On blackbear, Vegas, and how we romanticize self-destructive behavior
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON JUNE 30, 2021
Contrary to popular belief, self-realization is not an endpoint. Knowing who you are and what you want out of life is only part of the equation. The real work still lies ahead.
Musically speaking, blackbear knew who he was before he even wrote a song. He's the oddball among the popular kids. He's the one who never felt like they fit in, even when they had the world in the palm of their hand. He's a mentally ill misfit who's tried and failed multiple times to overcome his demons without doing the work. He's lost himself to sex and drugs and celebrity to the point where he no longer recognizes his own face. Such awareness usually marks the peak of someone's artistic journey. It's what all the other songs and albums are building towards, Where the protagonist realizes they are their own worst enemy. Listeners meet blackbear on the cusp of an emotional breakdown where he discovers he’s the only person to blame for everything wrong with his life. He is both the problem and the solution, and his internal struggle for peace now fills multiple albums.
But that's not the story we were taught to believe will sell. Traditional thinking dictates that we enjoy underdog stories where people make great sacrifices and overcome devastating losses to achieve their dreams at any cost. They may have to cut ties with family and friends or move around the world, but it will all be worth it to see their vision made real. These tales teach us tomorrow is never promised, so live for today! Do whatever you want as long as you make progress on your goals! Achieving stuff is all that matters!
Unfortunately, these stories rarely deal with what happens in the morning after. The true price of our sacrifices is rarely explored because doing so requires too much energy, and good storytellers know to stop before things get messy. The more we look inward, the more work we must complete.
blackbear's narrative arc begins where most stories end. Where a movie might fade to black, blackbear sits in the discomfort of awareness. He meditates on his sense of morality and worthiness, all while recognizing how intertwined his success is with an identity that feels increasingly out of touch with reality. He doesn't have to sing music about making it because that story has been told as many times as stories have been told. What we rarely get to considered is the existence that follows.
Even sequels don't do it justice. Most sequels approach storytelling from a desire to do more of the same, but the results are never satisfying. It's only when the heroes continue to evolve that we lock into a fictional world. That's when that "magic" of art kicks in.
The opening track off digital druglord, blackbear’s wildly popular third album, paints a vivid picture of a life most of us will never know, yet it immediately feels familiar. With a few simple lines delivered of repeating piano keys, blackbear romanticizes self-destruction by introducing us to a breakout burnout living fast on drugs that confuse his sense of time. He's lavish and lonely, draped in designer clothing. His biggest fear is everyone agreeing that he's the fraud he sees in the mirror. He needs therapy. He chooses self-indulgence.
My nose is burning
Too much cocaine
Got cut in Brooklyn
With gasoline, bagged up with cellophane
I'm in need of moderation
Nah, I need a fucking break
'Cause I just railed down enough lines tonight
To spell your first and last name
I miss the ocean
And I know it's weird to say
I grew up there, moved to LA
It's only thirty minutes
405 to PCH
But half an hour feels forever and a fucking day
And it's all because I dreamt of you
And woke up alone
What a wonderful tone
To bring you back home
My soul is burning
Need Jesus Christ
My mom's unhappy with all the choices I've been making with my life
I don't even fucking care though
I'm probably gonna die
Like everybody else
Is that such a fucking lie?
And I swear to God
If the alcohol and drugs don't kill me
I don't know what will
Other than you
It feels lived in. We don't know this person or identify with their lifestyle, but we know them on a deeply meaningful level. We see ourselves in them, even if they are an extreme example of us at our worst. Much like the antihero trope that has gained popularity through shows such as Breaking Bad, Ozark, Nurse Jackie, Weeds, etc., the character of blackbear is a lovable scamp. He's an absolute trainwreck whose inability to have honest and open conversations with the people closest to them, including themself, creates an endless stream of problems. It doesn't matter if he's overthinking a lie or dealing with the repercussions of his actions, blackbear struggles to remain in the present. The truth is too much for him because it requires effort he isn't ready or willing to make. So, instead, he hides.
I often wonder what these moments look like for the people I know. I have friends who will tell you they've yet to experience significant loss or setbacks in their life, and I can't help wondering how it will unfold when it finally arrives. When the avalanche races down the mountain, and they realize there's nowhere to run, what will that be like for them? How will they react, and who will they become?
Maybe I'm oversimplifying things. Life Is full of terrible moments, each horrifying and life-changing in their unique ways. Just because someone hasn't lost a parent or gotten divorced doesn't mean their lives are easy. We've all processed things that we rarely share with others. The size of the event doesn't matter nearly as much as the impact. A bad day at work can undo everything as quickly as a breakup. A flat tire can derail your day and finances with the same lightning speed as a broken bone. We all go through things all the time, and we do what we can to survive the inevitable heartbreaks of existence.
What fascinates me the most is how frequently we must learn the hollow nature of the things we used to escape feelings we don't want to accept. From our earliest attempt to deny the truth of any situation, we learn that running away never solves our problems. You cannot suffer a significant loss and act as if nothing happened for too long before it all catches up to you. But we still try! You cannot talk me into jogging in my daily life, but task me with processing emotions, and you'll be amazed at how fast my metaphorical legs can move. I know that's wrong. I understand that the only healthy thing to do is to process life as it happens. But I still try to outrun it every chance I get. Grief is many things for many people, but it is never convenient or easy.
Divorce is a hell of a thing. One day you're committing to a life together, and the next, you hear the words "I can't do this anymore" expressed through soft sobs. It's a story that plays out in various ways all the time, each terrible and devastating, yet we choose to believe we are the exception. "Everyone else is a fool," we tell ourselves, "but my love is special."
Spoiler: It is not.
I didn't ask for the divorce, but I didn't have all the information. My partner found someone they loved earlier that spring, and they were tired of hiding that truth in the dark. They weren't ready to tell me, but they knew it's what they wanted to pursue, so they went for it. I put the facts together myself months later. We never discussed it.
I've always seen myself as a family man. If there's anything I have wanted in this life, it's to build a life with someone. To have the kind of lasting love that my parents share. They are high school sweethearts still going strong 33 years later and then make it look effortless. But, deep down, I know it's anything but.
I didn't know when I would be comfortable dating again, but I never lost sight of my goal. Dating was weird. Here I was, no longer someone who can presume any innocence regarding the many ways romance can go wrong, trying to make myself appealing to people with no knowledge of what happens inside a marriage. It didn't help that I had two cats or temporarily lived back with my parents. My life was a mess.
Then I met the perfect person at the worst time. I was speaking at a conference in Texas when I overheard a voice that stuck out to me like a melody you can't forget. I knew nothing about this individual except the slight southern drawl in her voice. She was a touring professional working with pop legends who was invited to speak about their experiences. I didn't know it yet, but they were in a problematic place romantically with someone they thought would be their forever. They also had a lifelong dream of building a life with someone who shares their interests. They were just as desperate to escape what was happening as I was with the events of my life, which made us a perfect recipe for disaster.
What follows is the kind of whirlwind romance that only teenagers believe exists. We spent numerous daily phone calls and FaceTime dates recounting past lives. She was a dancer for a while, and her tattoos told the stories of her life. She had "may the bridges I burn light my way" inked along her spine. The heavy-handed artist who did it pressed so hard that you could still feel the indentation of the lettering years later. She told me all the little details that made up her world, and I did my best to do the same. We were running as fast as our hearts and minds would allow from work needed in both our lives. We spoke of ambitions for impossible lives that we both needed to believe. We cared for one another deeply. It all happened so fast that it was intoxicating, and as addicts of any kind are prone to do, we chased that high for as long as we could.
We did a lot of things to help us forget. I have this distinct memory of us sitting at a red light just outside the Vegas strip. A song by actor turned musician turned canceled talent Ansel Elgort is blaring on the radio. The windows are down, and she's dangling one arm out the window while the other clutches the steering wheel. I'm leaning against the passenger side door, watching the city lights gobble up the sky. We'd had a few drinks at the apartment earlier in the day as well. We are going to a magic show, but before entering, we stand on the roof of the hotel and smoke a joint wrapped with a thick line of concentrated THC dusted with an additional amount of — you guessed it — THC. I lost count of how many edibles we ate throughout that day, but I know the dosage is well over 150 mg. It was a Thursday. We had nothing to prove.
(For the innocent: That amount of weed is at least 30x the recommended dose for most users.)
Sober me doesn't recognize the person in that story. Looking back now, memories of that evening unfold like a film reel that's missing every third frame. First, we're drinking at dinner, and then we're running through gaming floors, slipping five and ten dollar bills into virtual roulette machines to force a boost of serotonin. Next, there's the painted blue sky of Caesar's Palace and the long tails of headlights passing by on the ride back to their apartment. Finally, there's the decision on whether or not to keep drinking, followed by beers sipped while smoking the last joint of the night on the patio. We carry on in fits and bursts until the faintest image of a pastel sky appears while the sun breaks moments before our eyes finally close.
That night and that trip are the kind of thing that is easy to romanticize. It's no wonder so many think Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is an experience worth having and not a cautionary tale of what happens when mental illness and overindulgence collide. True to the nature of the city, Vegas allowed us to pretend like we had it figured out. All of the struggles we'd experienced in long-term relationships for the previous years leading up to that moment were no longer weighing on us. Instead, we were successfully maintaining a false reality that would last as long as the trip. In the bubble, we were our true selves, even if we were living a lie, and if we're honest— I'd rarely felt more alive.
The undoing of it all was messy, but not for the reasons you might think. We both knew what was happening was objectively terrible. When our lives got tough, we ran away. We ran and hid and ruined one another for each other to save us from ourselves. It was the emotional equivalent to patching a hole in your bedroom wall by burning the house down. We let the flames of passion and ego engulf us until all that remained were the flaws we were trying to hide. We both needed help. Real, serious help. We needed to learn to love ourselves the way we were desperately trying to love others. We could not have what we sought — lasting love — until we did the work needed to process our experiences.
The work I'm talking about is what comprises the bulk of blackbear's material. The narrative arc of his career is that of somebody recognizing who they are and grappling with the responsibility to do something about it. Every song about sour relationships or fancy things is just an extension of this idea. He's taking stock of prior bad acts or recognizing the things that are not good for him. He may be a little materialistic as well, but who is it? He certainly did not invent the idea of burying your pain by purchasing things you don't need. His purchases are just a little fancier than ours.
Take "me & ur Ghost," one of his biggest hits. The track tackles life in the aftermath of a relationship. As blackbear does his best to imitate someone doing well, the chorus tells another story. His newfound loneliness triggers another depressive episode, which has him flirting with old (negative) coping mechanisms. He's heartbroken, but he's attempting to avoid that fact because acknowledging the pain means admitting his role in what happened. His awareness tells us that he knows he needs to address it, but he's not ready. He's growing, not grown.
The 2015 track "dirty laundry," which pre-dates the material on digital druglord, finds blackbear facing the long-tail consequences of his behavior. Though he swears to be changing and growing, his past continues to haunt him. His current girl can't get over the life he once led, which is cause for tension in the relationship. Blackbear describes hedonistic images of snorting cocaine off girls' backs at clubs and parties the same way others talk about the office where they work. These things are part of his world, for better and worse. He could try and pretend like it didn't happen, but doing so would mean denying his truth.
Even "cheers," a late-2020 collaboration with Wiz Khalifa, sticks to the script. The song has a festive feel, with major chords over finger snaps and deep bass, but the lyrics speak to a more grounded outlook. The song is a defiant battle cry working to keep the darkness at bay. The protagonist is no better off than before, but they won't let the world break them. There is pain, and there is heartache, but there are also drinks. There are moments of levity amid the suffering, and sometimes, that alone is cause for celebration.
When I hear blackbear's music, I hear someone sharing their story in an attempt at accountability. Everything is laid bare, both the good and the bad, in explicit detail. He is not the hero of his story, but he's also not the victim. He may find himself in unique situations, but at the end of the day, he's just a human being trying to figure out this thing called life. We may start at the middle of his story, but we have front-row seats for everything that follows. We learn every victory and every painful success. His music is the document of a life, fictitious or real, that speaks to the unbreakable nature of the human spirit. It reminds us that we are broken creatures wandering through an unfathomable plane of existence surrounded by infinite darkness. We are weird and sad and deserving of joy even when we believe otherwise. Life is hard; let's take it easy on ourselves.
The girl from Vegas did the work. She is now engaged to someone they met after a period of working on themselves. She’s happier, more creative, and more fulfilled than before. She even started a side hustle where they make jewelry for pets. Maybe life isn't what they thought it would be, but they're building a home with someone that makes them feel less alone. We still talk about that trip and the way we attempted to stretch days into a lifetime. It often feels like we're talking about different people living in another reality. Wherever they are and whatever they're doing, I hope they're well. I know they're trying their best.