By Wallace Mack
“New Voicemail (1)” is sitting, glittering and glaring on your iPhone home screen, but no one leaves voicemails anymore except for moms. It could be a telemarketer. It could be a bill collector. It’s not. The voice on the other ear of the phone is your mom and she’s calling to either clock you or encourage you.
Research indicates that millennials are averse to leaving and receiving voicemail messages. We have many other options like the missed call feature and even text messages that make the idea of voicemail seem obsolete and not very pragmatic. But what happens when a message from your mom shows up in your iTunes? How do these messages shape our culture? And most importantly, are we listening?
Drake, "Can’t Have Everything" (More Life)
Drake is a polarizing figure. He’s an international star who has amassed massive acclaim, but on his recent More Life, we hear his mom remind him (and us) that sometimes you still need to be cut down to size. On "Can't Have Everything," Drake pulls out some of his most braggadocious and aggressive lines to date, taking jabs at any and everyone. He flexes his breadwinning potential in lines like “I mean/I keep the f-ckin' lights on in the buildin'” and reminds his enemies just how poor they are, "Y'all niggas is arrogant/y'all sleep at the Sheraton/All that shit embarrassin.'”
In context, Drake has plenty of reasons to go off. After the 2016 release of his fourth studio album VIEWS, Drake set historic streaming and sales records, but the album's critical reception was less than desirable. From ghostwriting accusations to the snowballing concerns about his status as a culture vulture, Drake has battled much public scrutiny over the past year. In many ways, “Can’t Have Everything” feels like a much needed venting session. With exactly 48 seconds remaining on the track, Sandy Graham hops on to impart some wisdom via voicemail.
She starts with her expressing concern and validating her son’s feelings:
You know, hun, I'm a bit concerned about this negative tone that I'm hearing in your voice these days. I can appreciate where your uncertainly stems from and you have reason to question your anxieties and how disillusioned you feel, as well as feeling skeptical about who you believe you can trust.
Sandy continues with words of advice. She explains that aggression is not the way out of alienation. She reminds Drake that all actions have consequence:
But that attitude will just hold you back in this life, and you're going to continue to feel alienated.
She makes a firm suggestion and once again, assures Drake that if no one else believes in him, mom does:
Give some thought to this, because I’m confident in you, and I know you can reach your desired destination and accomplish your goals much more quickly without this confrontation I'm hearing in your tone these days. When others go low, we go high.
There are many horrors in the industry that a mother could want to save her son from: the drugs, crazed fans or even rap beef gone wrong. The voicemail Drake receives from his mom on this particular occasion however, has a different aim. Sandy Graham is calling to save her son from himself, proving that there’s real love, there’s fake love, and there’s a mother’s love.
Kendrick Lamar, "Don’t Kill My Vibe/Real" (good kid, m.A.A.d city)
In October of 2012, Kendrick Lamar released an epic tale with his debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d city. Throughout the album, Kendrick includes recordings of his friends, his neighbors, and his family to add depth and perspective to the way the story is told. Some of the most entertaining and heavy hitting moments of narration on the album come from his mom. While the storylines are based somewhere between fiction and real-life, her voice and tone are real and recognizable. Kendrick is talking to us about his shenanigans; a teenage rendezvous of sorts in which he links up with his love interest, Sherane, to have sex where he tragically realizes he’s been set up. Simultaneously, his mom is calling and she has some things to get off her chest.
"Kendrick. Where you at? Daaaamnnnnn. I'm sittin' here waitin' on my van.”
In true “momma on your voicemail” fashion, she also makes some assumptions about who he may be with, “them damn hoodrats” and, in a great display of irony, pleads with him that she especially hopes it’s not that “crazy ass girl Sherane.” “Where you at?” voicemails are a somewhat essential part of teenhood growing pains, but also a fantastic testament to the fact that no one in this world seems to know you like mom. No one is as good as keeping it real with you as mom is either. Aggressive in nature, these particular voicemails are not the most fun to receive but they are some of our earliest teenage experiences with accountability.
Closer to the end of the album, Kendrick’s mom reveals a softer side. By the time the listener reaches track 11, “Real,” Kendrick’s mom hasn’t seen her son his days. Contextually, “Real” is a song about self-awareness. One of the biggest lessons demonstrated on the track centers a concept that our moms try to teach us from day one— the importance of loving yourself. Towards the end, “Real” feels like the first time in days Kendrick is able to sit down and actually check his voicemail. This time it’s his dad on the phone, but he passes it over to his mom.
“Boy, you better have my car on full all this time you done had my damn car, but look I ain't trippin'.”
The song ends, and the voice of Kendrick’s mom continues.
"If I don't hear from you by tomorrow, I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let 'em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement, and that's the best way to give back. To your city...And I love you Kendrick, if I don't hear you knocking on the door you know where I usually leave the key. Alright? Talk to you later, bye."
The power of this moment is found in the versatility of a mother’s love. The listener is conditioned to see Kendrick’s mom as tough and rigid, while the truth is that our mom’s demonstrate love in many different ways. As Kendrick is coming to his own conclusions about life, his mom is on voicemail letting him know how much she values his. In this sense, “Real” becomes a full circle moment between Kendrick, his mom and the listener. We are only allowed to speculate what happens next— does Kendrick call back? And if so, what is the conversation like? There’s a beautiful ambiguity that lingers here. Any listener that has experience with a mom or a mom-like figure is allowed to fill in the blanks. I imagine that no matter how you spin the ending, there’s still love on the other side of the line.
Frank Ocean, "Be Yourself" (Blonde)
Rosie Watson, the mom of one of Frank Ocean’s childhood friends, reads us for filth regarding our drug habits and issues with identity on “Be Yourself,” the fourth track on Ocean’s 2016 album Blonde. It reminded me that the lessons our mothers teach us don’t change, they only evolve. “Don’t talk to strangers” becomes “Don’t take candy from strangers” which becomes “Don’t do drugs” which somehow morphs into “Don’t drink and drive” and ultimately becomes “Quit drinking that cheap liquor.”
When artists are vulnerable enough to let their mothers into the lives of listeners, it elicits a natural vulnerability in us as well. Moms are master teachers. They dedicate their entire lives to teaching us, and whether we’d like to admit it or not, they’re more often right than wrong. For those of us that have crossed oceans, time zones and state lines that separate us from our moms, keeping in touch gets tough. We’re more connected than ever before, but it’s also easier than ever before to isolate ourselves, especially from the wisdom of our mothers. But in classic mom fashion, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Our moms are finding their way into our favorite tracks and I couldn’t be more thankful. I just hope that we’re ready to listen.