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MAVI's clearheaded songs of endurance

MAVI knows how to move along the bends, and with sharpened writing he's more plainspoken.
Wyeth Collins
MAVI knows how to move along the bends, and with sharpened writing he's more plainspoken.

On Laughing so Hard, it Hurts, the 23-year-old Charlotte rapper MAVI seeks the strength to sustain. His raps pull salvation from Black spiritual traditions to offset the pernicious influence of fame. "Hope when I get into heaven God hand me a blunt / And it's some Runtz," he raps on "Reason!" later adding, "It's legal for corporal punishment if God your teacher," assigning purpose to the pain. Black folklore has a long history of meeting grief with a prayer and a smile instead of running from it, and MAVI embodies that. His album channels the folktale of High John the Conqueror, known as a symbol of the indomitable Black spirit for his ability to laugh through the biting harshness of chattel slavery and outmaneuver white masters. Second albums are often albums of scale and reflection, and here MAVI realizes that money and notoriety can't solve his problems, forcing him to reckon with them. Listeners are made privy to a transformation in progress, an artist saving himself from the depths of a darkness that we see but that he doesn't let us touch.

The two year gap between Laughing so Hard, it Hurts and MAVI's debut project, Let The Sun Talk, coincided with the pandemic. That record now feels representative of the rapper's younger and brighter self. He planned to release another album, Shango, in late 2021, but decided to shelve it. There is a kind of blessing in getting this project instead, one that feels well ahead of schedule in his artistic and emotional development. His debut was boisterous and raw, making apparent his political alignment but at the expense of personal transparency and lucidity. He is clearer in thought and intention on this record, more open and vulnerable, letting his observations guide his insights. This time the politics of Black liberation are more deeply rooted in his exploration of self.

The album reads as a psalms of laughter, pain and introspection. It follows an artist enduring losses, spoken and unspoken. In facing solitude with a clear head ("Finally sober and it's just another layer of lonely," he raps on "Chinese Finger Trap"), MAVI lands us on a truth — he made it through, not by resilience alone, but through community care. He raps lovingly of his mom, relies on the support of his brothers, and yearns for the centering influence of friendship. He raps of his late grandmother as a lingering presence, her blessings staying with him. This all speaks to an idea at the core of the record: that real bonds are unbreakable. "But, love from fragments automatic / just Sumter magic," he raps on "High John," making clear that he arrives at this moment with his family legacy in tow. Noting his origins, MAVI places his magic, lyrical or otherwise, in proximity to his pedigree. This nod to the small town that produced his family line demonstrates how ancestry informs his ideas of connection.

Connection is something MAVI is markedly pursuing, and a romantic streak cuts through the entire album. His conversational songs about coming up short in relationships seem to induce epiphanies of self-reflection. "Still feel like a f**k up, away from rich or broke again / But money coming back quicker the easier I let go of it," he raps on "My Good Ghosts." "Wanted to yell, now these days, don't want no one to know I'm here." "3 Left Feet," brings us an older and wiser yet unsure and deeply questioning partner whose self-awareness keeps penetrating his own wishful thinking. "I want you back, but I can't give you the years," he raps. It's clear that he has devoted himself to rap, for better and worse, to take care of those he loves even if it separates him from them. But the conviction in his verses seems to indicate a worthy trade-off. "I been gave my soul away to the drum, I'ma live forever," he says on "Baking Soda."

In "High John de Conquer," a piece by Zora Neale Hurston reported for The American Mercury in 1943, she wrote that High John's "singing-symbol was a drum-beat [...] sure to be heard when and where the work was the hardest, and the lot the most cruel. It helped the slaves endure. They knew that something better was coming." The patter of drums is also a signifier of brighter prospects in these songs. Dylvinci and Wolf Morpheus produced half of the album, with spot help from Jacob Rochester, Monte Booker and longtime collaborator ovrkast. Together, they help bring MAVI into a more expressive space. The beats are still assembled upon undergirded low-tempo production, but the album pushes past any lo-fi distinction MAVI may have inherited from collaborators like Earl Sweatshirt and MIKE. Nothing here sounds muddled or unclear, many tracks are bolstered by knocking drums and elegant backing vocals. MAVI knows how to move along the bends, and with sharpened writing he's more plainspoken.

The album is not presented chronologically, but it takes time seriously, particularly the turning points in MAVI's maturation. While on his first tour with Jack Harlow, he got into a critical car accident. The journey brought not only a brush with death but left the artist face-to-face with the wide-ranging toxicity of anti-Blackness in all of its forms: "On tour wowed by the scenery and what it mean to be a second-class citizen / See why they wrote the Green Book," he raps on "Last Laugh." The tour was a proving ground for MAVI, who refined his presence and honed his sense of discipline, and the accident began a string of losses the rapper ponders across the record — the death of his uncle, losing the will to pursue his degree. He grapples with all of this without sacrificing his rapping's rhetorical power.

Laughing so Hard, it Hurts takes accidental steps toward unraveling some of the mythology around MAVI, a crowned lo-fi rap prince. He very clearly channels his insecurities as a performer, lover and friend. He spends much of the album thinking out loud, working through the burdens of small-time celebrity. What remains is something more human. Even in the High John folktales, the Old Massa figure often came out on top. "The curious thing about this is, that there are no bitter tragic tales at all," Neale Hurston wrote. There was always laughter, win or lose — as she put it, "a sort of recognition that life is not one-sided." It's that experience MAVI seems to gain throughout this coming-of-age saga: "Found out welts make wit," he shares to open "Last Laugh," inadvertently showing the cost of his own acuity and humor.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Clarissa Brooks