Between Jay-Z rapping about his therapist and Kanye releasing an album with “bi-polar” scrawled across its cover, rap is confronting mental health issues in a big way. Though it will never garner the attraction or acclaim of the latest Yeezy joint, Chris Orrick’s Portraits offers one of the most complete pictures of a mental health struggle. Track by track, the album is a roaming stream of consciousness that wanders between Sunday morning supermarket trips and the minutiae of prison life, fears of a looming apocalypse and humble dreams of a happy future. Laid over jangling keys, lazy riffs and daunting drum beats, Portraits tells the story of a man battling in two directions: trying to keep his mind from eating him from within, trying to keep the world from crushing him from without.
“I hate the way that you portray yourself,
But most of all, I hate the way you hate yourself.”
“Self-Portraits” opens the album with a song written by the bastard voice inside that sneers at you all through the day. It stacks “I hate” upon “I hate” to form a torrential mass of fear and self-loathing. Trapped in a viscous cycle of hating your own hatred, misery multiplies out of misery like a virulent disease. This is mental illness as a medical condition, a fault in the mind’s machinery that ensures that it processes the whole world into nothing but failure.
“Design Flaw” fights back with a fired up tirade in verses that trip down through their rhymes with virtuoso verve. It’s the day when you come back out swinging, a flurry of furious lines delivered with surgical precision and scintillating style. It’s said that depression is a demon you can never truly beat, only beat back: “Design Flaw” owns that the broken parts will never truly be fixed, but yells back a burning refusal to be broken by them.
“Most days I can’t get out of bed before it’s noon…Layin in my bed, wishin I was dead.”
But then there are those other days. The days when the fight is gone and broken parts have the run of the system. Between these tracks, you gain a picture of the day-to-day turmoil of being someone with a brain that spends half its life trying to sabotage the host. But this is only half of Portraits’ vision: that brain lives inside a person who lives inside the world.
“Play for them and you play to lose”
Through “The Rubric”, “Jealous of the Sun” and “Bottom Feeders”, Orrick pans out from his internal battles to a wide shot that reveals the bigger picture. It’s painted in pretty dark colours: a world run by liars, fuelled by greed, maintained through violence. If the petty squabbles of the overprivileged few don’t explode and leave us all choking on the fallout, their unequal, oppressive world order will remain in place. This is not an environment tailored to sustain a soul.
The perfect synthesis of all these ideas, the wide lens view and the intimate close- up, arrives in album’s second track “Stories”. It’s laid-back, lackadaisical groove is met with a chorus that promises “Not every story has a point.” Orrick talks about going shopping early on a Sunday morning, wondering what to cook for dinner, exchanging a few friendly words with a store assistant who just got engaged. He sympathises with the workers who don’t want to be there, the people working bullshit jobs for no money. This morning they had to wake up and pull on their uniforms and trudge into another bland day, but last night they drank with their friends and laughed and danced. Sure, getting up with their eyes burning and their throats on fire was that much harder, but the night was theirs.
Portraits doesn’t offer any definite answers because there aren’t any. Life is full of things, outside and in, that might break a person, and there is no sign that this will change any time soon. But there are also great nights and lazy buddies and cats named Pistachio. There are bottles to be drained and friends to help you drink them. There are brand new wedding rings, gleaming on the fingers of supermarket employees.
Listen to the album HERE
– Ross McIndoe ( @OneBigWiggle )