The Logic of Mindfulness: Existential Philosophy in Hip-Hop

The world of hip-hop is constantly changing, and the rare opportunities for stardom seem shorter in 2018 than ever before. Few MCs can command respect and attention for very long, for many reasons. One artist who stands out right now is Gaithersburg, Maryland’s Logic, who recently released his fourth studio album, Young Sinatra IV.

His previous studio project, Everybody, is a remarkable panoramic concept album about existence, life after death, infinity, politics, race, history, and a dozen other topics. It features guest appearances from legendary MCs Chuck D (of Public Enemy), Black Thought (of The Roots), and Killer Mike (of Run The Jewels). It also features famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, as God of all people. (Tyson is a self-described agnostic.)

YSIV is less directly philosophical than Everybody, but it’s clear that he will not avoid the deep themes of meaning and existentialism he confronted in previous projects. Whether intentionally or not, Bobby Tarantino (one of his many alter-egos) is not shook when it comes to the big questions. As he says on “Warm It Up” (from the 2018 mixtape Bobby Tarantino II): “Logic never flex / Bobby get it done”.

Even on that BTII project — which is mostly about partying, women, money, and good times — he waxes philosophical in spots: “I don’t really know why I rap, son / Money ain’t a thing, yeah I got some”. (So then, if not for money or fame, then … why?)

Thanks for New Rivers

The first track on Young Sinatra IV is an ode of gratitude called “Thank You”. Before launching into a four-minute collage of audio messages from fans around the world, Logic rhymes about the good fortune we experience simply through existence itself. (Everybody begins with a similar track called “Hallelujah”.) But in the chorus he (with singer Lucy Rose) goes deep, real fast:

Thank you, thank you
For letting me speak my mind
And putting it all on the line
Through the sunshine and the rain
Through the good times and the pain
And never staying the same
And having the courage to change

Those last two lines are haunting. The first bit is obvious; without fans, MCs don’t make money. Without freedom to exercise creative integrity, artists are robots. But what’s up with the final couplet?

People change all the time. Change is inevitable. No one ever stays the same, even when they want to. As Nikki Giovanni once said: “Everything will change. The only question is growing up or decaying.” So why does Logic thank people for experiencing an inevitable process? You have to ask him.

But since I cannot, here’s what I think. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus famously said: “You cannot step twice into the same river.” In other words, we humans are in a constant process of change, with bits of ourselves coming and going at all times.

The problem, as I wrote about in MindWipe 2, is that we often want to ignore or reject this change. We want to believe that we are unchanging and constant. We cling to stories about ourselves, stories about our greatness (or horribleness), stories about our goodness (or evil). We’re often afraid to step into new rivers.

This is why people deserve thanks when they’re willing to change. That line, to me, is shorthand for a very deep concept: Thank you for not clinging to a former version of yourself. Thank you for accepting change, for trying to grow and not decay.

Mindfulness can help us deal with this change, and recognize that everybody else is complicated and fluid, just like we are. (This can help us be more compassionate.) Whether he’s doing it on purpose or not, Logic is showing love to a mindful acquiescence to dynamism, to the Giovanni/Heraclitus ideal of positive change at war with negative fluids.

Prepare to Die

The second track is a cheerful, upbeat number called “Everybody Dies”. Just as the protagonist of Everybody dies after track one of that album, this song smacks us quickly in the face with the inevitability of death. This mirrors the line from Sophocles’ Antigone, in which the chorus reminds us: “From Death alone [humans] shall procure no escape”. It’s the same reason Hamlet is obsessed with the skull of Yorick, the same reason why Toni Morrison begins Beloved with 124 and its “spiteful … baby’s venom”. It’s the same reason Grendel must fight with the dragon in John Gardner’s 1971 novel. It’s the same reason things fall apart for Okonkwo and Oedipus and John Marston.

So what do we do about it? The lazy artist wallows in this inevitability. The simplistic teenage laggard gives up on everything, subscribing to simplistic nihilism (like the dragon in Grendel) and ignoring all the shards of meaning scattered about.

Logic isn’t lazy. His music posits death as a special kind of beginning; in Everybody it’s a pan-humanism based on a divine plan (based on the story “The Egg” by Andy Weir, author of The Martian). In YSIV, it’s religiously fatalistic: “I’m already knowin’ that I’m gon’ die one day /You gon’ die one day / We all ‘gon die one day / God already got the date set, so live your life”.

Intriguingly, this presents us with an interesting double entendre with the song’s opening line: “This what you all been waitin’ for, ain’t it?” This is an interpolation of Kanye’s line from “Barry Bonds” (2007), but that’s not what interests me. Rather, it doubles as a preface for our last moments on the Earth. For many of us, the end is a profound beginning — an opportunity to (finally) learn what’s next. If you’re confident that paradise awaits, then death is a doorway to an eternity of pure delight. If not, well … at least you get to be smug about the finite nature of human existence.

Not that this reality has to be depressing. Quite the opposite, in fact; by confronting the inevitability of death, Logic echoes Albert Camus’ mindful appreciations of the small moments of meaning available to us in everyday life. (Of course this cannot be mere mindless hedonism, as Logic explains in “Killing Spree” from Everybody; “Everybody wanna get high / Everybody wanna live life like they can’t die / […] Everybody looking for the meaning of life thru a cell phone screen”.)

More to the point here, Logic is caught up in the duality of existence — especially appropriate for an album’s second track. (Another excellent hip-hop exploration of duality is Heems’ 2015 jam “Sometimes”.) From money to danger, he walks the Tight Rope that Brother Ali spoke of in 2009: “You can’t take money with you when you die / So spend it and don’t look back like an addict in recovery / But also don’t blow it, you know it / Don’t be a coward, but don’t be too heroic”.

Only by accepting the the inevitability of death can we appreciate the opportunities of life, as Tyler Durden reminds us (in his narrow and misogynistic way) in Fight Club. Logic reminds us that we are not our bank accounts, our yin-yang coffee tables, or our khakis. And as with the Tao itself, we must strive for balance, rather than the dogmatic simplicity of one extreme or another.

Three Makes A Trinity

How fitting, then, that track three is “The Return”? After death, a resurrection. (He even name-drops the third wheel: “I ain’t no killer, but you know the rest / You think I caught the holy spirit how I’m feelin’ blessed”.) It’s a straightforward chant of encouragement, echoing Chumbawumba and Talib Kweli: “I get up, when I’m down, had enough, almost drowned / When s — - rough I get tough and when I’m beaten to the ground / I get up, I get up (etc)”.

We get another screed against materialism: “I’m not defined by these clothes, and zeros / It don’t matter if you got six dollars or six figures on the creep / ’Cause in the end we all six feet deep”. Death will take it all from us, erasing hopes for eternity through our possessions.

So how do we return after our passing? Well, Logic hopes to live through the music: “Meanwhile, I’ll be immortalized on this 6ix beat”. (Arjun “6ix” Ivatury produced the song.) Throughout the third verse, he follows standard hip-hop braggadocio patterns of proclaiming his greatness. But he also incorporates his mantra of “PLP” (“Peace, Love, and Positivity”): “F — - a rap beef / I promise I want all of y’all to prosper / But deep down you know it’s only gon’ be one Mufasa”. He’s trying to flip the script on the whole concept of beef; for more, see JaySmooth’s video on IllDoctrine.com. (One wonders how he might evolve his beef with Kanye now that he’s stepping away from “messages I don’t believe in”.)

This dilemma/innovation continues when he turns his attention to online trolls, who call him every slur in existence. How to respond to hate with anything other than hate? Logic pulls out the poetic license: “I wish I could face my homophobic, racist attacker / And smack the s — - outta they a — as peaceful as possible”. Hip-hop evolved from the need to redirect violent impulses into creative outlets, and lines like this are a continuation of that evolution. The impossibility (or, as he calls it, “improbable” nature) of a peaceful smack-down does not obviate the desirability of more peaceful outlets for our violent rage.

That’s All

I could easily write more about this album — “Wu Tang Forever” could spawn an entire essay, which other people are more qualified to compose. Instead I will merely urge everybody to read RZA’s fascinating book The Tao of Wu.

XXL didn’t care for this album, complaining that it doesn’t feature enough new elements, while exhibiting a nostalgic fixation on the boom-bap sound. Aside from those sonic considerations, however (and I have a hard time putting them aside, since I grew up with that sound and cling to it like a 60s burnout clings to Dark Side of the Moon), I’m pleased to see a lyrical depth in Logic’s music — maybe not as profound as Pulitzer-Prize-winning texts from Compton, but refreshing nevertheless, in a relentless ocean of mediocre “bangers” proffered to audiences as interested in being herds as they are in being heard. (Apologies there to Babbletron.)

Not all hip-hop makes me think, but it doesn’t always have to. At its best, the music can blend infectious aesthetics with worthwhile reflections on the human experience. So long as Logic brings both ingredients in his product, I’ll keep tuning in.