2018 was a monumental year for music. Childish Gambino released politically powerful “This is America”. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN became the first non-classical/jazz album to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. JayZ and Beyonce released their first album together “Everything is Love”. The 20th of January marked the late Mac Miller’s birthday. Today we thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on last year, first and foremost on the artists who could not join us in 2019.
We start with Mac Miller, birth name Malcolm James McCormick, a 26-year-old rapper from Pittsburgh USA. Miller passed away from a drug overdose and was found on the 7th of September in his LA studio apartment.
Although he was known to many by his relationship with singer Ariana Grande, this was never his most defining feature. He burst onto the scene in 2010 (a baby at 18) with his debut album ‘Blue Slide Park’, which went straight to number one on the US Billboard 200. Since then he has released 12 mixtapes, 5 albums and 31 singles, even dabbling in the production world under a number of aliases. Incredibly multi-talented, Malcolm was able to play piano, guitar, bass, and drums all before the age of 6. His earlier music such as Best Day Ever, LOUD and Party in 5th Avenue made waves in 2011 and helped build his loyal fan base who loved his signature party frat-boy identity; from the production, lyrics, melody, and visual content.
His style changed dramatically for his love album in 2016. ‘The Devine Feminine’ revealed more of the romantic in Mac, a beautiful collection of work featuring artists such as Ariana Grande, Ty Dolla $ign, and Kendrick Lamar. As Miller grew up with his music, however; his later work seemed to adopt a darker feel, and it became clearer to his audience that the artist was struggling emotionally; with substance abuse and mental illness.
“That’s why I wrote this song / told myself to hold on
I can feel my fingers slippin’ / in a motherf*ckin’ instant I’ll be gone” – Small worlds
His music was an outlet for this, as he told Variety magazine, “I just want to be honest and vulnerable.” Underlying themes of depression and anxiety in so many of the rapper’s lyrics make his death harder to swallow, and as we listen back to Mac’s words on so many of his tracks they read like a self-fulfilling prophecy; and we are reminded that there was once the slimmest chance that he could’ve been saved.
The hopefulness to pieces like “Self-care” in his recent work, however, shine a light on Mac Miller. Laced with optimism and spirit they glimpse at the real mac; a man with a heart of gold, or in Macklemore’s words “A genuine person. Brilliant sense of humour. A true artist. Your spirit is what impressed me the most. The energy you brought to any space you were in.” Malcolm’s ability to speak so openly of struggle reassured others with similar demons that they weren’t alone. “You could have the world in the palm of your hands; You still might drop it” he raps on ‘So It Goes‘, the last song of his recent album released on the 3 August, a month before his death. ‘Swimming‘; to many, felt more like a note from Mac than an album, it played as a final goodbye.
When a celebrity dies young their life, their work, their legacy is then packaged differently. Family, the press, the industry, the world’s perspective shifts from present to past and a nostalgic force selectively reflects on fragments of your life. Maybe we know him more now. Maybe we know him less. No matter how he is remembered, he was loved, and will always live on through his music.
“We talked about this. so many times. i’m so mad, i’m so sad i don’t know what to do. you were my dearest friend. for so long. above anything else. i’m so sorry i couldn’t fix or take your pain away. i really wanted to. the kindest, sweetest soul with demons he never deserved. i hope you’re okay now. rest.” – Ariana Grande
20-year-old XXXTentacion otherwise known as Jahseh Onfray was a popular American rapper who rose to fame in early 2017 for his production, song-writing and rapping capabilities and unique artistry. He quickly became a global success story, standing out amongst a sea of SoundCloud rappers, all associated with a very similar style.
Jahseh was tragically reported dead from gunshot wounds on the 18th of June 2018 in a shooting involving 2 armed men, who at a later date were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. His death sent shockwaves through the community and network of fans and artists; who took to social media to express their condolences. He appeared to inspire a lot of people, Kanye West, Joey Bada$$, YG to list a few. “This got me f*cked up. RIP X. Enormous talent and limitless potential and a strong desire to be a better person. God bless his family, friends, and fans,” J Cole told Twitter. X was steadily a rising star having just received critical acclaim in early January 2017 for his first hit ‘LOOK AT ME!’ Which debuted at 34 on the Billboard 100.
As an artist, XXXTentacion was unpredictable and fascinated by musical versatility; possessing the desire and talent to create music across multiple genres; making him easily one of the most creative artists on the scene last year. ‘LOOK AT ME!’ was a hype rap song that made the rounds in the club scene, radio, and charts. It set a precedent for what fans could expect from X, yet it seemed the young artist hated predictability. ‘Falling Down‘ for example, tagged as “rock” and “emo-pop”, is a surprising contradiction to an assumed hip hop identity. His track ‘Revenge’ was self-written and produced; dedicated to a friend and fan Jocelyn Flores. To me without any context, revenge plays as the audio experience of riding a horse over the horizon as the sun sets in the wild west. It was however written for X’s friend who had committed suicide earlier in 2017 on a visit to see him in Florida. In an acoustic rock melody distinct from any of his other songs, he examines the pain and hardship of grief and suffering, set to the backdrop of a simple guitar riff.
Young Jahseh grew up in Florida, USA and the first 10 years of his life was spent couch-surfing, being passed around to friends and babysitters until he moved in with his grandmother aged 10. “From what I can remember, I’ve never seen Jahseh living with [his mom],” recalled his half-sister Ariana Onfroy. He had hated school and found it difficult making friends. “Anything that took away the freedom of my mind, or made my thoughts conform, I found irrelevant,” he believed. “I felt like it would not benefit me at all nor has it”. It seemed institutions failed him throughout his life, and his childhood was a very lonely and isolated one. This, in turn, granted him an understanding and empathy for so many of his young fans.
“I love these kids, man. I know what it feels like to be alone. I know what it feels like to wake up somewhere you’re not supposed to be, to be around people you’re not supposed to be around”– X tells interviewer K.Foxx at 103.5 TheBeat.
There was and still is a lot of controversy surrounding the young rapper’s name and his rise to fame. A lot of the pain and suffering X experienced in his past he projected back into the world through a string of abusive behaviour. When his first big hit was climbing the charts, X was in prison, for charges of aggravated assault of a pregnant woman, home invasion and witness tampering to name a few.
The fact of the matter was; he was often a very violent person with extreme behavioural issues who had a rare talent for music. The same pain that he absorbed as a child, instead of manifesting it all in his violent behaviour, he had found another place to put it which was his music, “I found a way out” he believed. Just listen to the emotional depth to pieces like ‘Jocelyn Flores’ or ‘Everybody Dies in their Nightmares’; highlights from his album “?’ co-produced by A&R friend John Cunningham. They play like he is pouring his heart and soul out to a beat. Dealing with topics such as depression and heartbreak, they are two of his most painfully beautiful and famous songs.
XXXTentacion’s individual experience and hardship most definitely inspired the raw emotion and tortured truth in his compositions; which made his sound so attractive and relatable to his listeners. One did not exist without the other, and some might suggest his success was purely a product of his past. “The thing with X is, when he got into trouble, that’s what blew him up.” Friend and fellow rapper Denzel Curry said in an interview with HotNewHipHop. It is, however, important to note that this does not in any way excuse his behaviour or his crimes.
“Bad behaviour in the music industry is too often and too easily overlooked,” – Hanif Abdurraqib from Billboard.
And he’s not wrong- artists should be held just as accountable as anyone for their actions, especially when these actions are spotlighted in such a major way and are entwined with their success. But I do think it’s still possible, essential almost, to separate the art from the artist. As Mark Anthony Neal, an African American-American studies scholar at Duke University once put it, “Let the art stand for itself, and these men stand in judgment, and never the twain will meet.” X was a troubled kid with a lot of darkness and pain; most essentially he had a lot to learn. The most valuable outcome of this darkness to him was his music, and this is how we choose to remember him.
“If I’m going to die or ever be a sacrifice, I want to make sure that my life made at least five million kids happy, or they found some sort of answers or resolve in my life, regardless of the negatives around my name, regardless of the bad things people say about me.”– X on Instagram live stream
On the 20th of April 2018 Swedish EDM DJ Tim Bergling, professionally known as Tim Bergling was pronounced dead in Muscat Oman, from an apparent suicide.
Avicii had a colossal collection of achievements in his lifetime. As one of the biggest names in dance music, he was the first EDM DJ ever to successfully execute a worldwide area tour, playing over 800 different gigs internationally. He holds a mammoth 11 billion streams on Spotify with his top song receiving over 785 million streams. Avicii has worked with the likes of David Guetta, Madonna, Aloe Black, Rita Ora, Leona Lewis, Robbie Williams, Wyclef Jean. “When we’d been in the studio together I was like wow, okay this guy is very serious, he’s really really special”, imparts David Guetta on his first introduction to the young Swedish producer.
Tim had begun making beats aged 8 and continued it as a hobby until his late teens. At 16 he began posting his remixes to music forums; which is how he met his manager and friend Ash Pournouri, who helped him secure his first few gigs in small nightclubs around Sweden. Avicii was always a very shy and reserved person, yet it was visible that the boy was incredibly motivated and relentless from day dot when it came to his music.
“I remember not getting a demo a week but at least 5 every week” – Ash Pournouri
His close friends said in the early days when it was 1 am, they were tired and wanted to call it a night, Tim would simply say, “we should finish now. It is better to finish now, then we can do a new song tomorrow”. According to old friend Otto Knows, “he worked during the night, and then when he had to sleep he often walked up to his roof and slept in the sun”. In October 2011 when Tim was 21 years old his song ‘Levels‘ was released. Sampling Etta James’ “Something’s got a hold on me” it became his first industry triumph topping the charts in Sweden and America and making top 10 all over the world. (The UK, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland)
In 2012 he collaborated with superstar DJ David Guetta on the track ‘Sunshine’ which alongside ‘Levels‘ were nominated for Grammy Awards. “What will stay is the melody in the songs, and we both feel like this” Guetta told HuffPost live. Avicii held a similar sentiment, “I think it’s so important to keep the emotion and soul of house music” he said in a 2018 interview. Tim was so much more than a DJ or record producer, he was a true musician at his core.
“Similar to Michael Jackson. This is so important that the world understands this. The actual symphony now lives in his entire head. He’s doing this like Bach did what he did. I think there’s something we might be missing, the fact that we’re making a separation from DJs and musicians. Tim to me is a hardcore music theorist, and that’s what makes a great composer.” – Wyclef Jean
In 2013 Avicii headlined the ULTRA music festival in Miami and played “Wake Me Up” for the first time ever; a collaboration with musician Mike Einzinger and singer Aloe Blacc who lead the vocals. With a country folk feel and acoustic elements, it became an instant summer anthem, with currently an astonishing feat of 1.7 billion views on youtube.
In 2014 things took a heartbreaking turn for the worse. Avicii was hospitalised for pancreatitis, a crippling condition that affected his stomach and his back, making him unable to drink or eat anything and leaving him in constant excruciating pain. “Your stomach is hurting, when you’re moving it’s hurting, and the pain medicine made me feel shitty. To me, it felt like I was constantly in like a haze”. This was induced by the excessive alcohol intake that had occurred on tour. Before the next ULTRA show, his appendix and gall bladder both ruptured and he returned to hospital for an intense operation. He was put back on painkillers and started touring again, 3-4 times a week whilst also working on his new album.
“I just kind of went with all the punches that came along, because I was just so extremely lucky to be able to do what I’m doing.”
‘Stories’ was released in October 2015 when it was decided Tim would take an 8-month break to rest. His recovery in 2016 in terms of his mental health and personal care was definitely significant. He had turned to therapy and meditation to help ease his pain and suffering. He even coordinated a road trip with a close-net group of songwriter friends who set up outdoor make-shift studios in beautiful locations on the way.
But after his comeback show that year at ULTRA he could no longer go on, retiring shortly after.”I can’t see a way for me to do this and be happy about it”. I think that the industry was the main factor that triggered his downfall. Tim was a loving, kind and innocent man, always humble, aware and grateful for the opportunities that shaped his career. His music was always uplifting and full of optimism, his intention was to unite his audience through the positivity and spirit of his melodies. He gave so much of himself to his music, fans, and team that at the end of the day there wasn’t enough left, he was completely worn out. His team also seemed to be willfully ignorant of his mental problems which seemed to worsen his condition. “When I decided to stop I expected support in stopping.” He tells the camera in his documentary.
“Everyone knows that I’ve been anxious, that I’ve been trying. So I didn’t expect people to push me to do more shows when they’d seen how shitty I felt doing it.”
His bad physical health, medications, homesickness, insomnia, stress, anxiety, and the constant industry pressures he faced all built up until it got to the point where he could not bear it any longer, and what a loss this was for the world. A life lost, but definitely not a life wasted. “All he wanted was to make beautiful music,” mentor and DJ Laidback Luke told PEOPLE. His story is one of talent, heart and the relentless pursuit of musical perfection. A takeaway from his story is the importance of mental health especially in men, how easy and dangerous it is to overlook, and how fragile even the most glamorous lives can be.
“You were the best of this generation. A real superstar 🌟 I know you had your demons and maybe this wasn’t the right place for you sometimes, but we need to protect true artists like you at all costs because there are not enough left and we are losing too many .. be good Tim” – Diplo
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support call Samaritans suicide hotline 116 123 which is available 24/7 across the UK
The unequivocal Queen of Soul really needs no introduction. One of the greatest voices of all time left this earth on August 16, aged 76 due to an advanced form of pancreatic cancer.
In her lifetime Ms. Franklin won 18 Grammy awards and received 26 Grammy nominations. She won ‘Best female R&B vocal performance’ for 7 consecutive years. With more than 100 singles in the Billboard charts, she sold over 75 million records in her lifetime, with a sweeping list of hits from ‘Respect‘ to ‘Think‘ to ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ to ‘I say a little prayer‘. In 1987 she became the first woman ever to be inducted to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.
Aretha was born in Memphis USA to a father who was a pastor and a mother who was a gospel singer. She was heavily influenced by jazz, blues, soul and gospel, genres that were born from struggle and hardship out of the necessity to cope. That same strength, perseverance, and heart is what she embodied with her voice. Growing up there was always music in her household. Jazz pianist Art Tatum and the singer Dinah Washington frequently made visits, alongside gospel singers Clara Ward, Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland, who at a later date became Aretha’s mentors.
Her parents separated when she was 6 and she then moved in with her 3 siblings and her father, Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin in Buffalo until the family made the move to Detroit. This is when she started singing in the choir of her father’s church New Bethel Baptist Church; where she quickly was spotlighted as a prodigal soloist. Hear her rendition of ‘There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,’ that she sang there at 14 years old, with the same vocal range and fullness of a woman 5 times her age.
Young Aretha lost her mother to a heart attack aged 10. She continued to face turmoil in her teens and was met with a number of personal obstacles. In 1954 she became pregnant just before her 13th birthday, and with the support of her family dropped out of school to raise her child, not too long after then falling pregnant with her second. Despite having two children she continued to pursue her passion for singing and when she turned 14 signed her first record deal under the managerial wing of her father. She later went on to sign with Columbia records at 18 when she moved to New York to pursue a career in popular music, however, she was given all the wrong songs and direction; Columbia really seemed to struggle to understand Aretha’s musical identity. “It wasn’t really me”, she noted in her later autobiography.
She made a change in a label in 1966 to Atlantic Records which she made her home. From that point on throughout the 60’s and 70’s Franklin received her well-deserved critical acclaim with albums such as I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (1967), Lady Soul (1968), Spirit in the Dark (1970), Young, Gifted and Black (1972), Amazing Grace (1972), and Sparkle (1976). One of my personal favourites from this era is ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man’ a song promoting equality amongst the sexes. ‘A woman’s only human You should understand/ She’s not just a plaything/ She’s flesh and blood Just like her man’.
Ms. Franklin was a force of empowerment; which was almost as significant as her music. What she represented to many, was a voice for the black and female community and she quickly became an icon for both the civil rights and feminist movements of her time. Through her re-imagination of Otis Reading’s ‘Respect’ for instance, she flipped the male narrative on it’s head by re-claiming the female voice, not asking but demanding respect as a black woman; from her lover, men and society as a whole. As Michelle Obama so eloquently put it,
“Aretha helped define the American experience. In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade — our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.”
Aretha set the bar at a legendary height and is enduringly considered as the biggest inspiration for female vocalists across genres to this day; Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill, Mariah Carey, Kelly Clarkson, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Ariana Grande, and Whitney Houston all looked up to her as the pinnacle of vocal excellence. In the words of Mary J Blige, “Aretha is a gift from God. When it comes to expressing yourself through song, there is no one who can touch her. She is the reason why women want to sing.” Even male artists respected her talent, The Beatles’ Paul McCartney called her,
“The Queen of our souls, who inspired us all for many many years”.
Watch her absolutely extraordinary performance of ‘You Make Me Feel Like (A Natural Woman) in 2015 at The Kennedy Centre Honours for Barack and Michelle Obama. A breed of legend that was a blessing and an honour to witness in our lifetimes.
All 4 of these artists celebrated today differ so drastically in terms of their background, their musical journey, genre, audience even the cause of their deaths. They did, however, share one common unifying feature. They all had a lasting impact on their audience and gave us the most treasured gift possible- the resources to enjoy and remember the fruits of their bountiful lives for generations to come- through the eternal medium that is their music.