If you have not yet lost a parent, Tears of Joy may seem alien, something to approach not with familiarity, but with fear.
How does one bear the ever-present fact of death? Mostly, one doesn’t. It is only in forgetting that every person one loves (not to mention oneself) is going to die that one can wake up, make coffee, go to work etc. But then, death comes along and it takes. For some people, this taking starts early. For others, it descends later. What is sure is that, once it begins taking, it does not stop until it has taken you. Still, despite its expected coming, death knocks us flat. The best most of us can hope for is merely to survive this blow. Thankfully, there are those among us who do more than survive, they manage to make something meaningful from the empty fact of death. MIKE’s Tears of Joy is such a work.
Written and recorded in the wake of his mother’s death, Tears of Joy is both a deepening and a furtherance of MIKE’s dark, vaporous and word-drunk style. On “Scarred Lungs Vol. 1 & 2,” he encapsulates his loss in the opening couplet: “The feeling when you got robbed/ Somebody playing with my mind I hope it’s not God.” The early songs on the album all revolve around the unreality of life in the wake of loss. At one point, MIKE asks of his own lyrics “Who wrote this?”
In the midst of this heightened vulnerability, MIKE tries to find bravery in bravado – “Can’t lie, you probably know me ‘cuz I take crowns” he raps on “Take Crowns” – but recognizes that bearing his pain for the listener is more honest, and ultimately, more brave, confessing “all I felt was pain” on the same track. The record does not indulge only in pain, though. The one-two punch of “It’s Like Basketball” and “Ain’t No Love” arrives midway through to steer the listener back toward the light.
The production, by MIKE under his pseudonym DJ Blackpower, and collaborators like Navy Blue, owes equal debts to Kanye and vaporwave. Vocal loops, slowed-down soul and gospel samples all make appearances. Harnessed in the service of MIKE’s sound, these sometimes-stale moves are given new life – his words wrap around them and fill in gaps formed by the loops, while still knowing when to let a good hook ride.
The gospel sample on “Ain’t No Love” provides such a hook. From a song of the same name by New Heavenly Wonders, it is one of many overt references to MIKE’s struggle with his family’s religiosity. On tracks like “Big Smoke” – “Mama told me say grace” – and, especially, “True Blood,” this tension is heightened by the loss of his mother. That track has MIKE confessing he and his sister used to get along, “but now she too religious.” By the end of the track, MIKE is left asking “why we in church just because we sinning?” Then, he grounds this theological question in lived reality, saying of his mother: “Your body in the dirt/ My sky turned into ceilings.”
MIKE’s mother appears on the cover of his 2017 tape MAY GOD BLESS YOUR HUSTLE – one of the best rap releases of the decade – crossing a bridge, looking down. In interviews, he has said that the title of that mixtape came from his mother. He conjures her presence even more powerfully on closer “Stargazer Pt. 3.” Just as MIKE’s world begins to close in, the ceiling is shattered. “My mama grave should say ‘Go ahead’,” he raps – and then he gives the mic over, as it were, to his mother’s ghost. In a recording of her voice (from where? from when?), she offers a blessing – “God bless our household and God bless our hustle” – an assurance – “Ever I shall not die . . . I will be there to see everything” – and one of the most profound statements of love ever committed to speech. She says, in a voice full of tender resolve: “The love that I have for you . . . It’s very, very uncurable.”
The album Tears of Joy most recalls is not one of MIKE’s previous works, or another rap album at all: Sufjan Stevens’ quiet and heartbreaking Carrie & Lowell. Stevens, like MIKE, is left to wade through the wreck of maternal loss and turn it into something meaningful. Shifting fluidly between memory and the present, both works grapple with what it means to love someone, to lose them and to make art out of their legacy.
If you have not yet lost a parent, Tears of Joy may seem alien, something to approach not with familiarity, but with fear. Because the album is a prophecy. Someday everyone will experience this loss. Yet MIKE finds hope. He does the incredible work of turning his loss into this beautiful, woozy mixtape of grief and ecstasy. In the process, he passes on to his listener the hope that we can do more than merely survive such losses, that death, as uncurable as it may be, is no match for uncurable love.