This was the day after Joshua and Jess got married. I piled the wedding party’s tuxes into the trunk of my car and drove from Stillwater to the mall in Oklahoma City. It was a Sunday. There were going to be storms late in the afternoon, early evening, maybe, but when I left, just after lunch, the sun was bright and hot. The sky was clear.
Living in Oklahoma, one learns to respect forecasts of storms. Even when the expectations of tornadoes or hail are low, we respect the wind, the lightning that cracks the sky for miles in every direction, the brief, blinding torrents of rain that the drought-scorched ground is too dry to absorb. The forecast for this particular day, though, was all about tornadoes.
And just as living in Oklahoma makes one learn to respect forecasts of storms, especially when those forecasts involve tornadoes and hail, one also learns to live with those forecasts because they are inevitable. If one, living in Oklahoma, were to put his life on hold every time the weather might turn dangerous, one might never accomplish anything for most of the spring. In Oklahoma, respecting the weather means being cautious and alert and hopeful while one goes about his business.
The day after Joshua and Jess got married, I was distracted. I wasn’t thinking about the weather. On my way to the city, I was thinking about stopping at the record store in Bricktown, which isn’t there anymore, now, and ended up being closed that day, anyway, and I was thinking about the butt end of a blunt in the outer pocket of my tux’s garment bag. I found the butt in the pocket during the wedding the day before and didn’t know what to do with it, so I stashed it in the garment bag. I was thinking about finding or not finding a job that would take me away from Oklahoma. I was thinking about how long it had been since I’d had sex. I was thinking about cleaning the kitchen when I got home. I was thinking about being exhausted. I was thinking about the slow decay of my own marriage, and how happy my newly married friends looked the day before, and how good I knew they’d be to each other, and how sometimes, when one isn’t happy, himself, other peoples’ happiness can be hard to look at, but not really when you care deeply for those people. That is to say, it wasn’t too difficult to see Joshua and Jess so happy. And I was thinking about being pulled over by a K9 unit and arrested for having the residue of some high school kid’s prom night in a garment bag in the trunk of my car. I don’t know if getting pulled over by a K9 unit is a thing that happens, probably not like that anyway, but the drive from Stillwater to Oklahoma City is quiet and flat, the perfect setting in which fears, rational and irrational, both, might stretch their legs.
On my way to the mall, I listened to Supreme Clientele. Something about driving around Stillwater that weekend had put me in the mood for Wu-Tang, and I’d been working my way through as many related albums as were on my iPod, and Supreme Clientele seemed right for that drive, especially when “Child’s Play” rolled around with that single organ note and yearning for simpler times and easier sex and relationships. The album ended just before I arrived at the mall, and I finished the drive in silence, not noticing the sun dissolving above me.
In retrospect, I should have known the storm had cooked itself up earlier than anticipated when I arrived at the mall. The sky had turned a dark gray and the wind was fierce. I tried to carry all of the tuxes into the mall from a distant parking spot. The garment bags were slick and repeatedly slipped through my arms to the asphalt. A woman, a few years older than me, walking away from the mall, stopped to help, picked up the three bags I’d just dropped, turned around, and carried them inside with me. I wondered if the cashed blunt was in one of those bags. The woman followed me into the store, handed the three bags she was carrying to the clerk, and left, accepting nothing but thanks in return. I was moved by the woman’s help. I felt briefly overwhelmed that a stranger would be so kind.
When I told the guy behind the register about the blunt, he shrugged. We searched through the garment bag’s pockets, but we couldn’t find it. It probably fell out in the parking lot. Or maybe, to this day, it’s hiding in some unreachable corner of my car’s trunk. It’s not important. What is important is that when I left the mall, a line of employees, some of them smoking, others with cups of coffee, some with nothing but their hands cupped around their eyes to keep out the wind and debris, were standing outside, watching the clouds amass overhead. I jogged to my car. It was time to respect the weather.
For the drive home, I settled on Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. I don’t know why I chose that one. Maybe it seemed like the right album to listen to at the time because I’d been feeling exhausted from a year on the academic job market and whatever, and, despite Raekwon and friends’ punchy rhymes, sometimes the album feels heavy in a way that is similar to exhaustion. For all the album’s exuberant descriptions of street life, beneath it all there’s still that line, “You don’t believe in heaven ‘cause we’re livin’ in hell.” Granted, the sentiment was a bit melodramatic for my circumstances, but if there was a reason I picked this album that day, that was probably it.
The day I drove to the mall was the day before the Moore tornado ripped that nearby town to pieces and dominated the national news cycle for weeks. It seems weird, now, to think about driving away from the mall in Oklahoma City listening to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, right before so much sorrow landed a few miles away. Of course, it’s not like the album is a stranger to sorrow.
Another thing about Cuban Linx, in addition to its emotional weight, is the way it uses atmosphere, especially in its opening moments. “Striving for Perfection” begins with voices and ethereal synth tones that sound like they could be from the soundtrack for a low budget kung fu movie. This is a track, not a song. An introduction, an establishing shot. It sets the scene, establishes atmosphere. The first words we hear, soft in the left channel, assert that emotional weight I mentioned before: “Yeah, yeah I’m tired of doing this shit.” The rest of the piece is more affirmative, hopeful, but the established atmosphere never shifts entirely away from that sense of exhaustion. For every moment of optimism afforded the speaker of “Striving for Perfection,” for every “We gonna grow like a plant, Son” or “Let’s keep movin’ ahead man, keep your head up man,” we’re reminded of the exhaustion leading up to those moments, a “My man got outta state for fifteen” or a “I got shot at man, my mom’s window got shot up man.” That’s how Only Built 4 Cuban Linx begins, overcast, but with a few hints of sun stabbing through. The actual sky, that day, had no such sun.
Here’s another thing about Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. The album’s second song, “Knuckleheadz,” expands on the atmosphere of “Striving for Perfection.” The song, thanks to a throbbing bass line and an airy piano sample, feels considerably lighter than what’s established on that opening track. But the atmosphere creeps in between the music in the form of sound effects. Looking at Rap Genius, now, the sequence of sound effects peppered throughout “Knuckleheadz” goes like this: “loading clip,” “gunshots,” “gunshots,” “loading clip,” “gunfire,” “loading clip,” “gunfire,” “tire screech,” “crash,” “car zooming by,” “sirens commence,” “sirens silence,” “inaudible conversation,” “tire screech,” “gunshots,” “tire screech,” “gunshots,” “tire screech,” “crash,” “passing cars,” “tire screech,” “crash.” Even as the song celebrates a hedonistic life of drugs and violence, with lines like “lay on the crime scene, sipping fine wines” and “let’s celebrate and sniff an eighth,” the very real weight established on the opening track enters into the song through these sounds. But those sounds are easy to take for granted. They don’t always register when we listen. They’re lurking just beneath the surface of the song, adding tension, adding weight.
And there I was that day, the sky dark and me driving away from the mall, and “Knuckleheadz” was playing and this sound, a siren, emerges from beneath the song’s mix, and cuts through the song and it sounds sad, desperate, like all the yearning of “Striving for Perfection” distilled into a single piercing whine. The sound hypnotized me for a moment, which is why it took me longer than it should have to realize that I’d never heard that sound in the song before. I turned off my car’s stereo. The tone stayed. What had emerged so seamlessly from the tragic sound effects of “Knuckleheadz” and so perfectly captured the spirit of violence, sorrow, and potential redemption running through the album wasn’t part of the album at all. It was a tornado siren.
I’d like to say that I did the smart thing and pulled over at a sturdy looking business to take shelter, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to get back to Stillwater. I turned on a local radio station. The weatherman was describing the heavy rotation in the sky, not far from the mall I had just left. The weatherman named the roads the emerging funnel was following, then other roads being crossed by other funnels. When the rain started pouring down, I had to drive slow. On I-40, I passed the exit one might take to get to Del City. A few minutes later, the weatherman described a funnel cloud crossing I-40 towards Del City. Waiting on the ramps along the interstate, cars fitted with storm chasing gear waited for the next funnel to emerge. I didn’t stop driving. I turned off the weatherman, switched back to Raekwon. I hadn’t stopped my iPod when I switched over to the radio, and by the time I switched back, I was listening to the outro to “Heaven & Hell.” The album was almost over. I kept my eyes on the road, trying not to think about the tornadoes that were, hopefully, all behind me. I heard brief phrases from “Heaven & Hell”: “Blink of an eye and you’re gone”; “Get turned to dust”; “Word up, get evaporated, straight up.” I kept driving. Soon, the rain let up. Soon, there were no more storm chasers lining the road. I wasn’t gone. I didn’t get turned to dust. I hadn’t been evaporated. Straight up.
The day after I drove through that storm, a tornado came to Moore and blew a hole in Oklahoma that is still healing. Very few of the houses and neither of the elementary schools in Moore were equipped with appropriate safety facilities in the case of tornadoes. Seven children died in a school that day. Now, politicians fight over providing tornado shelters in schools. In the days after the Moore tornado, there were stories of men and women who died trying to outrun tornadoes. Newscasters told motorists not to race tornadoes. Told us to find safe places to wait. What they never told us, though, what Only Built for Cuban Linx was trying to teach me that day was that, sometimes, there are no safe places. Sometimes, the only way out is to drive through the storm.
Eighteen months later, I find myself returning to that day, remembering the palpable sense of peril I felt. When I tell the story to new friends and colleagues, I leave out the things I was thinking. I leave out the music. I focus on the weather, on the more immediate fear I felt driving through the storm. In those eighteen months, I found a job that I love. In those eighteen months, also, my marriage has all but fallen apart while I waited for it to get better, while I hid in corners from feelings I wasn’t ready to confront. Now, when I listen to “Knuckleheadz,” I listen for the tornado siren. The song’s own sound effects sound canned, and fake, bullshit off of a cheap sound effects disc. Those sound effects don’t do justice to the album’s ferocious desire for transcendence, the sense that no matter how strong the desire to grow or escape, one must still confront a fragile present where one might, at any moment, “get turned to dust.” When I listen to “Knuckleheadz,” now, I want the urgency of the tornado siren while the sky rotates above me.