Dissecting Rap’s Uncanny Ability to Turn Memories Into Settings
November is a city of a million people. November is the last time she looked at you before leaving for good. November is everything at once.
The most pleading moment of Tyler, the Creator’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, comes when the 28-year-old artist demands: “Take me back, take me back” on “November.” The glitching bridge hounds our ears. The milky textures of Flower Boy fade away in favor of arduous percussion.
Suddenly, “November” is laborious as the chanting bridge evolves into Tyler declaring he is unwell. “November” becomes bleak and unwelcoming. It is only in the setting of November, the month, that we return to glimmering production and lightness. Within this dichotomy, Tyler turns his memories and the month of November into a salient place. We understand November as a thing to be held, as a place to stand, and as a feeling to bask in—for better or worse.
The setting of November is built up by a flurry of voices. From Erykah Badu concerts to fucked up love, the “November” interlude helps us picture the breadth and depth a November can have. November becomes more than a setting, but an entire world wherein we can plug our respective memories and be transported. There’s a specificity to the speakers’ thoughts on November. Addresses and particular emotions make November as a place feel plentiful and wide.
November is a city of a million people. November is the last time she looked at you before leaving for good. November is everything at once. Tyler achieves this by bending language, imagery, and sentiment in a way only hip-hop can afford things to be bent.
Tyler’s “November” speaks to rap’s uncanny ability to turn the ephemeral into the tangible. Of course, Tyler isn’t the only artist bringing our memories into the physical world. Enter Rothstein, a New York singer/songwriter making achy bedroom trap on acid, who employs exceptionally similar verbiage on his 2019 EP, Deathmall + Rothstein. On opening cut “take me back to august,” the 27-year-old is in-step with Tyler, pleading for a return to August as not merely a month, but a thing. Just as we immediately understand November to be something holistic and relatable, we too have our August.
“There are so many hip-hop artists that have been able to mold these intangible ideas into things you associate with them, and things that are as much theirs as they are anyone’s,” Rothstein tells me. “I adore that about the genre.”
In hip-hop, you can bend language to convey meaning. From there, you can bend meaning to convey physicality. As Rothstein explains, in rap, you can “own any concept and make it yours, however ephemeral, however intangible.” He thinks of Raekwon The Chef and his butchery and extravagance. Rothstein, who generated more than one million streams on Spotify in 2018 as a fully-independent artist, muses on motif and how it can elicit a harsh and natural response from a listener. As his music is so memory-driven, Roth feels lucky to be able to turn August from a month to a place.
“When I wrote ‘take me back to august,’ I was teetering between really excited and unhappy,” Rothstein tells me. “I think times of year, months, are some of the central things that myself and Deathmall are prone to grabbing hold of. When we made the song, we were in Hadley, Massachusetts, up in the woods. If there’s anywhere in the world where you can tell it’s becoming fall, it’s Western Mass. It’s colorful; it gets cold early. It’s both stunningly beautiful and unwelcoming.”
With that in mind, it sounds as if Rothstein’s August lives in the same realm as Tyler, the Creator’s “November.” If you’ll allow me to get a touch meta, the way Roth speaks of August relates to the sonics of “November,” how Tyler has a breakdown on the track indicative of his pursuit of the better days of the past. For Roth, August is a place where goodness exists, but terror awaits. “It’s the time of year I’ve always liked the weather most,” he says. “It’s also the time of year I most deeply associated with things going wrong.”
Roth’s August dichotomy applies to Tyler, the Creator in earnest. To wish to be taken back implies we have been removed. Our November is no more. The memories are just that. “November” is the most heartbroken song on Flower Boy, then, is the proper preamble to the ache of Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR. And yet, every time we press play on “November,” we’re in the thick of our setting. As Rothstein warbles, “Take me back to August,” we remember the pain of a dying summer, the heat still fresh on our faces, and the air still salty from the ocean breeze. He places us there. We can hold our memories in our hands alongside these records.
Truly, memory lives at this intersection of beauty and grief. “A lot of my favorite art, both that’s my own and is not, lives where those two things are together,” Roth expounds. “James Blake, for instance. His music is pigeonholed as being colossally sad. I think it’s that, but I also think it’s gorgeous, and when you can serve those things up together without compromising the other… That’s the dragon I chase.”
That interplay of beauty and sadness makes “November” a quiet firecracker. The song hinges on the bridge, on Tyler’s crumbling. The hook hinges on sunny imagery, but by the end of the first verse and into the second, there is a flood of pain. Tyler is wounded. By the end of “November,” Tyler is alone. He is not back where he finds his comfort; he does not hear from his lover. All he has are his words and the voicemail box tone. And this is why we want to go back to November, why Rothstein pleads to go back to August. Because sometimes, all we have is a figment of our past.
“Music is—for creators—therapeutic,” Roth adds. “It’s an opportunity to do what we don’t when we’re in the company of people we care about. [With] all this talk of memories, there’s so much unpacking we’re doing in our music. Our songs are obsessed with reliving experiences because we are, too. That’s how we deal. A fundamental belief of mine is that we cope by reliving and walking through experiences that have been painful or confusing for us.”
Essentially, we turn November and August into places, so we can retread old ground and find ourselves again. “November” and “take me back to august” are not about seeking shelter, but about unearthing understanding. Hip-hop turns memories into settings so we can better navigate our traumas and triumphs. “I can’t always put my finger on what I’ve been through until I start unpacking it, and music is my means of doing that,” Roth agrees. “It’s sometimes the only place I can be honest. The only place I feel comfortable indulging myself in self-examination.”
Through self-examination, we get the ache of these two tracks, but we also get hope. If we have a November or an August in mind, that means we can manifest yet another one. As Tyler’s broken bridge ends with “My November is right now,” and Flower Boy ends with “Enjoy Right Now, Today,” we get the sense these artists are urging us to use the past as a vehicle to the present. Hip-hop turns memories into places, but it also animates the present and makes our lives livable. To that end, Rothstein concludes our interview by painting me a picture of his November, of gorgeous Cape Cod, and he sounds happier than ever stepping back in time, bringing me there with him:
“Any time I’m writing nostalgically, in a way that’s glowing, it’s about that place. My grandparents had a little shack on a meadow, and it’s still there. It’s where my mom goes to hideout. It’s where I go to hideout. I’ve written a lot of music there. You can walk from the ocean to the bay. The ocean has these huge, steep dunes, and it’s dramatic and picturesque. Big waves. On the other side is the bay, and it looks like a Polo commercial. Lush greenery and water that seems never to be moving at all. That is my November.”