Anderson .Paak, SoundCloud Rappers and the Challenges of Writing Tribute Songs About the Deceased

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Anderson. Paak performs at Hangout Music Fest in Gulf Shores on May 19, 2018.

This year, artists paid tribute to the likes of Mac Miller and Lil Peep with varying results

Anderson .Paak’s latest album, Oxnard, is made in the image of a cruise around Los Angeles. The album, released last Friday, finds the 32 year-old musician in constant motion, and, like his previous efforts, it fuses the sprawling city’s diverse sounds into a bright collage. True to form, the album mostly blurs together until a death brings the ride to a halt.

“Cheers,” technically the album’s closer (there are two additional bonus tracks), is a tribute to the late Mac Miller, who was a friend of .Paak’s and died of an accidental overdose in September. “Wishin' I still had Mac wit' me,” .Paak raps. “How do you tell a nigga slow it down when you livin' just as fast as 'em?”

Tribute may be a misclassification, though. The song is less eulogy than journal entry. It’s over five minutes long and it meanders both thematically (touching on .Paak’s quick come-up and feelings of sorrow at Miller’s passing) and sonically (it progresses from upbeat funk to more somber soul). By the third verse, .Paak hands the microphone off to Q-Tip, who mourns his A Tribe Called Quest bandmate Phife Dawg, virtually transforming the track into an extension of the group’s 2016 album, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service.   

Which is to say that though “Cheers” is Oxnard’s most memorable song, it’s also not the emotional gut-punch you might expect. Paak, formerly known as Breezy Lovejoy, works best in bright colors, making the best out of bad times rather than drilling into the depths of his suffering. Perhaps as a result, his examination of loss is primarily surface-level, remembering Miller only so much as he was part of .Paak’s own story: “Sprouted wit'chu on my shoulder, the greatest honor to know ya/ I gotta be honest wit'cha, I hate you ain't in the picture/ I hate all them fake niggas claimin' like they gon' really miss ya.”

To call .Paak’s tribute impersonal, however, can feel improper. Evaluating art about grieving comes awfully close to evaluating someone’s grieving itself, which is dicey territory. Anderson .Paak, in particular, has been through more than his share of tragedy in his young life, and the way he processes loss is his own business. Yet in hip-hop, a genre whose stars routinely die too young, there is a large enough canon of tribute songs to make them a subgenre of their own -- and none have been off-limits for criticism. Besides obvious targets like “Hip Hop Speaks From Heaven,” in which KRS-1 mourned the wrong Beastie Boy, Puff Daddy and Faith Hill’s 1997 Biggie Smalls remembrance, “I’ll Be Missing You” -- arguably the most famous hip-hop tribute of all -- was viciously panned out of the gate. Entertainment Weekly deemed it “maudlin… self-serving sentimentality.” (It doesn’t help Puff’s case that the song was ghost-written.)

Together, “Cheers” and “I’ll Be Missing You” speak to the difficulty of grieving in hip-hop. Avoid getting too deep, and the song can feel detached. But lay the feelings on too thick, and the song can feel mawkish. That tension, between servicing the memory of the dead and performing pain, is one that a rising generation of rappers are navigating with various approaches in 2018.

Tribute songs have come a long way since the late ‘90s period that produced “I’ll Be Missing You.” Back then, in mourning the likes of Biggie, Tupac, and Eazy-E, rappers tended to craft slow, sentimental R&B ballads that framed their personal suffering within a larger panorama of street life. But in the intervening years, songs about drug overdoses and midlife health problems have become just as common, if not more so, as songs addressing gang violence, and the form has moved away from weepy R&B. Today, rap tributes don’t have a de facto mode; instead, they are largely made according to an artist’s personal style. The Game’s 2011 Nate Dogg tribute, “All Doggs Go To Heaven,” is triumphant, with blaring horns and a toast for a refrain. Tribe Called Quest’s 2016 Phife Dawg tribute, “Lost Somebody,” meanwhile, verges on ethereal, drawing its airy melancholic beat from Can’s “Halleluhwah.”

In recent months, SoundCloud rappers -- hip-hop’s young, lo-fi recording punk offshoots -- have shown a particular knack for expressing, and making listeners feel, their pain. Take recent songs mourning the passing of XXXTentacion, who was fatally shot during an armed robbery in June, and Lil Peep, who died of a drug overdose in November of last year. On Chicago rapper Juice WRLD’s two-song EP, Too Soon..., released a day after XXXTentacion’s death, the 19-year-old is audibly hurt by the loss. “I usually have an answer to the question/ But this time I'm gon' be quiet (this time)/ Ain't nothing like the feeling of uncertainty, the eeriness of silence,” he moans on “legends :(.” Everything about the EP, from Juice’s aggrieved delivery to the lowercase track names with frowny emoticons, is viscerally raw. By singing rather than rapping, the emotion is more palpable. And because the EP was originally released just to SoundCloud, a free streaming site, it was tough to ascribe improper motives; unlike Puff’s “I’ll Be Missing You,” Too Soon... wasn’t meant to chart or go platinum.

     

More controversial but equally resonant was September’s “Falling Down,” a sparse posthumous collaboration between XXXTentacion and Lil Peep co-written and released by iLoveMakonnen. It’s an alternate version of what was originally a joint effort between just Lil Peep and iLoveMakonnen; in lieu of the latter’s vocals, XXXTentacion adds a spoken interlude lamenting his thorny relationship with Peep during his life: “Bro, we were so alike/ It's unfortunate because it's like, yo, when people die/ That's when we like 'em, you know?” The sentiment -- I wish I got to know you when I had the chance -- is banal, and yet the improvisatory delivery suggests that XXXTentacion is coping with genuine regrets in real time. It’s a human moment from an artist who was often a monster. In the wake of both rappers’ deaths, the song, with its melancholy chorus (“Come, let's watch the rain as it's falling down/ Sunlight on your skin when I'm not around”) and confessional interlude, is downright ghostly.  

SoundCloud rap tributes like Too Soon… and “Falling Down” zoom in on sorrow where many past hip-hop efforts zoomed out. Which is, of course, not to say that the feelings experienced by rap’s SoundCloud cohort are any more authentic than that of other rappers, from Puff to .Paak. Just that the mode, with its emo stylings and free, immediate platform, is proving to be powerfully well-suited to transmuting grief through art. Where Anderson .Paak drove by death, Juice WRLD and XXXTentacion were able to briefly live in it.

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