I don’t need to tell you about the state of the world. You know all about it already. You know about the bloated pig carcass running America, the smiling iron fist running China, the KGB thug running Russia. You know about the climate crisis, worsening by the day, to the point where even the most radical solution seems like a Band-Aid on an axe wound. You know about the refugee crisis across the globe, where millions of people seeking a better life are treated like war criminals by the very people who should be helping them. You know about the capital-letter hot topics: Gun Violence in America, Police Brutality in America, Hate Crimes in America. You know about all these things, even if you’ve never experienced them, even if you’ve never set foot outside your cozy suburb. The world has always been troubled, but thanks to the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s never been this obvious.
Jordan Mackampa, the soulful singer-songwriter behind the recent single “What Am I”, knows this as well as anyone; after all, he’s based in the United Kingdom. There, fraught-at-the-best-of-times class tensions are reaching a boiling point, aimless nostalgia for bygone days is dragging the country backwards, and the two major parties are led by a toffee-nosed goon and a cranky old anti-semite, neither of whom have much interest in stopping the impending, objectively catastrophic exit from the European Union. It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of all that, and despite its breezy, relaxed groove, “hopeless” is the word which best describes “What Am I”.
On the song’s Genius annotation, Mackampa writes that “What Am I” was inspired by “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, a soul classic which remains the gold standard for socially-conscious pop music. Placing your song next to Marvin Gaye is an undeniably gutsy move, but it’s a smart one; it lets the careful listener compare and contrast them, and helps them understand “What Am I” better.
“What’s Going On” was Marvin Gaye’s response to the constant turmoil of the late 60s and early 70s, from race riots to the Vietnam War. “With the world exploding around me,” he said, “how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” And yet it’s not a fire-breathing protest song, nor is it a statement of purpose. It’s called “What’s Going On”, after all, not “Here’s What’s Going On and What We Should Do About It”. It extols the virtues of love and understanding (Gaye later described “What’s Going On” as a love song, and he’s not far off), but it does so without downplaying the gravity of the situation or pretending it has all the answers. And on top of everything else, it’s simply an amazing song, lush and warm and big-hearted.
“What Am I” is similarly lush and warm, all jangling guitars and string synths and bouncy horns. But while “What’s Going On” was buoyant and relaxed, “What Am I” feels downcast and tense. The weight of the world is heavy on Mackampa’s shoulders as he sings about how powerless he feels in the face of all this turmoil; “nothing ever changes, so what’s the point in trying?” he laments, his rich, soulful voice elevating a lyric that could have been on-the-nose and mopey. Even the big sing-along chorus, catchy as it is, feels forlorn; unlike Marvin Gaye, Mackampa knows exactly what’s going on, but he has no idea what to do.
Mackampa doesn’t try to offer answers, which is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there are no answers; at least, none that can fit within four minutes and eight seconds. On the other hand, hopelessness and apathy make it even harder to fight back and make changes, so the fact that the song’s answer to “what am I supposed to do?” is essentially a shrug leaves a bitter aftertaste. But songs don’t need to answer the world’s problems to be good; all they need to do is sound good and express the artist’s vision, and “What Am I” succeeds on both counts.
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