They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib (Two Dollar Radio, 2017)
Reviewed by Carl Lavigne
I have heard it said that the best writers are the best listeners, and I believe it because of Hanif Abdurraqib. They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a collection of essays ostensibly about music, but Abdurraqib hears what lies beneath the singing and instrumentation. He writes lyrically, elegiacally, about Prince, My Chemical Romance, Migos, and many more, revealing truths no run-of-the-mill magazine music-critic could conjure up in an album review. The essays unearth deep personal connections and experiences that are intertwined with the music they analyze. There’s a soundtrack to every essay in this collection that often takes center stage, trading places at times with recurring themes of growing up, racism, and grief.
Abdurraqib’s cool and clean prose makes it fun and easy to read about musicians people may have never heard or would rather not hear. From his tender observations on Carly Rae Jepsen’s ebullient music, to his towering examination of Fall Out Boy, Abdurraqib has no trouble finding meaning and focus. While discussing the Pennsylvania Pop-Punk outfit, The Wonder Years, Abdurraqib makes an observation so cutting, anyone who has tried to describe their hometown after leaving will be hard-pressed not to shiver in recognition. “The great mission of any art that revolves around place is the mission of honesty. So many of us lean into romantics when we write of whatever place we crawled out of, perhaps because we feel like we owe it something, even when it has taken more from us than we’ve taken from it.”
The collection is not simply about celebrating, though its moments of optimism and wonder are intoxicating. They Can’t Kill Us has an unwavering eye on America. In one essay, Abdurraqib asks, “What good is endless hope in a country that never runs out of ways to drain you of it?” He is not shy about discussing the policing and exclusion of black bodies in supposedly-progressive musical spaces, or the police officers acquitted for murdering black people. He critiques the aughts Emo boom for its inescapable misogyny, and the gentrification of hip-hop music by white rappers.
But Abdurraqib doesn’t reserve all his words for the external. He reminds readers that the political has personal effects, detailing his own encounters with police officers, his fears, the deaths of his friends, and the loss of his mother when he was young. A poet by trade, Abdurraqib’s musings and moments of memoir are absolutely musical, “The thing about grief is that it never truly leaves. From the moment it enters you, it becomes something you are always getting over.” Where lesser writers might stumble or appear self-obsessed, Abdurraqib displays a vulnerability that endears him to his readers.
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is by turns incisive, exciting, and insightful. It is a musical inventory of America’s past, present, and future. Readers will find essays on a wealth of musicians, from Nina Simone, to Bruce Springsteen, to ScHoolboy Q. Abdurraqib writes about things we know in ways we don’t, and readers are sure to learn something if they stop and listen to this vital voice.