The best music… is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with. tweet
– Bruce Springsteen tweet
There is only one black church left in the neighborhood where I grew up. When I hear about the “decline of the American church,” I think not of what this means for Sunday mornings, but of what it means for Sunday afternoons. Particularly summer Sundays—those that tend to stretch their legs long into a hot night on porches in areas like my neighborhood. Places where (mostly black) poor families live pressed against the edges of a city that wants them gone. And yet, the Sunday afternoon was still a sacred thing, when I was growing up. A place where everyone had enough to be fed, even if they didn’t truly have enough to be fed.
I think of Sunday afternoons as someone’s father putting on a soul record. And then another. And then another. Maybe some funk, or a little jazz. But it would always come back to soul, maybe a little taste of late R&B, but not TOO late. You go to Redding for the pleading, Cooke for the praying, Marvin for the pleasure, and Aretha for everything else. It is almost an initiation, learning how to most effectively give language to our desires, our deepest loves. Turning your face away from whatever sadness the world has placed at your front door, taking off your shoes, and sliding across somebody’s mama’s wood floor. The right love song is the truest equalizer. There is a type of surrender in it. To grow up in a climate of violence and fear is to find a very particular joy in watching the perfect love song disarm even the hardest of your peers. I have always been of the belief that the most major function of prayer in our society was to allow for the idea of building vulnerability in the people who have the least reason to be vulnerable. We feel some odd relief when the gangsters in films walk into church, holding their aging mothers. Even if we know that there is blood on the palms of someone, we feel relief when those same palms are turned towards the sky, giving in to something larger than themselves.
And so, yes. When I hear about the decline of the American church, I think about Sunday afternoons. I think about love songs. I think about boys getting nothing to face a hard world with. No understanding of what it is to surrender yourself to whatever you love enough to name a God.
You don’t really gotta rap no more; you can just say the verse with a swag now. – Fetty Wap tweet
At the time of this writing, “Trap Queen” is the #2 song in America. To have the #2 song in America is to hit pretty much every demographic. It means that your lyrics become captions on Instagram. It means that when your song comes on at the house party, conversations stop. It means that parents in the suburbs take the long way to pick up their young kids from school, hoping to get a dose of your song on the radio before they have to turn to more family-friendly listening. It means that people tell their friends that they don’t like your song to sound cool, before listening to it in their headphones on the way home. In the hood, it means sweat-kissed black skin presses into more sweat-kissed black skin, ignoring the heat. It means everyone knows every word.
When I say that “Trap Queen” is a love song, I say it understanding that Fetty Wap isn’t Cooke, Aretha, Marvin, or Redding. His vocals are inviting, but unclean and uneven. He’s not a particularly great rapper, so the verse worked into the middle of the song is clumsy and a slight momentum-killer. It is perhaps flawed in execution, but we’re all lying to ourselves if we’re imagining that the immense appeal of the song is rooted in its cleanliness. The staple of the Ultimate American Love Song has always been “This is what I have. This is all I can give. And I’d rather share it with you than celebrate it alone.”
And does this song not do that better than any we’ve heard spread this far across radio? Does Fetty Wap not invite his beloved into the spaces he claims to be most sacred? (I’ve had to explain what a “’Bando” is to many people in many discussions of this song. At this point, I will politely ask the uninformed to Google it.) The romance here is so overwhelming that much of America has turned a blind eye to the fact that the entire theme of this anthem is rooted in the creation and distribution of illegal drugs. But that’s just it, isn’t it? That is the sole thing that makes it great. That it is such a gratifying story of romance and desire, some of us ignore the means by which it arrives, and the rest of us, knowing those means all too well, revel in the song BECAUSE of that. It is universal in that way. Yes to the mall! Yes to dodging haters! Yes to riding around with your beloved! Yes to the mutual support of each other’s passions!
I don’t know that there has ever been a more unrelatable song that so many people have related to. Surely many of us singing along to this anthem have never shared an afternoon counting up 50 or 60 grand with our loving partner after distributing 500 grams of narcotics. But, this idea of rejoicing in shared success is touchable, to all of us. Every existing male narrative in whatever is left in the ruins of modern R&B is all about the lone man, and what he covets. Everyone wants to steal your girl, though only for a night, or perhaps a weekend. While I celebrate and encourage any and all consensual intimacy, it has been a long while since we’ve seen a hit this massive by a man, approaching the side of simply living life with someone you love. It was a forgotten art, expressing the normalcy of romance rooted in something other than desires running wild.
And even with all of its popularity, “Trap Queen” remains true to the ethos of the Ultimate American Love Song, doesn’t it? It is unafraid to consider the future (“we just set a goal / talkin’ matching Lambos”), it is unashamed in its repetitive nature, the first verse being the exact same as the last; not out of lazy songwriting, but much like R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” it exists as a reminder: Don’t forget that I made this for you. It is a love song for an era that watched their parents put their records away, and watched the needles collect dust. It is finally something that can make a summer feel like summer in every corner of a fractured country. “Trap Queen” has committed itself to the ultimate immortality in the time of dismissing all things popular, which is also undeniably brave. Though likely created for a sole muse, the Ultimate American Love Song knows that to truly resonate, it has to sacrifice itself at the altar of the people. The teenage girls in the mall, the packed dorm hall, the space in a bed between two bodies afraid to touch, and the ghetto. Of course, the ghetto. The porch and the boys upon it, watching their big brothers dance in the streets, the word amen forming in their tiny mouths for the first time.
The real question is what to live for. And I can’t answer it. Except another one of your records. And another chance for me to write. Art for art’s sake, corny as that sounds. – Lester Bangs tweet