Spend too much time on social media in 2016, and the surfeit of self-affirmation can be suffocating. The professionalization of digital space means incessant self-promotion in a game where ego is your greatest asset; and the lives cropped and filtered until they depict only our idealized parts are so commonplace as to be unremarkable. We are exhorted to excel, to thrive, to be our best possible selves at every turn. Merely existing has never been so anxiety-inducing.
Even radical self-love, a concept designed to help marginalized groups counteract the negativity thrown on a daily basis towards queer people, people of color, women and more, increasingly feels like part of this collage of public displays of greatness. It would be churlish to bemoan movements that, both individually and collectively, are necessary and can be inspiring. But cumulatively, it can be exhausting. Studies have shown that positive affirmations can in fact lower self-esteem; anecdotally, more than one person I know has had to quit social media due to the culture of performative excellence. Thriving may be a goal, but it’s not always a reality. When you feel single and unloved, or like your career is going nowhere, or regretful of your decisions, scrolling through a timeline of people reveling in their beauty, dream jobs and self-confidence is not going to uplift you, no matter how culturally important; it’s going to make you feel even more like shit.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that some movements ostensibly designed to uplift a community do as much to exclude those not deemed to be sufficiently excellent. In the wake of Lemonade, Beyoncé’s gorgeous vivification of #BlackGirlMagic, I searched Twitter for the same hashtag appended to another of today’s most brilliant, necessary R&B artists, K. Michelle. It has only been used for her three times–ever. Sure, she’s no Beyoncé in terms of profile; who is? But with three R&B No 1 albums to her name, K. Michelle should be comparable to Solange, whose middle-class, bougie style and sensibilities have made her the patron saint of the movement despite less actual commercial success.
By contrast, the cover of K. Michelle’s third album More Issues Than Vogue might provide some clues. A collage of insults are designed as headlines, the words dumped on her instead of “magic” and “excellence”; they’re also the cloud of insecurities that have always underpinned her raw, uncomfortably self-lacerating songwriting. Intimidating. Sarcastic. Anxious. Bipolar. Liar. No man. Fake booty. Thot. Imperfect. Laying them out like that is a defiant reclamation, but it’s also a refreshing acknowledgment of the things, from within us and without, that make us miserable. My words or your words might be different to K. Michelle’s, but when you’re feeling them to the point where they’re inescapable, the absolute last thing you’re able to do is haul yourself away from them with self-affirmations. In comparison to torturing yourself for failing to live up to your best, idealized, non-existent self, wallowing in your worst realities seems like the healthy option.
K. Michelle’s music has never shied away from this. On her first album, 2013’s Rebellious Soul, a stand-out cut was named, baldly, “I Don’t Like Me”. The following year, its follow-up had a despairing title–“Anybody Wanna Buy A Heart?”–started with the declaration that “I hate that I couldn’t get right even if I tried” and ended with wry resignation: “God, I get it / I’m a mess and I admit it.” Her third album, More Issues Than Vogue, returns repeatedly to the fatalism at her core: individual songs may be confident, playful, even serene, but K. Michelle’s body of work as a whole is predicated on her unshakeable assumptions that happiness is fleeting, life is pain and love only leads to hurt. Or as she puts it on the album’s centerpiece, the show-stopping ballad “If It Ain’t Love”: “It’s crazy, amazing; we fucked it up.”
Her pessimism–which never tips into dreary self-pity or moody, romanticized faux-sensitive poses–is a necessary counterpoint to a cultural climate in which we’re told that the power of positive thought and belief is the first step towards a nebulous greatness. Instead, K. Michelle isn’t afraid to show us her lowest moments; More Issues Than Vogue ends with the abject “Sleep Like A Baby”, which finds the singer psychologically tormenting herself, marooned and isolated on her side of the bed. A certain amount of damage still permeates her performances even when the subject matter is less emotionally bleak, too: K. Michelle sings an invitation to a booty call on “Ain’t You” as if all she wants to do is hide from the world. (Later, she sounds more present and connected when actually singing about wanting to slink home alone at 3am on “Nightstand”.)
Not that K. Michelle’s pain wholly defines her as an artist. More Issues Than Vogue is probably her most light-hearted album yet, whether she’s rapping trash talk over ridiculous guitar squiggles on the curveball opener “Mindful” or pulling off a full-on country homecoming on bonus track “Memphis”. But here’s the thing: K. Michelle may not be playing the game of self-affirmation, but in what way does she not deserve it? She’s formidably and undeniably talented in all the conventional ways–a musician increasingly at ease in whatever genre she chooses to turn her hand to, a singer who can take almost every other R&B artist of her generation to church, a songwriter who can deal in wit as well as catharsis, sometimes both simultaneously: “Baby, please excuse my behavior / But can I get back the fucks that I gave ya?” she sings contemptuously on “Nightstand”. She might be too real to be magic–but her art is there for when your reality gets too much, when magic can’t save you.
More Issues Than Vogue is out now via Atlantic Records. Get it here.