I cry often, but it still does not feel like enough. Bottling up too much emotional energy is draining on the mental, and I try not to give my brain disorders any extra firepower. Depression, anxiety, and mood swings are unpredictable, choosing to strike at any moment. I do not live in fear of them exactly, but I am wary of putting myself in situations where I am most susceptible to their occurrences. This is not for my benefit, but mostly for the people around me. As anyone with mental health issues knows, it can often feel as if you are a burden. That is why I not only need to cry, but I like to. It reminds me that I am not just going through the motions on the way to a future breakdown. It brings me into the present moment and reminds me of the temporariness of everything.
I envy those who can turn these dark feelings into something palpable, relatable, and even joyous. Young upstart MIKE, Brooklyn by way of London by way of the Bronx by way of the real, is prolific in this regard. With four lengthy mixtapes released on his Bandcamp in the last 13 months, MIKE presumptionally lives in the studio when he’s not catching DIY shows sprinkled across the NYC underground scene. His latest release tears of joy continues his hot streak of reflective, emotive, and powerfully poetic projects.
tears of joy is mostly self-produced, with a sprinkle of help from friends like Adé Hakim and Sporting Life. This latest project feels more personal than anything before it, which is saying a lot for a man who throws listening parties where friends and guests are able to literally surround him and see him reading live from his rhymebook. Both personally and artistically, MIKE has been going through a lot — and it shows. Earlier this year, he opened for some dates on Earl Sweatshirt’s “FIRE IT UP! Tour,” supporting Earl’s Some Rap Songs LP and bringing his work to a far wider audience. Shortly after this, his mother passed away. MIKE has gone on record discussing her influence on his life, even using her phrase “May God bless your hustle” to title his 2017 break-out project.
Despite the tragedy, MIKE is persevering as best that he can. He hits the ground running strong on album opener “Scarred Lungs, Vol. 1 & 2”, a two-part song with a beautiful beat switch. Musing that he, “wonder what my moms on” and “sitting with my head in my hands, hold it in,” MIKE is already deep in his bag, but never in a corny or look-at-me way. Balance is key throughout the album, much like in life. MIKE is sad and struggling with emotions, but he still sounds hopeful. For every lament such as, “Looking through obituaries with your name in it”, there is a joyous reminder that, “Everybody got a purpose, make your message worth.”
MIKE is a lyricist through and through and art is his therapy. He may be influenced by (and also influencing) his friend Earl, but his constant output of work suggests he views the medium of music in a different way than the Odd Future legend. Though MIKE and Earl both have a reserved demeanor, MIKE already has more individual projects than Earl in a much shorter time span demonstrating that his constant and consistent releases may be doing something positive for him emotionally. The up-tempo “Goin’ Truuu” finds MIKE flexing easily about his hardships and come-up with a cocky twist to which any headcase struggling to find footing in their respective passion can relate. When MIKE raps, “I couldn’t write about much ’cause it hurt mind” on “Memorial,” it makes me wonder what he thinks writing a lot is, considering he has dropped many projects throughout his short career. MIKE being more open and direct than most rappers found on the Billboard 100 would ever dare to be only adds to his artistic integrity. MIKE’s art is his vulnerability and it’s been a blessing to watch it unfold in real time as he matures from young adult into a soon-to-be veteran of the game.
On the Hakim produced “Planet,” MIKE admits, “gotta give it to above” as this higher power, “gave me everything I want, tryna give it back.” MIKE’s ability to find a balance between confidence and humility make his music appealing. He comes off as an everyday man, almost as if anyone could pick up a microphone and vent their inner thoughts. Sadly, many rappers believe this it all it takes. Despite the DIY recording and less than polished mix, MIKE is certainly working harder than anyone can give him credit for. His talents are innate, but his dedication cannot be taught. MIKE, in an era of constant streaming and endless musical drops that all sound the same, is able to make every project feel fresh and new.
Lines like, “it’s a lot, I drop it in my music” and “Demons in the dark, leave ’em in the pen,” dictate just how necessary these releases are to keep MIKE level-headed and focused. In the past, he has been vocal about depression. Now, it appears he is working to write about a new outright positive mentality. When he spits “forever on vacation, on vacation,” an image of relaxation and contemplation is set. He’s not exactly care free, but he’s relaxed. Even when the emotions are riding high in his lyrics, beat tempos, and voice urgency, MIKE’s attention to detail is critical to his work, offering more than just a snapshot into his life. This release feels like a photo collection of his emotional spectrum.
Death is a natural part of life, but the loss of a parent is something no one can prepare for. While he could have turned inwards, MIKE appears to be somewhat more at ease in the booth rapping, “Pray for my mother, at peace / Peace, peace, peace, peace” signaling his understanding of the ups and downs, the pleasure and pain, the joy and despair of life. It’s in that balance once again that we find MIKE exuding the maturity and reflection that makes him a standout voice among up and coming rappers. He clearly remembers the lessons his mother imparted upon him, from the very personal, “before you died you said repair them bridges with pops” to the more light hearted, “Mama told me stress ain’t a thing”. While tears of joy could have been a dark and tormented release, MIKE finds ways to honor his mother while also showing the pain and loneliness he is feeling with her again.
Despite the overall positive vibe from MIKE’s jovial lyrics and smooth as butter soul production, I can tell he is still going through it. When MIKE raps “Your body in the dirt, my sky turned into ceilings,” one can imagine him holed up inside, avoiding social interactions. While other rappers may turn to drugs and hedonistic behavior, MIKE was most likely writing from the void in his heart left by his departed mother. It’s sincere, believable, and healthy. Like Blood Orange and Solange, MIKE is doing his part, albeit in a more relaxed manner, to de-stigmatize the idea of mental health awareness in the black community.
As someone who has been consistently in therapy for 2 years and a few years older than MIKE, it is refreshing to see an artist from the same city as me speak openly about his issues, how he overcomes them, and how he keeps moving through the thick of it. Relatable artists such as MIKE can help us find the courage and passion to keep ourselves going, especially when feeling unseen by the majority of pop culture. The idea that boys don’t cry has long been challenged, from the 1979 The Cure song or the Frank Ocean Blonde era magazine, but I still hear teenagers spout toxically masculine sentiments about being a girl for crying.
Tears, like any other biological act from urinating to cumming, are a release. The body would not shed tears if they were not necessary. With few exceptions, our biology is often working to heal and regulate the symptoms within, including the emotional spectrum found in our brain. tears of joy works not only as a piece of therapy, but an act of defiance. In our community, where crying may be seen as a weakness, MIKE feels more empowered than ever to reveal what is going on his head, how he plans to overcome, and how he will make it by any means necessary.
As MIKE repeats, “We clearly won, we cleary won” on “Ain’t No Love”, it’s hard not to smile through the pain that is this record. The 42-minute tears of joy finds plenty moments of sadness, redemption, and aspiration. It’s not a question of when MIKE will get where he’s headed, but rather how far will he go as he continues to push his beat-making and lyricism to becoming not only a consummate hip-hop artist, but the very best NYC, the mecca of rap, can offer.