This summer and fall, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. This is the fourth entry in a series called “Chaos.” If you’d like to read from the beginning of the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy. Note: If you are easily offended by sexually explicit lyrics, use discretion when listening to “Dang!.” Said explicit lyrics will not be discussed in this entry.
“Dang! (Feat. Anderson .Paak)” by Mac Miller
The back beat of “Dang!” is, as the kids say, cold. Produced by Vancouver-based Pomo, the bouncing drums, gentle synth, and swinging horns are life-giving, head-nodding, shoulder-swaying. This a song that bumps without jostling. I dare you to listen and not move your body. According to the song’s collaborators, the late Mac Miller and Californian soul genius Anderson .Paak, the hook came first: “I can’t keep on losing you,” .Paak sang for Miller. “Gone too soon. Wait! We was just hangin’…” Though .Paak composed his vocals about grieving the loss of a friend (supposedly the late David Bowie), Miller saw the ups and downs of a romantic relationship, and asked permission of .Paak to write his verses accordingly. It makes sense, when you think about it. Both love and death are about loss, desire, addressing unfinished business. Thus “Dang!” was born. Little did .Paak know that in two years, lyrics like “gone too soon” would take on new significance. Malcolm James McCormick, aka Mac Miller, died of an opiate overdose on September 7, 2018.
At first listen, this song might sound like a continuation of our narrator’s voice from “Marie,” a man who uses empty affection as a tool to mitigate and mask his failures as a partner. Mac Miller’s verses on “Dang!” speak for the contemporary or more “evolved” version of this lover, the one who, in the face of a problem, goes beyond that oft-praised first step. Like “Marie,” the lover prostrates himself. “How many mistakes do it take ’til you leave?” he asks. “When I’m left with my hand and my face all red… I know I ain’t a saint, if it ain’t too late, well. ” Like the drunken plea of “Marie,” Miller also nods to intoxication as an accelerant to expressing his feelings: “Heartache drunk and hang up. What a mess I made us. Sense, I make none.”
However, Miller’s speaker goes beyond confession, laying out the likelihood of his partner’s disdain. “Yeah, it’s complicated, got you frustrated. Get home late and you don’t trust me, baby.” Unlike merely listing his failures, he also attempts to step into her shoes, wondering about her reactions to him, her loss of trust, the limits of her tolerance. There’s also the use of “we,” a concept that never comes up in the one-way outpouring of “love” and compliments in “Marie.” Lines like, “You say you don’t care, is what you saying. We both know that’s some bullsh**. Okay, we be fighting, we be reuniting…” paint their partnership as an equal exchange of feeling, of knowledge, of shared conclusions. In the attempt to relay his partner’s feelings (“You say you don’t care”), Miller’s narrator lands much closer to a depiction of love than the resigned chosen ignorance in that of “Marie” (“I don’t listen to a word you say”). Unlike the narrator of Marie, who only mentions the past, Miller’s speaker sees communication and his stability as key to their future: “Tryna get through to you,” he tells her. “You safe with me, girl.”
When I refer to songs as ecosystems, I mean to measure how growth and death are represented, how the featured players interact with each other, in competition or in symbiosis. Life moves in cycles. History, too. “Dang!” marks the beginning of hope in this playlist. You wouldn’t think it in a song about holding on to life and love so desperately, but sometimes there is beauty in contradiction. Sometimes complexity does not equal evil; sometimes simplicity does not equal good. It is possible to love someone and let them down. It is possible to be in love and just as deeply disappointed. I was talking to a friend about the point I made in the previous post, how “Marie” uses the word “love” but it’s not really a love song. By that measure, my friend replied, no love songs are really love songs. He has a point. To what bar am I holding these songs, I have to wonder. When I think about these little ecosystems of love and care, to what utopia am I comparing them? To what utopia am I comparing America? Then I have to think: What is the use of criticizing without offering an alternative? Why am I using my precious life to stare at a computer and craft overly-complicated diatribes, both explicitly and implicitly about my country? “If this is love,” Miller’s speaker asks his partner, “why the f**k you complain?” What right do I, someone who has shelter and a job, have to complain? If I hate America so much, why the f**k don’t I leave? (Other than the COVID-related travel restrictions.)
I am starting to find the answers to some of those questions. I don’t hate America. I think I complain about it because I love it. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t want to make it better. If I didn’t believe in the American experiment, I wouldn’t care whether or not the people in charge are keeping the promises of its founders. I wouldn’t care about expanding the definition of those promises to fit all Americans, not just land-owning white males. If I didn’t love my country, I wouldn’t think about it so constantly, how its power structures are present in the work of its storytellers, how our country’s values get passed and absorbed through its singers and entertainers and bards. How, through TV shows and news shows and articles and songs, the principles that shape our sense of justice embed themselves in our perceptions, playing out everywhere from the highest courts to the dimmest living rooms. Perhaps I scribble about lyrics here because I’m trying to protect myself from America at its chaotic worst, a place where lies and pledges and insults are cast without consequence, left to rot until they suffocate us. What I am doing here, I think, is refusing to live in chaos. I refuse to live a world where words don’t matter.