Bbymutha's 'Muthaland' Is Teaching Me That Status Isn't Everything
NPR Music's Turning the Tables is a project envisioned to challenge sexist and exclusionary conversations about musical greatness. Up until now we have focused on overturning conventional, patriarchal best-of lists and histories of popular music. But this time, it's personal. For 2021, we're digging into our own relationships to the records we love, asking: How do we know as listeners when a piece of music is important to us? How do we break free of institutional pressures on our taste while still taking the lessons of history into account? What does it mean to make a truly personal canon? The essays in this series will excavate our unique relationships with the albums we love, from unimpeachable classics by major stars to subcultural gamechangers and personal revelations. Because the way that certain music comes to hold a central place in our lives isn't just a reflection of how we develop our taste, but how we come to our perspective on the world.
In April, two days after my partner received their second COVID-19 vaccination dose, a friend texted us an invite to celebrate his birthday at a bar. "I'm not sure," I said, citing CDC guidelines to wait at least two weeks before socializing. But I had another idea. While some dreamed of nail salon appointments as a return to normalcy, and others fled to Airbnbs in the outskirts, I suggested doing shrooms once again with the crew, three Geminis and the Taurus on the phone.
Our first time together had been in 2019, which we treated as a rite of passage, playing Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city (an epic, if not prestige update to the typical soundtrack) as our visions started to blur. More than anything, I noticed how the psychedelic effects silenced the ticking urgency that I feel on a daily basis to make productive use of my time. Such urgency became too much to bear last year: With the world still in a pandemic holding pattern, I was also eyeing my 35th birthday in June, and I didn't feel any closer to answering persistent questions from family — over where my career was headed, or whether I'd have kids, and if so when — than I was ten years ago. Naturally, I didn't tell my friend this.
While I of course craved pre-pandemic normalcy, or perhaps a time where my age didn't feel nearly as consequential, I was also inspired by Muthaland, the 2020 debut album by Chattanooga, Tenn., rapper bbymutha. Muthaland is helping me extricate myself from this pressure to meet everyone else's expectations. The album begins by promising a good time; in the opening skit, a game show contestant swallows an acid tab to enter bbymutha's world. This realm of her imagination ends up being a tangle of emotions and thoughts, where not one single factor — not her career, or single motherhood — completely defines who she is.
I first heard of bbymutha in 2016, not long before artists like art rocker Björk embraced her. Even in this crowded music landscape, it's hard to forget an artist who names her debut EP after a coveted makeup palette, or whose moniker is meant to be a badge of honor after having had two sets of twins by her mid-20s. Early singles like "Rules" and "Roses" were bleary-eyed relationship talk that can make women nod solemnly in agreement ("I can't waste my waist, my thighs, my time and all my energy / tryna keep a n**** who not just for me"). The ambitious concepts she had in mind for her debut album also sounded promising. Her first idea, Prosperity Gospel, resulted from a love-hate relationship she had with televangelist pastor Joel Osteen ("He can sell any f****** thing and y'all will just spend your money," she once said). Later, she said she planned to call the album Christine; it would be inspired by a relative who killed the men who either cheated on or abused her.
Yet I wouldn't truly connect with bbymutha until we were both at the peaks of our frustration with our careers. In July 2020, Atlanta's NPR affiliate WABE dropped Bottom of the Map, a Southern hip-hop podcast that I co-host, right as overall podcast listenership started rebounding to pre-pandemic levels. And by the time Muthaland arrived last August, bbymutha was disenchanted with the music industry altogether. "After this album I'm never doing this s*** again," she said. This rap retirement announcement ended up being premature, though at the time, listeners mourned the lost potential. In Muthaland's most indulgent rap fantasies, long after that tab gets swallowed, bbymutha is a next-gen La Chat with Gucci Mane-inspired wordplay, a rare woman who navigates the trap and commands sex from across the gender spectrum. But bbymutha also insists in "Holographic" that this trip is a "rave with the roaches" skittering around her home. At the height of her musical genius, she could still spot where she falls short.
As the oldest of my cousins, I'd oriented most of my life back in Maryland around achievement and success, setting a good example. This has felt tougher the older I've gotten, having graduated during the 2008 recession, been laid off from my first and only 9-to-5 shortly thereafter and moved to Atlanta to pursue a culture journalism career that seemed frivolous or self-indulgent before "essential workers" became part of our lexicon. ("My mom really fled the Vietnam War when she was 16 so I could watch My Block: Atlanta for work, I ain't s***," I once joked.) I blamed my lack of hustle for this fear of failure that only intensified over the years. And before Muthaland, I sought out music that helped me either wrestle with or push through those feelings. Open Mike Eagle's Dark Comedy soundtracked my uneasy entry into the gig economy after college. I still turn to trap anthems like Jeezy's Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 or Doughboyz Cashout's "Started as a Worker" for a momentary boost.
In spring 2019, I learned that this persistent worrying and ensuing fatigue had a name: generalized anxiety disorder. (I've kept this a secret from my family; my uncle once said that Asians are "too proud to go to therapy," as stats emerging after the Atlanta-area spa shootings would show.) As I tracked my sleep and panic attacks in one notebook after another, I learned that perfectionism — my once-default answer for job interviews, to "What is your greatest weakness?" — shouldn't actually be seen in a positive light at all. Yet, my mom's way of asking "How are you?" remains "Have you been busy?" and "Are you making money?" And I still reply "yes" every time. It's taken me nearly all of these past two years to accept that self-awareness is still progress.
Last December, my therapist gave me an exercise that I still use today. In a moment of distress, I write down the first negative thought that comes to mind ("I always make the wrong decisions," "my career is regressing," "Christmas is ruined"). Then I write through a reality check, as if interviewing myself: Are these thoughts all true? Or is there proof that this situation isn't as dire as I feared?
I recognize this train of thought in Muthaland. Songs like "Roaches Don't Die" become anthemic because when bbymutha does brag and boast, it's between lyrics like "You don't f*** with hoes who get government stamps and WIC, huh?" Only after she looks in the mirror and longs for the confident woman she once was ("I miss that b**** sometime") does she land on "Heavy Metal"'s moving personal statement. "They see the truth when they look at me / they see they aunts and they mama and granny, G," she raps. "They see a mirror, it don't get no clearer / I'm everything b****** is scared to be." At the end of "Scam Likely," bbymutha mocks the pseudo-woke, Drag Race-savvy listener who insist on deeming her a role model ("And she just makes me feel so f****** empowered — and I oop"). I get her logic: Role models seem impenetrable. bbymutha's songs play out as if she's rebuilding her confidence in real time.
During my last appointment, my therapist asked that I work on my own definition and measures of success. I still don't have concrete answers that translate to tidy life goals, though perhaps that is an answer in itself. Muthaland is teaching me to ease off expectations that might read as admirable but ultimately prove to be unsustainable. Its themes confirm how I felt after my first 2019 trip, which is that scientists should keep revisiting the psychological properties of hallucinogens after decades of government-imposed stigma. bbymutha's lyrics demonstrate how motherhood, as fulfilling as it will be, cannot substitute for a sense of self. Neither will career ambitions, for that matter: Muthaland's most overt nod to a rap pantheon of any sort, is "Outro (Skit 5)." The game show host thanks "sponsors" Boosie, Webbie, and Diamond and Princess from Crime Mob — and then in 19 seconds, it's over. Muthaland is otherwise completely insulated from discussions about rap's Mount Rushmore, how sales and clout supposedly factor into greatness. With how its soul-searching gradually unfolds during its hour runtime, the album is teaching me that status isn't everything, but time is.
In the flurry of overeager social activity between getting vaccinated and bracing ourselves for the delta variant, here's what I'll remember the most:
The post-vaccination trip that finally happened one Sunday in May. The effects wore off by 6 p.m., though the tarot reading my partner gave our friend, the other Gemini, didn't wrap until close to midnight.
The first time I heard bbymutha's "GoGo Yubari," a bracing indictment against her baby daddy and the nature of how she became a baby mama: "Another predatory story, another self esteem destroyed." Bbymutha released this in June, as one of several loosies and EPs from the year since Muthaland. (Thank goodness she didn't actually retire.)
Finally, a passing comment from a friend ahead of her 35th birthday this month. The keyword was "milestones," squaring what we'd already achieved with this weighted expectation suggesting that all of this wasn't enough. "I'm always here to talk about it," I said, and I meant it. After the past year of bbymutha acting as a stand-in confidant, I'm done living in private shame, or in shame at all.
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