These are the most essential joints that dropped while I was wallowing in the dorms, party-hopping with the homies and quarantining back home. From the curious freshman who arrived at the steps of Tripp Hall to the sage senior ready for stolls and celebration, these terrific projects have been synonymous with the undergrad triumphs and tribulations.
“Ctrl” by SZA
“Ctrl” by SZA released just before my freshman year, “Ctrl” ushered me into Madison and was a bridge for my First Wave cohort, 11th Co., to connect with each other and ground our spirits amid the unknown terrains ahead. The squad strolling down State Street, walking to Larry Edgerton’s class and posting up in the Tripp Hall courtyard blasting “The Weekend” on somebody’s speaker without a care in the world are some of my first and favorite memories. “All I got is these broken clocks / I ain’t got no time / Just burnin’ daylight” encapsulates how I’ve felt through much of my time here. The assignments, meetings and meals can get bland and monotonous, and pile up in a way where it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, the moments where I’m still trying to show love through it all are the moments I cherish tightly. “20 Something” is such a fitting wrap-up where SZA croons a spell, wishing blessings for the young adults who are ascending into what it means to be grown. My 20th birthday was five months after “Ctrl” dropped, so I feel like I’ve matured alongside this gem of an album. I definitely realized there’s a part of me that constantly feels the need to be in control. Becoming an uncle, having my parents separate and living through a pandemic during college has made me realize I never really was.
“Care for Me” by Saba
“CARE FOR ME” was a gem unearthed from the depths of familial grief. Saba’s sophomore album showed a focused narrative guiding the listener on a trek through loss, loneliness, rememory and honoring all parts of the self with tenderness. The first line in the whole project is “I’m so alone” and truly sets the tone for the emotional excavation the 41-minute opus dives into. The West Side of Chicago native immortalizes his murdered cousin and Pivot Gang member John Walt with “PROM / KING.” Among the standout tracks and vivid storytelling “CARE FOR ME” provides, this penultimate song takes the crown as Saba details his relationship with Walt from the start of trying to find a prom date after a breakup, the rise of their rap careers and ultimately ending with the day Walt died. I went to a funeral with my brother the day before we drove up to Madison with our family for Summer Collegiate Experience. That grief, along with facing a new environment away from my family and friends, weighed heavy on my heart. It took me months to play “PROM / KING” without tearing up. I’d been rocking with Saba since his second mixtape “Comfortzone” hit Soundcloud in 2014. I was at the “sold out Lincoln Hall” show for “Bucket List Project” that Saba mentions on “PROM / KING.” Bumping “CARE FOR ME” was cathartic, and I imagine Saba and everyone who worked on the album felt similarly. The album’s conclusion, “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME” was Saba ultimately remembering Walt as an angel who is protecting and reminding him of all the glory within and surrounding him. I’ve faced much adversity, but have found a way through it all and embraced the joy within and around me.
“Some Rap Songs” by Earl Sweatshirt
When I first bumped this album, I wasn’t sure what to think. Earl’s 24-minute return to the scene after mourning the passing of his father, feels quick and slightly erratic. However, the former Odd Future rapper slithers depth in every precious second of a project that should be listened to repeatedly and regarded with deep reverence. His rapping ability is at peak performance while he grapples with depression, doubt and an unsteady search for hope. Earl brings his family into the music itself by sampling his father’s poetry and a keynote speech his mother gave on “Playing Possum.” I too come from a lineage of storytellers. I related deeply to Earl’s gesture towards his kin. My family is full of writers, musicians and educators and have made a huge influence on who I am and how I express myself. Hearing Earl interpolate words from his kin made me feel more connected to my own, despite the hundreds of miles separating us. “Bend, we don’t break, we not the bank,” is the internal hook on “The Bends” and one of my favorite bars on the project because it provides resolve while also acknowledging how the hurt has shaped Earl. The resilience he exuded through “Some Rap Songs” gave me strength and joy I can easily return to.
“PTSD” by G Herbo
The Chicago rapper examines the violence he’s witnessed and the toll it’s taken on him with a sharper lens than ever on “PTSD.” The cover art features Herbo holding an American flag with bloody red bullet holes through the white stripes and the faces of 50 people in Herbo’s life who were taken too soon. One of those faces is the late Juice Wrld, who is featured on the title track alongside Herbo, Chance The Rapper and Lil Uzi Vert. Juice Wrld, who died from an accidental drug overdose in 2019, delivers a passionate posthumous hook that is eerily perfect for the song. The way he sings “Don’t stand too close to me, eternal PTSD” bears the weight wearing of many youth who grew up in underserved communities. Death has swarmed our country and world over the last year. Stress, anxiety and grief have been fueled not only by the pandemic, but also from racial injustice. Playing this album with my homies was one of the last joyous moments with them before the pandemic hit. It seems that community, self-care and honesty are some of the best ways people are making it through these turbulent times. Herbo encourages vulnerability throughout the project, especially in “Gangstas Cry” with BJ The Chicago Kid, proclaiming that there’s nothing wrong with wearing your emotions on your sleeve. The final track “Intuition” is a reminder of the mental strength and work ethic that separates Herbo from the pack. PTSD was my soundtrack to the turmoil, giving me energy to push through and never forget why I can’t stop moving forward.