to do about it?
I could not stop opening Spotify to stare at the album’s artwork as the music played out. Production-wise, a great deal of the instrumentals on K.I.D.S take after the synth-heavy, cloud rap-adjacent underground wave that would quickly blossom in the era Miller championed – as corny as it sounds, they were eerie to me in the sense that they seemed to emulate, intentionally or not so, the dreams upon which Miller solely relied to persist through his ascent in spite of looming responsibilities attached to coming of age.
‘Get Em Up,’ the third track on the album, was the first instance on our drive in which I felt as if time was altered in some form. I entered the ride in search of some revelation about the future. ‘Get Em Up’ made me feel something just as striking about the past: when you’re in the past, time does not exist. I began to think back to an old interview I conducted, in which the subject broke down his lifelong distinction between being unsuccessful and non-successful. “That approach is all about illegibility,” he concluded, referring to the Hong Kong protests of 2020. “It’s unsuccessful – or not unsuccessful, rather, I should say non-successful. It is deprived of this aspiration towards success.” The same principle, I thought, applies to time in and of itself: to live in the now is to aspire towards beating the clock of fate – but to live in the past is to remove yourself from the equation. There is no sense of imminent necessity to work towards a further point in eternity, because what will happen has already happened; what will exist already exists; you are already all that you will ever evolve into. Not mental absence – mental Non-presence.“Regardless of what was done – just like the passing of time itself – it would never stop existing, even if we were the last two beings left standing on Earth.”
‘Get Em Up’ featured some of the same thematic me-versus-the-haters bearings as Vince Staples’ ‘Crabs In A Bucket’ (“Young people don’t see you as an equal / They just see you as deceitful, tryna send you back to preschool / You only gettin’ one shot, no redo / Tell them haters keep they mouth shut, eat glue / Bitch, who the fuck you think you playing with? / I’m Justin Bieber meets Jadakiss”) – but the difference was that whereas Staples’ iteration came off as if it was sprinting against time to maintain a brief lead in an unwinnable race to the future, Miller’s own – both literally and through music – existed so deeply in the past that time, nor consequent angst, seemed to have any meaning at all. And timelessness felt much more serene than a futile pursuit of the clock.
We were inching closer and closer into urban New York as the album closed; graffiti grew gradually pervasive, pointy, jagged, utopian buildings protruded from the bottom of my passenger window, and a general sense of place made the setting just as interesting as the soundscape. ‘Paper Route’ played through my headphones as we approached the location of my sister’s competition. The general assertion made by chorus – We do anything to get this paper (…) so for the bullshit we ain’t got later – brought my newly timeless train of thought back down to the regular time scheme of Earth: the hustle had to continue, because, after all, I was living in right now, and there was no real way for me to revel in the past for eternity. It was just as I drew this conclusion that my mother and I – it was just us in the car, besides my sister – were reminded that we would not be allowed to go inside for the duration of the event. A parking space on the street would have meant that I’d get the chance to either catch up on the classwork I had missed from not attending school for the previous few hours, read a book, or (the most likely outcome) take an unintended nap that concluded with me opening my eyes several hours later, bewildered, back in my driveway. In a retrospectively fortunate series of wrong turns and circles, my mother was not able to find any above-ground parking. We drove into an underground garage, after which we were subsequently left with a little over an hour’s worth of time to loosely wander around the Financial District until my sister phoned to say she was finished.
The first direction we went in was towards South Cove Park, a waterfront park looking out on the Hudson River that I had been gawking at as we approached the competition location. My mother allowed me to walk through the park on my own (“Make sure you take pictures!”); she would be waiting for me on a bench by the entrance. I immediately could not help but notice that this was the slowest I had ever walked in any part of Manhattan. The demographic makeup of the Manhattan I was accustomed to – fast-walking businessmen clashing with rowdy, slower-paced urbanized school children all over both Penn Station and Midtown writ large – was completely opposite the one I found myself amidst today. Every human being I saw was either a jogger, an old lady, a dog walker, or an amalgamation of all three. The entire matter felt hyper-surrealistic, post-apocalyptic: the fog thickened, the streets were relatively empty; I was the only one who looked like myself. To satisfy my mother’s request, I set out to take a few photos. I stood at the low-rise fence at the edge of the water and aimed my cell phone camera at the Statue of Liberty. It was a gray shadow shrouded in mist; something obscure at the foot of equally gray waters. Right by the statue, I saw an equally mist-enshrouded mirage of the New York Water Taxi, a small tourist-oriented ferry my family and I used to frequent on Saturdays when myself and my sister were kids. I walked onto a cyclic staircase structure that went up, featured a lone bench overlooking the entire river, and looped right back down to ground level. It was more silent than anything else at the summit. I grew scared after some time alone up there, and made my way downstairs to the street.
I had some time to revisit this concept of a future when I started walking back to my mom. There were so many elements of both my own, and New York’s story – the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center, the Taxi Boat – completely submersed in thick fog, that I could not help but get the sensation that I had stumbled into an ominous foretelling of what the hereafter would look like for me. It was terrifying, trippy like if the Ghost of Christmas Future was guiding me through one more harrowing prophecy. Is this what it’s going to be like when I grow up? I interrogated myself as if I knew the answers. Walking dogs in semi-spring weather as an old man on an empty street in New York’s Financial District, with no friends, no legacy, and no contact with the outside world? Is this what the future looks like?
But it was simultaneously, strangely enough, cool in its own right. I felt as if I was not allowed to be present in the time that I existed in – while the few people I encountered were clad in raincoats, tight exercise pants, and running shoes, I donned a sleek spring jacket I had thrifted for cheap on a particularly chilly New Year’s Eve, my go-to pair of pinstriped faux-dressy joggers that never had to be ironed, and the set of long-suffering Adidas Superstars that I felt grew more and more authentic with each rip, scuff, and scratch. The more people glared at me, the more timeless I felt. Not fundamentally absent – fundamentally Non-present.
My mother and I visited a breakfast café that offered indoor dining for a quick meal. I noticed that, again, this was a different New York from the one I identified with: the store was not the minority-run and minority-frequented bodega from which I typically got my pre-class Bacon Egg & Cheese sandwiches. Vibrant conversations in native French (with some Italian here and there) echoed off of the rustic walls. I was asked to take my hoodie off. The Bacon Egg & Cheese I ordered – from a printed menu, for that matter – was offered with the inclusion of smoked salmon, avocado, and kale. It arrived, a fraction of the corner-store usual in size, with an arugula salad and a set of metal utensils. After some initial discomfort, I decided that I would try to look the part. I whipped out my copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 and began to read. I crossed my legs and placed my cell phone out of sight. I felt cultured as I sipped from the bare water I ordered instead of my usual Arizona iced tea, politics-oriented book in hand, salmon in my bite-sized breakfast wrap.
“And just like music, the future, the past, and our very beings are equally resurrectable if we don’t waste the present worrying about a race against the clock we can never win.”
We stayed in that café for as long as we could, my mother slowly pecking away at a yogurt to kill time before we would have to go outside again. When we finally got the boot, she suggested that we walk through Brookfield Place (formerly the World Financial Center), a posh indoor mini-mall complete with curved glass ceilings and high-end fashion stores. As I talked to my mom about why I would never wear an untucked shirt no matter if it was specifically manufactured to be worn that way, I was cut off by my own alarm at a satanic-looking, blood-crimson, eerily postured mannequin that glared out from the Gucci store’s window. Of everything I had encountered – the apparent ghost town, the silent future, the top of the staircase – this imagery jarred me the most. I got the sense from it that no matter what happened, time was always running out. I could not kill the mannequin. Nor could I outlive it. Regardless of what was done – just like the passing of time itself – it would never cease to exist if left alone, even if we were the last two beings left standing on Earth. When I imagined the prospect of us two being the last two beings on the planet, I did not want to think about it anymore.
A short time after we left the mall, my sister informed us that she had finished her competition (as of now, she is slated to get official results in a month). It was a colorful walk back to the vehicle. She was in tears when we first met with her to pick her up, but she revealed in conversation that it was only a byproduct of how nervous she was. My mother and I reassured her as we drove onto the highway. When the conversation evolved to one strictly held between the two ladies – as these conversations often do – I opted, on a whim, to put in my headphones and listen to one more unplanned album that would give me some closure on the future – I was tired of feeling pessimistic towards it, and I needed to hear something that would give any form of definitive closure.
Because I always viewed Pharrell Williams as a sort of musical Morpheus who delivered undercover messages from the hereafter one song at a time, I chose to hone in on something of his own. The album I settled on was N.E.R.D’s NO ONE EVER REALLY DIES, released in 2017. I had first become familiar with the release in my junior year of high school, when, after I had fallen asleep at the conclusion of an LP I did not enjoy, I opened my eyes to Spotify’s automatic album-based radio session shuffling to ‘Rollinem 7’s.’ For too many reasons to list, it woke me right up.
The same, more or less, was true for today. NO ONE EVER REALLY DIES was the future – not because it told me it was – but because it acted like it. There was no outright strategy to it sounding like something from beyond today. Every song told its own distinct story in its own distinct manner. The energy never died.
The sole thing that most definitively gave me the answer that I had been looking for all day, albeit, was not the entire album, but a single song: ‘1000’ began with the kind of upstart, percussion-heavy structure typical of Pharrell Williams’ career-long leaning. Future’s auto-tuned trap manifesto solidified an already-tangible utopian aura. There was, dryly-yet-strikingly, not as much emphasis placed on melody as there was rhythm and rhyme, old school boom-bap influence spiked with a shallowly placed wink at generational ambiguity.
But then – after a complete cut-out of the music, and two hooted declarations from Pharell (“In the mirror there’s a hero! One, zero, zero, zero!”) – blaring synths. Aggressive, echoing drums. Yelled boastings about hefty bank accounts. Just like that, the color had returned to a once-monochrome musical canvas.
The music itself was not unlike anything I had ever heard before, and I was forced to ask myself why I reacted to it the way I did. I seldom dance whilst listening to music. When a batch of memes came out criticizing people who listened to Playboi Carti while sitting down in a meditative state, I resonated not with the attack, but with the defense – even when hearing Whole Lotta Red for the first time on Christmas morning, I sat up alone in my living room couch, chin propped up on my fist, meditating on what I was listening to word-by-word. With ‘1000,’ I unleashed a seat belt-restrained, hyper-ballistic, back and forth jerk that made me look like a prisoner in a straitjacket.
It was when I woke up in my driveway far after the final track faded out, and – by instinct – replayed the song after my mother opted to go on a quick BJ’s run, that it finally registered in full what had hit me so hard: the music was resurrectable. And just like music, the future, the past, and our very beings are equally resurrectable if we don’t waste the present worrying about a race against the clock we can never win.
I realized that no one ever really dies. Time doesn’t die either – but as long as now remains now, the future is as futile as any quest to outlive it.