clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Problem With Logic

The “1-800” rapper is experiencing an unlikely burst of fame after his latest album debuted at no. 1. So why does he still seem not quite … interesting?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the debut episode of Rapture, a new eight-episode Netflix documentary series that devotes installments to nine different MCs, a nervous young boy in a hoodie glances at the iPhone held in his trembling hand. “I have two questions, can I ask them?” he says to the subject of this episode, the 28-year-old Maryland rapper Logic. The boy’s voice is quavering, so much so that both queries come tumbling out at once: “My one question is how do you deal with all the responsibility you have and can I have a hug please?” At that, he breaks down in sobs. Logic—who is sporting, like the rest of his entourage, a khaki-colored hoodie emblazoned with the title of his most recent album, Everybody—invites the fan on stage. The embrace they share looks more like something that would take place on the stage of a megachurch than at a rapper’s promotional Q&A. As they hug, the boy’s left arm protrudes awkwardly above them, phone clutched in his hand. He is either too stunned to remember how to move all of his limbs, or he is taking an iPhone video of the whole encounter.

Last week, this fervent, internet-fueled fan base helped Logic (real name: Sir Robert Bryson Hall II) achieve a career milestone: Not only did his most recent release, the mixtape Bobby Tarantino II, debut at no. 1 on the Billboard charts, but he also became one of only 15 artists in Billboard history to have 10 or more songs chart on the Hot 100 in a single week. To be fair, this statistic says just as much about the fickle nature of Billboard’s metrics in the streaming era as it does Logic’s popularity: A record that clocks a lot of streams in its first week, as Bobby Tarantino II did, will inevitably make an outsized imprint on the Hot 100. (All but one of the other 14 artists to achieve this feat—the Beatles—have done so in the past decade.) Still, it’s undeniable that a lot of people are right now listening to Logic. As he rapped on his 2012 mixtape Young Sinatra: Undeniable (directly quoting one of his idols, Jay-Z), “Men lie, women lie / Numbers don’t.”

A technically gifted rapper with a rapid-fire flow, Logic has an avowedly—perhaps performatively—nerdy aesthetic. (“Logic look like if Steve from Sex and the City read hypebeast exactly one time” is a year-old tweet that is lodged permanently in my brain.) Rick and Morty, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Ansel Elgort have all had features on his recent albums; one of his—admittedly impressive—signature moves is solving a Rubik’s Cube while freestyling. These two activities, under Logic’s command, actually share some DNA: His flow is a swift, clackety torrent of words that click into place triumphantly when the rhyme lands, when the punch line hits, when his seemingly complicated rhetorical point is tidily made.

60th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Show Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

Logic’s last proper album, 2017’s Everybody, was an ambitious enterprise: He has described it as a concept album about a man (named Atom … get it?) who has died after a car hit him but cannot move into the afterlife until he has been reincarnated as “every human being that’s ever existed.” The aim, of course, is universal empathy and a kind of spiritual Esperanto because “everybody was born equal”; a repeated refrain on the six-and-a-half-minute “Take It Back” is “Regardless of race, religion, color, creed, and sexual orientation.” He always ticks them off in precisely that order—“race, religion, color, creed, and sexual orientation”—like a mnemonic for remembering the order of the planets. It’s a well-meaning message, and yet the simplification of it all can feel a little cheap. If religious persecution, homophobia, and racism could be completed as methodically as a Rubik’s Cube, surely somebody would have solved them long before Logic got there.

Everybody announces itself as a treatise about race in America, often explored through the lens of Logic’s biracial identity. (Like two of his generation’s most popular rappers, Drake and J. Cole, Logic has a white mother and a black father.) “It’s about me being black and white, seeing life from two sides, and about that cultural evolution and how you can go from the darkest of skin to the lightest of skin,” he explained ahead of its release. At that point, he hinted that the album would be called AfricAryaN; suffice to say that did not sit well with some people. “Like the Aryan nation?” the rapper OG Maco tweeted. “The word ‘Aryan’ is used almost exclusively as a rally cry for the ‘pure blood’ superior white race theory. I think it’s a [shit] title.” Logic eventually walked it back, changing the album’s name to Everybody, although its 12-minute closing track is still called “AfricAryaN.”

Logic is vivid and precise when rapping about his own history—his troubled upbringing, his struggle to come to terms with his racial identity—but his observations become muddled and vague whenever he zooms out and tries to say anything meaningful about privilege, equality, or systemic racism in America. “Logic’s calls for civic action seem woefully ignorant to how oppression and white supremacy work,” the critic Sheldon Pearce wrote in a review of Everybody. “[N]ot once does he consider how being white-passing could skew his perception of what it means to be black. He never even probes what it might mean when people assume that he’s white; either he refuses to engage thoughtfully here or he’s simply irresponsible.” Logic’s quest to walk in the shoes of “every human being” is so ambitious that in its own way it has become myopic, even self-abnegating. “Equality without identity is merely inactivity,” Pearce writes at the end of his review. “The weight of our experiences shapes us. It is only once we understand why it’s OK to be different that there can be empathy—and change.”

Whenever he looks up from his own experience, Logic very often seems out of his depths. He arrives at his conclusions too easily: “we are all one” is too often his logical crutch. Despite talking a big talk, Everybody’s observations about race in America feel strangely defanged and self-censored. If it were a Kendrick Lamar album, he’d have to call it DARN.

If you’ve heard only one Logic song, it’s probably his Grammy-nominated hit “1-800-273-8255,” which also features Khalid and Alessia Cara. (The title is the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, calls to which tripled after Logic performed the song at the Grammys in January.) As he recounts in Logic’s episode of Rapture, when Tuma Basa, the former curator of Spotify’s taste-making RapCaviar playlist, first heard “1-800,” he told Logic, “Yo, this is the song that’s gonna get you on Ellen.” He was correct.

It is perhaps in bad faith or even beside the point to criticize a pop song that has probably saved people’s lives—the most meaningful soundtracks to my darkest teenage days weren’t exactly aesthetic masterpieces, either. But the cathartic climax of “1-800” bothers me. The song travels from “I don’t wanna be alive” to “I finally wanna be alive” in a way that feels entirely unearned by the bland content of Logic’s rhymes. Why does this shift happen? Only because Logic wants the listener to live? It feels like he’s skipped a few steps in the equation of why life is worth living to a depressed person, moving from anhedonia to euphoria at zero-to-60 speed. On the hook, Logic sounds off-puttingly triumphant about his ability to point out and, I guess, solve, the universal nature of human suffering. “Who can relate?” he asks, before adding a little “woo!” for good measure, as if he is prematurely pleased with himself for making a song that everyone can relate to. Depression: Another Rubik’s Cube solved in less than a minute.

Logic sounds looser on the lower-stakes Bobby Tarantino II, a breezy post-success victory lap which even includes a sampled voicemail from Elton John, calling to congratulate Logic on his Grammy performance. But to most Logic fans, it’s probably even more of a flex to have Rick and Morty on your album. Their opening skit shows that, on this release at least, Logic isn’t afraid to poke fun at his own self-seriousness: “I’m not in the mood for a message about how I can be whatever I want or ooh you know, like equality and everybody and all that shit,” Rick says, when Morty suggests they listen to “Album Logic” instead of “Mixtape Logic.”

Bobby Tarantino II’s vibe has a dash of What a Time To Be Alive-era Drake—minus the killer hooks, but also minus the moody, girl-blaming solipsism, so call it a draw. Even at his most rhythmically nimble, though, there’s still a genericism about many of Logic’s rhymes. He leans on telling more often than showing. (“Overnight,” goes one chorus, “people think this how shit happened, but they never right.”) Still, there are some standouts, like the dextrous “44 More” or his dopey, Wiz Khalifa–assisted stoner anthem “Indica Badu,” which ends with him shouting, “And if you don’t know by now, I smoke weeeeeed!” It’s a relief to hear him lighten up, even if the demons aren’t far below the surface. “Chiefin’ that Indica in the cut,” he raps, “tell my anxiety to get lost.”

About a month after the release of his breakout second album The Incredible True Story, Logic was waiting in line with his (now-ex) wife to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens when his body was seized by a feeling of panic. “In this moment my mind was full of clarity,” he recalls on a spoken-word part of Everybody, “but my body insisted it was in danger.” The next thing he knew, he was in a hospital bed, and a doctor was informing him that he’d suffered an anxiety attack. “But how could it be anxiety?” he wonders. “How could anxiety make me physically feel off balance? How could anxiety make me feel as though I was fading from this world and on the brink of death?”

Anxiety is now the most common mental-health disorder in the United States—so common that plenty of people have trouble recognizing it as a mental-health disorder in the first place. (If nearly one-third of teens and adults experience anxiety, as the National Institute of Mental Health reports, it can be dangerously easy to treat it not like a disease but as a normal aspect of modern life.) Anxiety is a particular affliction right now for late adolescents: In 2016, the American College Health Association reported that 62 percent of American undergraduates had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” in the past year. Logic’s fan base is largely comprised of members of this generation, many of whom have a different and more precise vocabulary to talk about anxiety than their parents or even older siblings did. It’s one of his strengths: Logic fashions himself to his fans as a kind of older brother figure, and the power of a rapper experiencing, describing, and thus validating their experience—a kind of experience that previously felt invisible to the larger world—is probably quite profound.

And so Logic’s installment of Rapture will probably cement the devotion of his die-hards, even if it confounds his skeptics. Throughout the hour-long documentary, Logic and plenty of other talking heads overstate his originality. Too many of his more memorable moments—from Under Pressure’s Midnight Maraudersripping robot voice to the cricket noises after his Wayne-referencing “real Gs move in silence like”—are rap-geek nods to his more provocative heroes; he hasn’t yet created anything as singular as they have. With all due respect to the rap critic Ellen DeGeneres, I do not exactly agree that Logic’s performance of “1-800” at the VMAs is when he “instantly became the voice of his generation.” And yet I do understand why Logic’s sometimes artless rapping appeals to a lot of young people in these anxious, chaotic times. Art is messy, destructive, and usually provokes many more questions than it answers. Logic’s music offers the comforting fiction of something tidier: solutions.