"[A] shame the only time I feel like I'm calm is when I'm smoking ... Just like my dad." That's the lament of Mark Scott, the MC half of rapper-producer duo The Higher Up, in the song "Cigarettes." In this standout track from The Higher Up's self-titled debut, Scott uses his nicotine addiction as a springboard to talk about anxiety, depression and an intensifying existential crisis.
The part about his father struck me — I remember my own dad and his Winstons. When I was an adolescent, he'd sit in the small kitchen of his two-bedroom pre-war apartment in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and chain-smoke after a long day at work. I'd watch him through the crack of the slightly ajar door as he smoked in silence with the lights off, the room illuminated only by the amber of the street lamps outside and the orange glow of a cigarette's tip. As a kid, this ritual puzzled me. Cigarettes smelled bad. Their smoke stained teeth and walls alike, and all the public service ads on TV told me they led to ailments like cancer and heart disease. For the life of me, I couldn't fathom why anyone would smoke them.
One night, when I was 15, curiosity got the best of me. While my father slept, I snuck three cigarettes out of his pack and walked to a nearby playground to see what all the fuss was about. I smoked all three in the span of about 10 minutes, looking for whatever magical feeling or adult wisdom they'd impart to me. I didn't get high or enlightened; I got light-headed and queasy. I coughed like I'd never coughed before. I nearly threw up. That experience stayed with me for a long time, and I made it through the rest of my teen and college years without touching a cancer stick. More than a decade after that — as a man with responsibilities, a career, bills and relationships to manage — I began to understand my dad's ritual and the little white cylinder's appeal. The seduction was a gradual process. At first, I only smoked the occasional cigarette when drinking socially; then, on a 2006 trip to Cuba with a friend, I smoked as much as the locals did because the cigarettes were cheap and satisfying. Years after that, I started buying loosies (illegally sold individual cigarettes) at local bodegas in Brooklyn. And now, in my 30s, I'm another one of those people who engage habitually in the cognitively dissonant act of smoking.
Yes, smoking is paradoxical. The small, tobacco-stuffed cylinders offer immediate relief and relaxation, but only for the high price of illness and an early death. Smokers are well aware of the negative long-term effects, yet still we spend money on packs of poison and light up to take the edge off our daily stresses. "Cigarettes" illustrates this tension well. The melancholy and desperation of Scott's verse are matched by producer Kye Brewin's somber strings and plaintive muted horns on the song's two-part instrumental. For Scott, each cigarette from the pack is itself a broken pact:
I told my girl I wouldn't smoke no more
Wanna keep the promise
I don't wanna choke no more — pause
But I gotta keep these vocal chords pristine and very clean
For what you hopin' for
The day I lose my voice is the day I lose my choice
To live or die in America, the hero or the villain
To either be a good role model for these children or to be an evil entity, one out of a f*****' billion.
Scott agonizes over what type of man and artist he should be and how he'll make his mark in this world. He is conflicted, frustrated and — most of all — brutally confessional. Let's hope his dreams don't go up in smoke.
The Higher Up Album (HGHR) is out now.