All my grandmother wants when we spend time together is a cigarette.
As dementia and Alzheimer's finish robbing her of her memory, all she is left with are her vices. Obviously, in the battle to get her proper healthcare, the idea of feeding her nicotine addiction does not come to mind. I'd like to appeal to her other senses. Before her recent hospitalizations, before her slow descent into a sick shut-in, she had an unwavering passion for the arts. She loved any tune with a moving melody, had a reverence for opera and ballet, and recorded all televised concerts on the Russian channel for later viewing.
Don’t mistake her for uppity, though. She loved music with an edge, a coolness that she could sense through the manufactured nature of pre-approved Russian pop, and of course, yearned for a singer with technical skill that was still as human as ever. So many artists in the past half-decade would have floored her, and living not too far from a record shop, she could have easily been the resident crate digger of South Brooklyn. But life always, always has other plans.
Were I given the chance, here are three records I would have played for my grandmother before her hearing went for good and her addictions overtook her lust for life.
Yes Lawd! -NxWorries
The duo of soon-to-be-legendary producer Knxwledge and easy breezy hip-hop loverboy Anderson .Paak come together with a record my grandmother would have happily mistaken as the lost score to her favorite old Russian movies. Teen flicks where the bad boy runs through the city square and those ever-present cigarettes represent his manliness—sounds a lot like .Paak flipping through his Rolodex of love lost and women had, doesn’t it?
Not one for dark liquor, the winding and velvet energy of “Kutless” would have poured my grandmother a glass of scotch without her lifting a finger. The sinuous quality of .Paak’s one-time-only cadence would have taken her back to romanticized tales of European side streets, yellow-tinted streetlights, and the endless strolling of being a single matriarch and then an immigrant.
At the same time, with so much of her life in transit and in pursuit of survival, I imagine the easy lilt of “Scared Money” would have made the track an album standout. With her constant under-the-table dealings to navigate the anti-Semitic systems in the USSR, my grandmother deserves a hustler anthem to fall in love with.
Crush -Ravyn Lenae
My grandmother would have freaked out from the first allusion to a staircase vocal trick. If there’s anything I’ve learned from her hours of Russian concerts, it’s that a strong woman with a stronger voice will, eventually, steal her heart and potentially make her cry. Not that Crush is a particularly despondent piece of music, but Lenae’s delivery is so vibrant and punchy, it would take my grandmother back to her younger days as a to-be-reckoned-with female boss.
Crush deals so explicitly with young love and coming into your sexuality as a woman, and while my grandmother has already completed this phase of her life, settling in to hear a first-hand account could be just the break she needs from the realities of aging. Youth is a fleeting thing, but Crush is an excellent doorway into an adjacent past life, an escapist moment from which my grandmother could derive comfort. Did I mention Ravyn Lenae is a fantastic singer? That’s of tantamount importance here. So, again, Ravyn Lenae is a fantastic singer.
Lastly, we have the 2012 gem that is JMSN’s Priscilla. Running just over an hour, JMSN manages to turn loneliness and misery into a multi-act symphony. The severity of my grandmother’s beloved opera and ballet, the theatrics of televised concerts, and our familial propensity to dwell are all innovated upon and freshened up within the context of Priscilla.
Priscilla would be the album I imagine my grandmother lighting a sought-after cigarette to and losing herself in. This would be the album she cries to while avoiding becoming a victim of her own thoughts. Through the inadvertent lessons JMSN provides on the record, she would take stock of her own life, and reflect as she so loves to do.
Now living alone, the last thing I would want is for my grandmother to feel she has no outlet for the well of emotions she’s likely suppressed across her winding life as a single mother and immigrant. Priscilla would allow for her to explore and unpack her emotions in a constructive way, and it’s a gorgeous body of work. And crying is healthy, not that I am pining after my grandmother crying, but you get the idea.
There we are, three albums I wish my grandmother had the chance to hear and fall in love with. If the tides somehow turn and a listening session is in our future, these would be the first three albums I played for her, language barrier notwithstanding, so she could feel something deeply moving and so we could share something in the final chapter of her life.