Two Dollar Radio
I don’t mean this to sound at all trite, I mean it as a huge compliment – even if it might feel a forced comparison, but Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s work here in this book of profoundly moving, politically urgent, poetic essays reads with the great skill and scope of Ta-Nehisi Coates mixed with the page-turning pop-culture obsessive fun of Chuck Klosterman’s best essays. Hopefully that sells you – for this is one of the best books of the year, not only that it feels like a very good cultural and political barometer – this is where we are at. Abdurraqib knows that, wrestles with that, is made uncomfortable by that; tries his best to unpack that.
They Can’t Kill Us features loads of music – great stories of good and bad music. If you’re not a fan of Fall Out Boy or My Chemical Romance you might be after this. Well, even if not you’ll enjoy the way they’re examined. But there’s plenty here for people only interested in the legacy artists – Bruce Springsteen and Prince and Nina Simone all get some sort of treatment. But it’s in and around discussions involving Chance The Rapper, say. Or The Weeknd. Carly Ray Jepsen might not seem, at first, like a candidate for Essay of The Year subject. But Abdurraqib tunnels in with best intentions and finds his way back out having explored race, culture, politics, all the while pondering his own place in the world.
This is a set of essays – some previously published, tweaked, revisited, revised – that seeks to ask questions, that hopes to show a reason behind and around the escape into music. It’s about a set of escapes actually, including many moments we can’t shake, cannot escape. Stepping out of your own skin is something that can happen, when writing – or reading – but only for the moments while the essay exists, only when you’re reading (or writing) it. You hold onto the hope after, perhaps. But you turn to face the reality also.
This is music writing on quite another level.
But it’s also a book that features profoundly moving pieces about loss, heartbreak, finding yourself, losing yourself, struggling with ones self and the very idea of it, framed – often but not always – by music.
There are deep meditations on America’s current state. On the racism that pervades. On the brevity of the grief-cycle in the wake of so much terror.
It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. One of the best books I’ve read in many years. For these are essays that beg to be re-read. And this is a writer so clearly seeking answers rather than suggesting he has any. The questions he raises along the way are as important – as moving, and useful – as any real answer anyway.