An Unfinished Letter
Back cover of EALL.
After putting in steady work for years out of East Atlanta, often with the likes of Spillage Village and other underground ATL rappers, 6lack (pronounced “black”) burst onto the national scene with his Grammy-nominated album Free 6lack in 2016. Tracks off this debut album like “PRBLMS” and “Ex Calling” blew up, each now having been streamed hundreds of millions of times. When 6lack announced his second studio album in August, dubbed East Atlanta Love Letter, it immediately became one of my most highly anticipated projects of 2018.
East Atlanta Love Letter is great – incredible, really. The title track, featuring Future, is a gripping exploration of love and violence in Atlanta’s notorious Zone 6. No stranger to poverty and the projects, he delivers his words with a weight of sincerity. Another great track, “Pretty Little Fears” with J. Cole, extolls the subtle beauty of vulnerability in the context of a relationship. Indeed, relationships and women comprise a common thread throughout the album, with references to his daughter, his love interests, and a lot of women who think he “owe them somethin’.” Some of 6lack’s lyrics might come off as a bit vague, corny, and underdeveloped at times, but for the most part, he approaches these heavy concepts with impressive sensitivity, justified by his understated yet poignant tone. Not to mention, his voice is just... beautiful.
6lack’s words take on a whole new world of meaning when we consider who this album is really about: yes, it is 6lack’s story, but he directs his words towards his daughter. The front cover depicts 6lack in the recording process with his daughter strapped to his chest, while the back cover shows her sifting through some records while he watches over her. In some capacity, this album is an ode to her. It seems that, to him, she is proof that beauty can be found within a dark, often painful world. 6lack put it best when speaking to The Guardian: “I love music to the death of me, but music can never smile at me the way she smiles at me.” This music feels like a deep conversation, or perhaps a smile being passed between father and daughter.
Be that as it may, something seemed off when I listened through the album for the first time. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was – even after listening a second and third time. It was only when I took a look at the tracklist that it finally hit me. There are four features on the album, each of them a goliath in their own right: Future, J. Cole, Offset, and Khalid. 6lack clearly made a conscious decision to incorporate voices other than his own, but considering so much of the album is about women and for women, why does it seemingly leave out the voices of women?
If we look into the production of the album, we see that the story is more nuanced. There were women who contributed to the album: Tierra Whack and Mereba in skits, and Light Skin Keisha and Mereba (again) on vocals. Yet the fact that none of these appearances warranted a feature in 6lack’s eyes is telling. In my eyes, to feature an artist is to acknowledge that artist within their own right, as they weave their own individual narratives into that of the primary artist in a way deserving of special distinction. Other production contributions are not less worthy, but they are seen as decorative. As opposed to features, voices included in this are perhaps better defined as instruments the artist uses to paint their picture, framed completely within the narrative of the primary artist. And let’s not forget, the features on East Atlanta are getting paid – seriously paid.
As I considered this, I felt less enchanted with the image of 6lack tenderly interacting with his daughter in an expression of love and concern. Suddenly, the whole album feels a bit, well, patronizing. This is ironic, for in his beautiful exploration of himself and his understanding of women, 6lack ignores in real terms the female perspective, and, just as importantly, the institutional acknowledgement and inclusion of women. To be sure, this is no rarity in contemporary music. This year alone, Drake and Travis Scott, the two artists arguably at the top of the rap game, both received criticism for leaving crucial points of view unrepresented while at the same time profiting off representations of female and trans individuals. 6lack, like any artist who falls short in this way, ultimately does himself an injustice. In the process of delegitimizing the voices of women, 6lack delegitimizes that which could have been a potent and beautiful art piece.
As a man, let me appeal to men here. If we seek, at all, to understand and be sensitive to women’s perspectives and any perspective other than our own, we should listen attentively to female voices. We should uplift women, rather than commoditize them.
Blewett is an Undeclared Freshman.