This article is about Cousin Stizz, a rapper of relative popularity (he’s from Boston and now lives in L.A.; he recently signed to RCA Records; he currently has the drank in a headlock) but one of gigantic talent (his 2015 tape, Suffolk County, was one of the 12 best rap tapes of the year; his 2016 tape, Monda, was one of the eight best rap tapes of the year; his 2017 tape, One Night Only, is the second best rap tape of the year, sitting behind only Kendrick Lamar’s Damn.). More specifically: This article is about how inspirational and liberating he can be in his songs, because that’s really his greatest talent, which is impressive because he is good at so many things.
Here is a line Stizz rapped on Suffolk County a little more than two years ago, which stuck to my ribs immediately and which I have not forgotten since: “You could do it too, I bet with ease / It ain’t nothing, brodie, just believe.” It’s a simple line, really, but also it’s a mammoth one, and one that, if you were to distill the entirety of Stizz’s ethos down to a single point, it would be where you end up.
There are only ever two ways to handle success, no matter the size of it. You can either (a) use it to lift yourself up onto a podium so that everyone else can admire how excellent you must be for having gotten there, or (b) use it as proof that everybody else can get up onto their own podium, because you got there, and so that means others can too. Stizz has, since his first rap days and through his current rap days, opted for the second option. (He had a line on Monda that was similar to the one mentioned in the section above, rapping, “You could do it too / I ain’t even tryna hype shit.” He also had a line on One Night Only that was similar, rapping, “Anything’s possible / You gotta get it / And I had to make the example.”) Empowerment through alignment is his most vital thing. It’s the core component of his creative existence, and the crux of why his music is so inspiring.
Trying to quantify how inspirational something is feels a lot like trying to grab hold of a cloud. It’s easy to see a cloud, or to identify a cloud, or to know that a cloud exists. It’s easy to point up into the sky and say, “Look, a cloud,” and have the person you are talking to believe you. Because it’s right there. It’s obvious; a cloud obviously is a thing. But how do you grab the cloud? Is that even something you can do? It’s not, right? You can’t grab hold of a cloud. It’s too delicate, too precious for your clumsy, stupid hands. How dare you even try.
Several years ago, I went skydiving just outside of Houston with a friend of mine. It was very cloudy that day; the sky was packed with those dense clouds like children draw, so I asked one of the instructors if we’d be able to feel it if we passed through a big cloud. It felt like a reasonable question to ask, especially considering I was about to be hurtling through the air at something like 120 miles per hour strapped to his body. He looked at me and then he looked at the other instructors and then he said, “Yes. And if your limbs aren’t tucked in properly, you could hurt your arms or your legs. They might even break.” I said, “Really?” Then he started laughing, and the other instructors laughed too.
There are, I would argue, at least five main kinds of inspiration. There’s:
- The kind of inspiration where nice and direct things are said to someone in a way that makes them feel like the whole world is wide open. An easy example here would be the speech Chris (Will Smith) gives to his son, Christopher (Jaden Smith), in The Pursuit of Happyness while they play basketball together. In the scene, Christopher tells his dad that he wants to be a professional basketball player. Chris, who is not very good at basketball, tells Christopher that he’ll be good at a long list of things, but that basketball likely is not one of them. After watching his son sadly react to what’s just been said to him, Chris sets in on reversing everything. “Hey,” he tells his son as Christopher puts the ball into a bag to carry it home, “don’t ever let someone tell you you can’t do something. Not even me. Alright? You got a dream? You gotta protect it. People can’t do something themselves, they wanna tell you you can’t do it. If you want something, go get it. Period.”
- The kind of inspiration where someone flaunts something tangible in front of someone else and declares it, no matter how grandiose, absolutely attainable. This one is almost always money-based, and, if we’re going to stick with movie examples, then you could grab any big scene from any of the well-known movies that have stockbrokers in them, because there’s always a scene in those movies where some hotshot broker is yelling at the younger guys about how the sales game isn’t for everyone, but that the ones that it is for are going to be richer than they ever could’ve imagined. (Ben Affleck has the most straightforward version of this in Boiler Room, when he tells all the would-be brokers who want to work at his firm, “There is no question as to whether or not you will become a millionaire working here. The only question is how many times over. You think I’m joking. I am not joking. I am a millionaire. It’s a weird thing to hear, right? I’ll tell ya: It’s a weird thing to say. I am a fucking millionaire.”) (The scene is mostly clunky, as is the actual movie, but the way he says “I am a millionaire” really makes me feel like I might turn in my two weeks’ notice and chase down my stockbroker dreams that I didn’t even know I had.)
- The kind of inspiration where it happens by accident as a person reveals some sort of wayward thinking about himself or herself. This one works as a “Hey, me too” thing. A person who is clearly successful says something that is maybe supposed to make them sound weird, but you hear it and it’s like, “Oh fuck. I feel that exact same way. Maybe I do have it in my bones to be successful.” My favorite example of this one is the “I have a competition in me” scene that Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) gives in There Will Be Blood where, in part, he talks about how it’s not enough for him to do well, but that he also wants others to do badly while he does well.
- The kind of inspiration where the whole point of it is just to prove someone else wrong or rub it in someone else’s face. You can grab the entirety of every Rocky movie, really. If you’re looking for a specific scene, though, a solid choice is the “You can’t win!” one from Rocky IV, when Adrian tries to convince Rocky that he can’t beat Ivan Drago.
- The kind of inspiration where, in a fit of passion, someone says something with such urgency, with such power, that there is no option other than to be filled with strength and vigor, too. You know what’s a good one here? The scene in Glory where, after Colonel Shaw (Matthew Broderick) gets killed in battle, Trip (Denzel Washington) picks up the flag, turns back toward his soldiers, shouts, “COME ONNNNNNNNNN!,” and then charges into certain death. Everybody behind him is so fucking fired up that, even staring at a wall of opposing soldiers and guns, and even after watching Shaw and Trip both get shot and killed, they sprint forward into the storm of bullets, too.
Stizz has all five of those kinds of inspiration in his music. In fact, all five of them appear on One Night Only, the most rousing of his three tapes.
- The kind of inspiration where nice and direct things are said to someone in a way that makes them feel like the whole world is wide open. The most moving example of this one is on “No Ice,” when Stizz barks, “Stizzy pop up stuntin’ / Stizzy really came from nothin’ / Even though it felt like strugglin’ / Nigga, that was grade-A hustlin’.” It’s great because it reframes whatever troubles you have behind you—no matter how serious or terrible—as vital and noble steps in you arriving at whatever your final and brilliant form will be.
- The kind of inspiration where someone flaunts something tangible in front of someone else and declares it, no matter how grandiose, absolutely attainable. “Lambo”: “I just wanna race a Lambo / let’s roll the dice and gamble,” and of course, sure, he’s talking about a literal Lamborghini, but also it’s a figurative one, too; it represents any manner of high-priced items. The point is he just wants it, and he’s willing to risk some things to get it. And when he says it, over and over again, with his perfectly care-free, fuck-a-consequence bluster, so too are you.
- The kind of inspiration where it happens by accident as a person reveals some sort of wayward thinking about himself or herself. A sneaky pick here is to grab the line “I will not sell from the crib though / No service there like a dead spot” from “Headlock.” It’s telling because, despite the fact that he won’t deal drugs from his house, the implication is that he will continue to deal drugs from somewhere. Wanting to keep doing a thing after it’s no longer necessary is a feeling that’s baked into some people (myself included) all the way down to their bones. (Undersold here among all this talk of inspiration is that inspirational bits cannot live alone in any real or actual genuine form. What I mean is that, for as great and moving as those moments are in Stizz’s music, they have to be surrounded by times when he’s expressing other emotions; grayer emotions; more dangerous emotions. He has to occasionally be angry or frustrated or sad, because those moments lend authenticity to the inspiring parts. It’s a composite picture. Without all those pieces snapped together, it doesn’t work. It’d be like walking around in a motivational poster store; the words would be similar, but there’d be no heft behind them.)
- The kind of inspiration where the whole point of it is just to prove someone else wrong or rub it in someone else’s face. From “Switch Places”: “I can look inside your eyes and see the jealousy / And all that’s telling me is I should be a better me.”
- The kind of inspiration where, in a fit of passion, someone says something with such urgency, with such power, that there is no option other than to be filled with strength and vigor, too. The 10th song on One Night Only is called “Doubted Me.” When the song starts—or, rather, when Stizz starts rapping, which happens after the song grows itself into existence, because mostly every Stizz song grows itself into existence—Stizz, as a way to start the first chorus, shouts, “I remember when you doubted me!” It’s a beautiful moment, if not altogether a nakedly cathartic one, and I can’t listen to it without inserting my own insecurities and imagined confrontations into the words. “I remember when you doubted me!” I yell at my invisible foes and pretend haters while I’m alone in my car driving home from work, or to work, or to an area Taco Bell, or home from an area Taco Bell.
Something that’s inspiring has a certain energy to it, a certain aura about it. Words, when stitched together in exactly the right way and said with exactly the right timbre, have a texture to them, or a gravity to them, or, in the case of any great rapper, a life to them. It’s so easy to spot. And still: Quantifying inspiration is very much an “as fuck” proposition. Cousin Stizz is inspirational as fuck. That’s about as exact as it can get.