“Is anyone gonna eat these mushrooms with me?” El-P asks the room. Of course.
I became acquainted with El-P a few years ago. Before Beyoncé and before I almost gave up songwriting and making music in favor of becoming a line chef for good. He’s been my favorite rapper and creator since I was fifteen. I asked him to produce my album a long time ago. In response he said, “I’m flattered man, but you’re already a producer.” I had never fancied myself a producer before he said that. Honestly, I still don’t fully believe in the word as an apt descriptor for me, but he was the first one to say it. I’ll never forget that.
So here I am, years later, lying on my back, staring at a beautifully detailed wooden ceiling while El-P is recording the summer sound of tree frogs yowling unholy communication outside. He’s crafting what will eventually become “All Due Respect,” and I’m in awe. Yeah, you’re watching El-P be El-P. Little Shalimar is banging out some freaky on-off rhythms on a tambourine and bongo — possibly at the same time — and this could be the mushrooms thinking, but goddamn, how’d he get four arms? Vishnu like a motherfucker over here tapping shit out in 9/7 time. Part of me wants to start praying to him. My eyes get hazy and the room starts to evaporate. I’m sinking through the floor. I’m gone.
Where am I now? Oh. I’m six months from now in the Library, the main recording room of La Fabrique studios in Provence, lying on my back again. My two drummers have been going head to head for an hour in an exercise I decreed so they’d get more in tune with each other, to have each other’s back. Side note, did I mention that my consciousness isn’t bound by time? It never has been. In an instant I can be anywhere. Anywhen. The room blurs and in a flash I’m eight years old lying in bed talking to Jesus in my head and asking if I can speak to my recently deceased grandfather. An inter-dimensional phone call of sorts. I imagine Jesus puts my grandfather on the line only to eventually come to the realization that I’m talking to myself in my mind. Sorry kid, you’re all alone. Now go to school. Flash. I’m staring at that gorgeous wooden ceiling again, but we aren’t there working on Run the Jewels. It’s been nearly a full calendar year since. I’ve eaten mushrooms again, but a functional portion, not quite a spirit-journey amount. I’ve been listening to the grinding, rolling synth line of my song “Bombs Away” on repeat for nearly an hour. It hits me all at once, seemingly out of nowhere. I turn the mic on and free-associate.
When I’m raining, your tongue is broken glass hurricaning.
Hey, that last word is not a real word. Fine.
The email does that chime thing. Hey, I’m doing a back-up vocal — fuck off, technology. I do a few more stacks on the track until it starts to feel uncomfortably crowded in there. Perfect. The top of the second verse needs to sound like someone escaping.
If I had tits you’d go all over me
Worldwide, flick my clit, I’ll blow it globally
Are you really gonna say that on the song? Of course — it’s the truth. Twigs and I have this conversation over sushi during a studio break. We spend most of the dinner laughing our asses off about nonsense. She has a good laugh. There is an unspoken exchange between us. It goes like this; people stare uncomfortably, we laugh louder. We start talking about the internet, socials, the state of modern music, brain-dead society. She cuts to the chase and says, “If you were a beautiful woman doing the work you’re doing, they’d never leave you alone.” Harsh. She’s right. She continues, “When people hear a female sing, their first feeling and their first thought, they’re praying that you’re beautiful.” As horrific as that sounds, I can’t argue with the truth. I’m sure it works both ways.
The email chimes again. It’s from George Washington.
this is frank ocean. u around?
A wave of anxiety hits me in the chest. It’s a good and bad kind of anxiety. One that is full of wonder and a hint of terror. Understand something about me: when I work on something, I go all in. After Beyoncé I went all in with a lot of people. I went all in with Twigs and we created something great together. I went all in with Autolux and it is an album I wish that I could re-live over and over and over again. I went all in on “Bad Believer” with St. Vincent, but we only spent two days in the studio and didn’t finish it, so she or the label or maybe Motorcycle Jesus rush-released the demo version for the reissue of her album. Oh well. I went all in with Kanye. But right now I’m all in on “Bombs Away,” so what do I do?
Gentle reader, don’t be shy. I imagine that the paragraph above is why some of you are reading. You want to know who. This time I don’t know if I can go all in for anyone else right now.
The mushrooms have me feeling fuzzy. Dread passes and a sane mind responds to Frank for me.
Unexpected, but welcome. I’m around.
I ride out in a ’70s Cutlass Supreme that Davey Catching let me borrow because he’s a fucking legend who lives on and owns Rancho De La Luna in Joshua Tree. I will do mushrooms in the desert on New Year’s Eve, but we aren’t there yet.
Frank hops in on the passenger side and, as careful as he was, the door gets stuck on the curb.
“Ah shit, now you gotta drive forward.” I tap the gas slightly, the door closes with ease, and we’re off. Vibes are thick, and we talk about what we’ve been listening to. Frank plays me some things that I’ve never heard. When we get to Autolux’s studio, he immediately starts playing his new jams. His voice is unreal. There are lots of artists out there who try to buy that type of emotion, but not Frank. Frank is real-the-fucking-deal. Frank could sing about which type of deep-sleep curtains to buy at Bed, Bath and Beyond and he could still make you weep like a skinned-knee child. I get choked up a few times while listening. He shows me his cover of the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best (You Are Love).” He heard the song at a party and immediately said, “I gotta sing this.” Good choice. I’m listening, but the production feels clunky and it’s making me feel queasy. I tell him the drums don’t groove right. He cuts the drums out. Oh shit, something just happened.
“You hear it?”
The song can breathe.
He shows me another song and I am high and I have a violent, angry reaction to an offensive-sounding acoustic guitar. It’s too perfect.
“Kill that fucking thing — I don’t want to hear it ever again.” He is laughing his ass off, but I’m mostly serious. When he mutes it, the whole room feels better, but now there’s a gaping hole in the song. We discuss what could take its place. I play him “Simply Beautiful” by Al Green.
“The acoustic guitar is barely being played. You just feel it.”
We vibe out to the song; he knows it, but now he’s listening to it differently. Context is everything.
The drums kick in and the room turns into a spaceship. Frank and I agree to meet up again in a little while and I blast off, headed toward the stars. I find a new home on the moon and dig myself a bed in a crater. I listen to “Simply Beautiful” three more times that night and my mind wanders back toward the murky grey of unknown “ifs.” It wanders to what I was working on. Where I left it. I can’t focus, so I try to fall asleep. Tiny ants crawl out of my toes, up my knees, through my stomach and hit my brain. It feels like music, but particles of it. I can’t figure out what I’m hearing.
Is that something already?
There is a heavy beat underneath that lurches like a broken machine-robot shark that lunges back on the upbeat, trying to shave off your ankles. It’s aggressive.
This vibe is missing from the album.
I vault out of bed, I record the idea into my phone, mumbling, leaving notes of the beat. This is a foolish exercise and is only performed by one who imagines they will be going back to sleep. On this night, I don’t go back to sleep. Instead, I go to the studio and I write “C.U.R.E.”