“We All Try”: Philosophical Music

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Repost from 2015

Hip-hop singer Frank Ocean is well-known to march to the beat of a different drummer, and nowhere is that more apparent than in We All Try, a lovely and plaintive existential humanist ballad from his popular underground mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra. A philosophically rich work, it touches on a number of identifiably different viewpoints during its brief runtime.

I believe Jehovah Jireh
I believe there’s heaven, I believe in war
I believe a woman’s temple
Gives her the right to choose but baby don’t abort
I believe that marriage isn’t
Between a man and woman but between love and love

The first verse is cast as a credo (a listing of personal beliefs) and starts out with a statement of religious faith, “I believe the Lord Will Provide.” It rapidly, however, establishes its distance from any kind of fundamentalism or orthodoxy with a nuanced statement on the cultural and religious hot-button issue of abortion, and a subtle but unambiguous endorsement of gay marriage, a bold statement for the homophobic world of hip hop, and one that exempts Ocean (who openly explored his bisexuality –lyrically! –on his next album) from accusations of hypocrisy.

And I believe you when you say that you’ve lost all faith
But you must believe in something, something, something
You gotta believe in something, something, something

The bridge at the end of the verse casts Ocean in the role of a defender of belief, as he argues against an unheard interlocutor who claims to have lost “all” faith.

I still believe in man
A wise one asked me why
Cause I just don’t believe we’re wicked
I know that we sin but I do believe we try
We all try, the girls try, the boys try
Women try, men try, you and I try, try, we all try

The chorus is a full-throated expression of a Christian-inflected existential humanism, as Ocean expresses his continued belief in, and his identification with, a flawed but striving humanity.

I don’t believe in time travel
I don’t believe our nation’s flag is on the moon
I don’t believe our lives are simple
And I don’t believe they’re short, this is interlude
I don’t believe my hands are cleanly
Can’t believe that you would let me touch your heart
She didn’t believe me when I said that I lost my faith
You must believe in something, something, something
You gotta believe in something, something, something

The second verse is an anti-credo, although too secular to be read as a statement of atheism –in fact it includes a hidden statement of metaphysical faith cast in the negative, when he alludes to his disbelief that our earthly lives are all there is to our existence. Perhaps this is why when he claims to have lost his faith, his interlocutor refuses to believe him, this time taking on the role of the person pleading in favor of belief:

Try to believe (just try)
I do believe, I do believe

The song continues with Ocean pleading both with himself and the audience to believe, and ends with him reaffirming that belief, although whether in God, humanity or both is ambiguous. In classic Christian humanist style, it may even be that he feels that belief in one entails belief in the other –or is it belief itself that is important?

You must believe in something…

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