His voice, with its pained wobble and piercing melodiousness, breaks your heart every time, no matter how many times you hear it, no matter how many thousands of tracks he seems to have graced with it, all of them all the more heartbreaking now that he’s gone. “At mission’s end is the trembling flame,” moans Jason Molina over stark acoustic guitar, and you can feel, as always, an affirming warmth within the fundamental chill that flame provides. He died seven years ago, but he’s also right there in the room with you now, one hand on your shoulder.
What he’s singing—“And the magi in the dark, somewhere sometime before the dark”—is less important than how visceral it feels, the ache and the resolve, the salve and the wound. “Built it all against tears, the tears / Built it all against the smallest fears.” Molina was born in Ohio, and in the late ’90s became one of those scruffy indie-rock deities with Neil Young’s absurdly prolific flair for both self-reinvention and self-sabotage. His best songs—like 2003’s exquisitely crunchy “Farewell Transmission,” credited to his most famous alias, Songs: Ohia, and appearing on an album, Magnolia Electric Co., named after his other most famous alias—are haunted battle hymns, victorious even in the face of constant imminent defeat. “Real truth about it is, no one gets it right,” he moans, and this time his exact words are terribly important. “Real truth about it is, we’re all supposed to try.”
Molina died, in 2013, of multiple organ failure after a lengthy battle with alcoholism. He was 39. Naturally, the tragic backstory only burnishes the legend. On Friday, his old label, Secretly Canadian, released Eight Gates, a brief but reliably shattering collection of songs he recorded in London in 2008, anointed by birdsong and lifted up—the funereal tone of tracks like “Be Told the Truth” or “Shadow Answers the Wall” aside—by Molina’s audibly buoyant mood during the recording process itself, which you can also hear on the album. “The perfect take,” he jokes at one point, “is just as long as the person singing is still alive,” and everyone in the room chuckles, and then he gamely launches into a song about “the last full moon of the saddest year” and how it still hasn’t arrived yet.
All of which will break your heart again, of course, but what’s most striking about Eight Gates is how present tense, how present, Molina feels, a beloved voice from the past now leading us, forlornly but graciously, toward an uncertain future. “This at the mission’s end / This at the mission’s end,” he moans. “We’re all equals along this path / We’re all equals along this path.”
That goes for all the rappers, too. Eight Gates is joined, here in this accursed summer of 2020, by far higher-profile but emotionally consonant albums from two of the most exciting young stars in rap, which is to say pop, both records also posthumous, and both men now looming as large in their absence as in their presence.
Pop Smoke, a malevolently charismatic phenom from Canarsie, Brooklyn, with more excitement and goodwill behind him than any New York City figure in half a decade, was shot and killed in February during a Hollywood Hills robbery; his official debut album, Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, came out in July two weeks before what would’ve been his 21st birthday and immediately hit no. 1 on the Billboard album chart. With its crowded list of features (Quavo thrice) and awkward attempts at romance-minded pop crossovers (50 Cent had become somewhat of a mentor, and his cheeseball-loverman hit “21 Questions” was apparently somewhat of a holy grail), it is not Pop Smoke’s best work, but still strongly suggests that his best work was yet to come.
Shoot for the Stars was knocked out of the no. 1 spot one week later by the gala debut of Legends Never Die by the Chicago rapper Juice WRLD, whose SoundCloud-via–Warped Tour blend of Hot Topic feelings and jagged pained-wobble melodiousness had already made him a troubled but undeniable chart-topping star. He died, at 21, in December, of an accidental overdose following a drug raid on a private jet at Chicago’s Midway Airport. On this week’s Billboard album chart, Smoke and Juice are no. 2 and no. 3, respectively, behind Taylor Swift at her dourest, and Mac Miller’s serene posthumous album Circles, released in January, is still hanging around. It’s been that kind of year.
Pop Smoke’s biggest hits are legit anthems in ways that only intensify the pain of losing him so young. “Welcome to the Party” was reportedly 2019’s official Blaring Out of Every Car Stereo in NYC anthem, a hallowed tradition imperiled here in COVID-ravaged 2020. “Dior,” meanwhile—also hailing from his 2019 breakout mixtape Meet the Woo—became an electrifying protest song following George Floyd’s death in May. Both tracks are high points of Brooklyn drill, a grimy and foreboding sound with roots spanning from Chicago to London, plus, inevitably, a quick tourist jaunt to Toronto.
The best moments on Shoot for the Stars—including the extra-growly and malevolent “44 Bulldog”—carry on that tradition, but the real thrill is in watching Pop Smoke go international, and go mainstream, growling charismatically in the face of all the watering-down that ascension requires. As posthumous rap albums go, it’s not an eerie rumination on his own mortality on the order of Biggie’s Life After Death, but it shows you how much power he’d already amassed, how many friends and admirers, how many lanes were open to him, even the ill-advised ones. It’s a monument to all that should’ve been.
Legends Never Die is different: The eeriness, and desperation, and struggle is palpable, the candy-coated hooks gargantuan, the drowning-in-fame laments nearly unbearable. There’s a famous Songs: Ohia ballad called “Blue Chicago Moon,” in which Molina lays it all out:
But if the blues are your hunter
You will come face to face
That darkness and desolation
And the endless
These two guys had virtually nothing in common in terms of genre or, like, fashion, but one way to look at it is with every repetition of endless, another Juice WRLD song—and sure, another potential Juice WRLD hit—is born. He’d already had a no. 2 pop hit with 2017’s Sting-interpolating “Lucid Dreams” and a no. 1 album with 2019’s Death Race for Love, and setting aside all the other baggage it carries, Legends Never Die is loaded with monster singles only bolstered by how anguished he sounds while delivering them. “Feels like I’m losing even though I’m winning.” “Feels like I’ma die every second of the day / So I gotta get high.” “Taking medicine to fix all of the damage / My anxiety the size of a planet.” “Sometimes it feels like I can’t die / ’Cause I never was alive.” The piano hook of “Wishing Well” is stupendous, but the lyrics hit like 1,000 pianos falling from the sky:
Stress on my shoulders like a anvil
Perky got me itching like a anthill
Drugs killing me softly, Lauryn Hill
Sometimes I don’t know how to feel
Also: “Let’s be for real / If it wasn’t for the pills, I wouldn’t be here / But if I keep taking these pills, I won’t be here.” It’s arguably one of the best pop songs of 2020, and inarguably one of the most 2020 pop songs of 2020, in that it channels its own struggle so effectively you can barely stand it.
Like Lil Peep, another loudly mourned superstar in the making, Juice WRLD’s personal demons doubled as his most devastating artistic weapons, which makes Legends Never Die an exquisitely arduous experience. Getting emo is the whole point. (The first track is called “Anxiety,” and the last track is called “Juice WRLD Speaks From Heaven.”) None of these albums are easy listening, with or without context, but even with the not-quite-completed posthumous finagling, they’re all true to their respective artists, to the way their tragedies and their triumphs were inextricable, to the way their futures were as bright as their pasts were dark, even if their presents were darkest of all. What binds them all together is the sound of fallible humans but somehow superhuman-feeling artists trying—and failing—to get it right, because no matter who you are, that’s what you’re supposed to do.