Cliché Subplots and Heroin Stat Bloat: Pharoahe Monch’s Broken Again

So I lay in bed with Bri last night to watch the Pharoahe Monch video entitled, “Broken Again”. Per the norm with Pharoahe’s work, my expectations where not only met, they were greatly superseded. The topic of the song, the visuals of the video, the metaphoric inclusion of elements within the overall piece gave it substance and artistic merit that help lend credence to the notion of hip hop as an art form.

 

In Pharoahe’s own words about the entirety of the album, he states,” It’s worded as a narrative, but this album is about me and my experiences. It chronicles my bout with depression and the time I was hospitalized from a severe asthma attack. They treated me with heavy dosages of Prednisone steroids and antibiotics intravenously. The side-effects wound up fucking me up! Anybody that knows those medications knows what I’m talking about. Things like a changing of sleeping habits, bloating and appetite increases. One time I was being released from the hospital, and they gave me a drug to wean me off of the drugs that I was already taking. Two weeks after I was released, I ran into issues like not being able to sleep, sadness and not wanting to be by myself. When I tried to tell people about my condition, I was met with responses like, ‘Have a beer or go smoke a blunt.’ I would tell them no, and further try to explain that I’m honestly going through issues.”

 

The video’s cinematic framing, cut scenes and cinematography are reminiscent of Hype Williams’ work of the latter portions of the last century. A gripping and dark soliloquy contrasted against a brilliant urban skyline, the visuals metaphorically conjoin the narrative of a human warring with addiction: a sordid love affair in a city– a world actually– full of beauty and warmth, yet cold and depressing .

 

The video starts with the shot from the camera hovering over the edge a bathroom sink slowly panning over scraps of red tape on the floor as the lens records the legs of Pharoahe tapping to the beat of the track. Pharoahe begins to sing the chorus of the song as the beat’s treble picks up:

 

 

Gotta move on

Gotta let go

Would’ve opened my eyes, if I would’ve known

After all of this time

Took my heart to mend

That I’d turn around, and be broken again

 

Although, hugely metaphoric in expression, his lines:

 

 

On the floor going through withdrawals I was itchin’

She rescued me, my heroine to the end

But then she morphed into heroin in a syringe

Around my bicep, I would tie a shoestring

Tap! five times to find a vein in there

 

As I have stated elsewhere, a lot of artists like to just share their works, but I enjoy the works of those that seem to enjoy sharing a moment with me. A relationship is nothing without its inner language, its inside jokes. And that is what culture gives a people through its art forms. I never seek to make my “favorites” into heroes or idols. I think that takes away from the craft. That’s what we do for the marketing. We sell you the illusion of pristine divinely touched products packaged in God’s toilet paper. But, art to me is really just a stimulating conversation with somebody through a piece that freezes time.

 

So, the difficulty I have with taking certain interpretive liberties here stems from my own storyline, as most conversations such as the one Pharoahe invites us to have with him will. Like much of life, addiction not only affects the substance abuser, but also those around us. For many US Black men caught in the rapture of this personal domestic self-inflicted violence, which often leads to a more interpersonal domestic violence, the only person that is available to aid are the women in our lives closest to us. As Pharoahe relates to us as his interpretation, he is battling with the scars that develop when one is in battle; real war, or the wars of everyday living. The post-traumatic stress that comes with attempting to live up to certain standards within the context of a White supremacist society can often only be rendered tolerable through the couch and psychiatric counseling of the Black Women that love us.

 

Due to the topics meshed here– the romantic savior as well as the overall strand of coping with depression, no matter how styled or with what literary device painted—I do not want miss the opportunity surface dwell while also entertaining the abstract notions the crop up. In other words, I don’t want to read too much into this, except when to do so might be entertaining as well as enlightening—OWL’s Asylum style of writing, yes? That being typed, once again, my reason for pulling so intensely on what could be seized upon as purely metaphoric—the heroin addiction—is due to, well, probably what most would define as, and the reason why Pharoahe uses heroin addiction as opposed to “prescription meds”: heroin is intense and it follows along the trajectory presented in an album entitled “PTSD”.

 

As the video progresses, we are thrust into the narrator’s memories. If I am following the trajectory of the metaphor and lyrics properly, Desiree Godsell plays both saint and demon, both the narrator’s “heroine” and “heroin” as the lyrics poetically describe it. While watching it, and musing over it, I thought for a second: since heroin in its more manufactured form is referred to as “chyna White” that the casting team and writers could have used a Chinese or White woman there. That probably would have introduced a number of other socio-political complications I am certain no one would have wanted to wrestle with in interviews (but I did have that thought). I also changed that reading once I saw Godsell’s very convincing interpretative dance against the large window overlooking the city skyline. I dubbed it, “intoxication dancing in his head”. I thought about it as those times when I sat in jail cells thinking about those I hurt and those I lost. The scenes with her dancing are spliced and mixed with a blurred transitions showing Pharoahe stumbling and blacking out, her slapping her hands together to wake him up, her arms wrapped around him, and in crescendo, we are cut to a scene with him wrapped in the red tape from the opening scene as he recites:

 

 

I’m relocated in Alabama now

That Maalox and Mylanta now

 

 

This is an allusion to withdraws, the stomach pains and bowel disruptions associated with going “cold turkey” in what I am interpreting as a rehabilitation center. Although, I remember most of the people that I know that “cold turkeyed” heroin having convulsions and extended vomiting, I can appreciate the need to keep a beat and the alliterative brevity lends to certain eloquence. The red tape works for me better than what I would assume was the alternative straitjacket here. Mainly for two reasons I can think of off the top: one, the association of the straitjacket is primarily for more psychiatric or psychological disturbances. Although chemical addiction is cited as a psychological allergy of sorts, I do think it would have been slightly cliché and mostly a less accurate depiction of a person attempting to “break up” with an addiction that physically constrains you through the withdrawal phase. Secondly, as noted, the symbolism had to lend itself to “breaking up”, and him breaking through and pulling away the tape from his person feels more attune with the overall process of recovering from chemical addiction. The scene puts me in the mindset that Pharoahe seems to be adjusting, and that there is not only this physical act of taking the tape off, but also an introspective processing going on that I do not believe would have been conveyed had they used a straitjacket(But, hey, what do OWL know, maybe red tape was just cheaper!).

 

 

I attempt to make a distinction between critique and analysis. Critique ought to be a conversation of a piece mainly constricted to the techniques of the craft and a placing of the piece along the trajectory of the body of works produced within that craft. Analysis ought to be a reflection of how that piece might impact or have been impacted by the culture and overall society whereby the piece was crafted. Where my critique and analysis converge is on the discussion of artists and addiction, with this being a musical composition and easily placed in the craft of performance poetry, I am specifically discussing heroin. I immediately am reminded of the lives of Miles Davis and Gil Scott Heron when I begin to sit down to critique and analyze this.

 

My own introduction to heroin was from a young man(we both were in our mid-teens) who had as belief that heroin made him a better business man. I do recall an interview with Paul Mooney who was a close friend of the comedic legend, Richard Pryor, somewhat comparing drug addiction to making a deal with the devil. The US ideal of creativity in the performing arts at the point of success is often summed up in the phrase, “Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll”. In the satirical HBO show pertaining to the rise of a budding technology company, “Silicon Valley”, the “CEO” of a tech start-up incubator is shown using psychotropic drugs to develop ideas. It is a crass allusion to the worship of Steve Jobs– one of USA’s most highly celebrated and successful drug abusers.

 

In the song’s most convincing proof Pharoahe’s verbal dexterity, he expresses:

Squeeze 7cc’s so I could see the seven seas

And CC all my friends so they could see what I was seeing

But what they saw was a despicable human being

So, I guess they just wasn’t seeing what I was seeing

Convert two into one and an invisible plan

To discover what dreams may come for this invisible man

Sentimental education, beautiful weather

Dam was constantly catching fire

Richard Pryor

Her skin deteriorated

Family infuriated by the myriad of tracks but my train never came

So humiliated, started begging for change

Failed rehabilitation so the scars still remain

Nice clothes became frayed

So isolated and afraid

I smell like an animal my teeth enamel decayed…

 

It is within these lines–a well worded attempt to convey the visceral emotions associated with social and class alienation due to addiction–where I begin to have trouble with the narrative. As I have hinted at in the above paragraphs: there is a myth accompanying the media presentation of substance abuse. Whether that myth is one of heighten creative ability, or a lack of financial discipline leading to a lifestyle that reflects one’s personal dysfunction, these myths persist and pervade even the writing of the more thoughtful artists among us. No matter how adroitly presented here is the story of a man that uses heroin, wants to present his view point of the world to friends, offends his romantic interest’s family, turns to begging in public while his financial stability wanes to the point where his “nice clothes” grow old and unkempt along with is hygiene. And although this is a song and discussion of redemption, which OWL of all people will readily accept and utilize as part of my theme music, it is also cliché. Unfortunately, it is that blood tinted regurgitation full of the need for the darker variations of James Baldwin’s sentimentality that gives the song its social responsibility, which is also what makes it authentic to me. Despite Pharoahe using experiences from asthma medication induced depression to fuel a narrative driven by the introspections of a heroin addict sans what seems to be any experience with heroin addiction in closer quarters, the narrative remains a morality piece. It is Tyler Perry’s cautionary tale only over a great track and much more eloquent word interactions.

 

As a recovering addict and alcoholic, I find it a dangerous notion to presume chemicals of this nature are some sort of cheat code to be transformed into a brilliant artist. However, it is difficult to argue with many that this is the case given the number of brilliant and more compelling, successful visionaries that developed their works while intoxicated or under the influence. I think it is a fair formula to use the symbol of the heroin addict to promote its often concomitant destruction, no matter how trite the imagery utilized. In essence, we have seen this before, but maybe we ought to be seeing it again, especially in modern Hip Hop’s overly intoxicant absorbed lyrical content.

 

As an analyst, it would be an oversight to overlook trends in certain substance usage. It would also be shortsighted to forget to mention the overkill in the media regarding use of chemicals such as crack cocaine in the 1980s, which does taint any media promoted campaign of awareness-raising as it pertains to drug usage in the 2010s. From a piece on the US Government’s drug abuse website called, “What is the scope of heroin use in the United States?”, I quote, “According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health(NSDUH), in 2012 about 669,000 Americans reported using heroin in the past year, a number that has been on the rise since 2007. This trend appears to be driven largely by young adults aged 18-25 among whom there have been the greatest increases. The number of people using heroin for the first time is unacceptably high, with 156,000 people starting heroin use in 2012, nearly double the number of people in 2006(90,000).”

 

A few recently published articles in more mainstream mediums have also discussed the rise of heroin usage, and maybe I should use quotes there. Jacob Sullum, who is billed as a contributor on the Forbes’ site with a bio-line that reads, “I cover the war on drugs from a conscientious objector’s perspective” states in an opinion piece published in March of 2014, entitled, “How Many Daily Heroin Users Are There In The U.S.? Somewhere Between 60,000 And 1 Million. Maybe.” :

“According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health(NUSDH), about 620,000 Americans used heroin in 2010. But according to a new report commissioned by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, something like 1.5 million Americans were “chronic heroin users” that year. That group includes anyone who has consumed heroin on four or more days in the previous month.”

 

Our friend, the “conscientious objector” of the war on drugs, here is referring to a blog post on the White House website that relates a report on the topic of money spent by US citizens for drug usage. That post links to a study(I might need quotes there as well) conducted by the Office of National Drug Control Policy that I am linking here. It is a 124 page pdf entitled, “What America’s Users Spend On Illegal Drugs: 2000-2010”, because of course, where your money goes is much more important here. Not quite sure why the White House finds it necessary to contradict numbers in the blog post with information gleaned from 2010 studies, where the NUSDH is utilizing statistics gleaned from surveys compiled in 2012. But alas, numbers will often lie.

 

There is also a piece on Time’s site written by Eliza Gray dubbed, “Heroin Gains Popularity As Cheap Doses Flood The U.S.” where the statistic garnered by yet another agency led the journalist to type:

“Heroin use has been rising since 2007, growing from 373,000 yearly users to 669,000 in 2012, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Heroin overdose deaths have also spiked, increasing 45% from 2006 to 2010, according to the most recently available data from the Drug Enforcement Administration. And the geography of the drug’s users has also expanded. Once considered a largely urban problem, law enforcement and public health officials are seeing an uptick in suburban and rural users.”

 

As a necessary stipulation on my analysis, not matter how thoroughly presented, I also cannot overlook the racially and ethnically motivated codification of drug laws in the United States of America. Opium consumption was not only forced on the Chinese by Britain, but it led to a war, and the consumption of opium only became illegal in states and in conditions that allowed for discrimination against the Chinese in the United States. The same with marijuana for the Mexicans here as well as cocaine, and the use of crack to disproportionately attack US Blacks is well documented. To touch on these in a more comprehensive fashion is obviously (I would hope) out of the scope of this particular piece, yet I do find it needs to be mentioned.

 

Although the numbers might either be lying, or framed for the purposes of media propaganda, the National Institute on Drug Abuse documents that heroin usage among eight grades, tenth graders, and twelfth graders is fairly steady at one percent of lifetime usage of those surveyed across all three categories in 2013. With a fluctuation of .10 percent since 2012. Of course, that statistic almost doubles across lifetime usage once we note the responses from those surveyed in age groups 18 to 25 and above. However, once again, where numbers might be lying, I do find it necessary to lean on more anecdotal thoughts for guidance here.

 

Gil Scott’s own discussion of heroin (or possibly even cocaine) addiction, “Home Is Where The Hatred Is”, drives home(of course the pun was intended) a much more personal anecdote of substance abuse with a more original media fingerprint. Due to the contemporary nature of Hip Hop, I also feel it necessary to mention New Jersey Hip Hop artist, Joe Budden. Although Joey has subtly touched on his addictions on several of his works, the two that come to mind do not satisfy my need for a piece directly dedicated to the topic, but they bear the tone completely. Those two tracks would be “Black Cloud” where he discusses recovery and “Downfall” where he discusses the thought processes of why he possibly uses. Although, I do feel that because Pharoahe is borrowing sentiments from his experiences that are much different than the ones he writes about, and thus create a narrative that lacks a unique fingerprint beyond technique and style, I do feel time and genre afford him a place within the context of the Budden’s and Scott’s. Ultimately, I do not think the narrative, the story told, lacks value due to it not being a personal account, but I do wish it had been. Is that mean?