When I was getting ready to move into my college dorm and leave my lifelong home, all I could think about was the past. All I could think about were the friends I’d probably never see again, my younger sisters that I wouldn’t see grow up, the past that would always remain history.
These were all thoughts I had while I was rummaging through my house, searching for any keepsakes of my past that I could bring to my dorm. On my desk was a stack of photos that my friend from high school had printed at her nearby Walgreens. I was about to stuff them in my backpack, but I felt the need to flip through old memories one last time. In it were all sorts of snapshots of my life, from a group photo of me and my friends at Universal Studios to the selfies that my friends had sneaked into my phone while I was using the restroom. It eventually hit me that I haven’t seen these same friends in over 3 years now.
I continued looking through my house. In one corner, I found the couch that my mom used to lie down on when she was pregnant with me, noticing how the couch now bows down a bit from having to sustain the weight of two bodies. Almost instinctively, I sat back down on this couch, now grown up and around the same age as when my mom met my dad. In another pile of discarded memories was a blue blanket decorated with astronauts and spaceships. It was also swathed in strokes of dry, end-of-life blood stains, and at that point I quickly realized that the blanket had belonged to my dog who died 4 years ago. Suddenly, I found myself overwhelmed by grief, learning how much I’ve lost during my youth and how little I’ve gained from it all. This wasn’t merely the kind of adolescent longing that everyone on the verge of adulthood experiences; this was a catastrophe.
But then, almost as if they knew exactly what I was going through, the Arizona-based hip-hop trio Injury Reserve had released their album By the Time I Get to Phoenix around the time I moved out. It is an album that, even before release, I knew what it was going to be about, because Phoenix is an album that was born from the passing of key member Stepa J. Groggs. All the energetic bars about driving down to West Coast Customs and jailbreaking Teslas from their previous releases were now replaced by despondent meditations on death, exploring the pain of losing loved ones, realizing you have outgrown the people and places that molded you into the person you are, and learning that the world won’t wait for you to process your loss. Likewise, Injury Reserve’s sound on Phoenix was no longer colored by the classic West Coast hip-hop throwbacks that made their past records so vibrant. Instead, this album is textured with wailing guitar loops, jagged drum patterns, glitched sound effects, and the painfully clear void left by Groggs.
The most devastating part of the album though isn’t necessarily in Groggs’ absence (in fact, Groggs makes the occasional appearance here and there). More than anything, the true devastation lies in moments when happiness physically leaves them, like a smile you can feel fade from your face. Whether it be the wildfires that destroy homes (“Footwork in a Forest Fire”) or algorithms that continue to run even after the death of its user (“Top Picks for You”), Phoenix is scattered with deeply personal moments that are burned down to mere ashes. In a world with so many moving parts, everything that was once so intimate to Injury Reserve was now being reduced down to insignificant minutiae right before their eyes, once full of substance but now stripped of meaning, like a discarded couch or a bloody blanket. It’s what’s made Phoenix such an affecting experience for me.
In the days before I moved out, I was swept up by a sort of childish melancholy, a desire to remain a blissfully ignorant kid forever. But learning how quickly everyone else had moved on and finding myself in a state of emotional stasis brought me back to reality. I imagine that if my mind wasn’t so clouded by my grief, maybe I could have actually tried making new friends, flirted with crushes, moved on. But the thought of losing everything all over again has always set me back, and growth just never seemed to happen. This sentiment couldn’t be better translated than on the heart wrenching song “Knees”, where Ritchie and Groggs sing, “Knees hurt me when I grow / And that’s a tough pill to swallow / Because I’m not getting taller”. What persists is the deep hurt of learning how little you’ve grown despite all that you’ve gone through, a feeling that has kept me company for the past year.
There aren’t any triumphant moments to be had on Phoenix, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Phoenix has taught me what it means to lose so much and gain so little but more importantly how to survive the devastation. As Ritchie aptly puts it on “Top Picks for You”, “I scan the room, I see bits and pieces of you scattered / It’s those same patterns that gon’ get us through the next chapter”. When I sit down on my mom’s couch, I think about the nervous excitement my parents must have felt before having their first child. When I wrap myself in my dog’s blanket, I think about how my dog used to fervently dig at it to tuck herself in bed. When I flip through all the photos with my friends, I think about the new friends they made, the people they’ve started dating, the children some of them are currently bearing, and all the little things that make their lives so fulfilling. These mementos possess a sort of warmth, the kind of warmth that lingers on a seat that was previously occupied, absent but residual. Maybe this warmth is what’s going to get me through the next chapter.
I’m scheduled to move out of my dorm in a few weeks. I’ve already started packing my things, but during the process, I found my friend’s photos once again, forgetting I had even brought them in the first place. I feel sorry for putting them through months of neglect, but this time I decide to give them the attention they deserve and the same warmth they gave me. I grab one photo from the stack and trace my thumb along its jagged edges. I stare at the white streak along the corner, sunbleached and withering. I fix the creases on the corners, brush off all the dust it’s been collecting, and rub the photo with the grease on my fingers to polish it. And then, almost as if they knew I was thinking about them, my phone starts to buzz with text messages from some of these very same friends. They talk about going to Universal Studios again. All I can think about saying is how much I miss them, but now’s not the time for that. I smirk at my phone and text, “When?”