TheMIND reclaims his mental real estate | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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TheMIND reclaims his mental real estate

On his first album in four years, the Chicago singer digs in against the disenfranchisement of Black voices.

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Zarif Wilder, aka theMIND - ADRIAN OCTAVIUS WALKER
  • Adrian Octavius Walker
  • Zarif Wilder, aka theMIND

The cover art for theMIND's new album, Don't Let It Go to Your Head, shows a young Black couple kissing with plastic bags over their heads. Photographed by Nolis Anderson, it's a take on René Magritte's 1928 surrealist painting The Lovers, which shows two people—one in a jacket and tie, the other in a top that exposes what could be a white shoulder—kissing through white cloth wrapped completely around their heads.

The Chicago singer's version is arguably more devastating—the two Black lovers seem almost smothered by plastic bags, which are adorned with smiley faces. The artwork is first and foremost a statement on love and relationships: "When a hurt person gets into a relationship? It's like the equivalent of you putting a bag over your lover's head and suffocating them," theMIND says. "What's that saying? 'If a real one holds you down, you're supposed to drown.' I think that's a very violent thing to say, but when you're really in the shits with somebody, they'll be like, 'I'll drink that Kool-Aid with you too.'"

The cover art for Don't Let It Go to Your Head can start conversations about issues that impact the Black community, but the album itself comments even more directly on the erasure of Black bodies—and on a government designed to disenfranchise Black, Brown, and other marginalized communities. DLIGTYH is also a treatise on the anxiety that can come with being an artist—a look at how theMIND cares for himself in a music industry that often treats Black people as commodities.

theMIND · Don't Let It Go To Your Head

TheMIND explores these sociopolitical issues through the context of his own experiences and traumas, grounding himself in the belief that he's accountable for who he is and what he does with that. His debut solo project, 2016's Summer Camp, was a coming-of-age tale—what he calls a "grandiose story of the boy turning into a man"—but DLIGTYH reflects larger community-wide and systemic struggles.

Born Zarif Wilder in Philadelphia, theMIND ended up at Columbia College Chicago in 2007 thanks to a chance meeting at a Philly airport with Lupe Fiasco, who persuaded him to attend the school. Wilder linked up with production crew ThemPeople at Columbia and later began collaborating closely with rapper Mick Jenkins. He also started working as a background singer, and to this day he can often be heard on Chicago releases.

Where Summer Camp scratched the surface of his old wounds, DLIGTYH digs into them. Summer Camp put a fantastical spin on his childhood, allowing Wilder to avoid directly discussing growing up in foster care and surviving abusive households. Fantasy also became a way for him to elide the full truth about his relationship with his two sisters—one of whom is his twin—which became strained after he ran away from their adoptive mother's home. Wilder was taken in by his middle school science teacher, Jeffrey Williams, and began calling Williams's family his own.

"I didn't really want to talk [on Summer Camp] about the things that were plaguing me, because I felt like if I did, then I would look like an asshole," he explains. "[With DLIGTYH], I just really got to a place where I'm at peace with my own truth, where I was just like, 'This is my story. I have just as much of a right to tell it as [everyone else] does.'"

"Don't let the pain and the trauma and everything else get to you," says Wilder, "because these things can also break you." - ADRIAN OCTAVIUS WALKER
  • Adrian Octavius Walker
  • "Don't let the pain and the trauma and everything else get to you," says Wilder, "because these things can also break you."

The title of the new album has become a mantra for him: a reminder to not play with his time and to make sure fame, ego, and his own insecurities don't get the best of him. "Don't let the pain and the trauma and everything else get to you, because these things can also break you," he says.

For Don't Let It Go to Your Head, Wilder enlists a familiar group of artist friends, selecting his collaborators—Kari Faux, Sun, and Chicagoans Saba, Qari, and Phoelix—based on the textures of their voices. Montreal producer Da-P handles all the production except on the song "Craig," where he works with Los Angeles-based producer Esta.

On the opening track, "Peanut Gallery," Wilder admits to getting in his own way. At first we hear a 20-second deluge of his thoughts, which start out comprehensible—you can hear him saying to himself, "Oh, you Hollywood now? Boy, get your broke ass home! She don't love you." His internal monologue becomes increasingly jumbled and hard to understand, before finally ceasing as his voice breaks through to say, "Stop. You're overthinking it. Continue."

On the electrifying posse cut "Free Trial" (with Qari and Phoelix), Wilder considers how everything in life comes at a price: "Ain't shit for free / Not even sleep / Wanna spend a lifetime happy / Comes at a fee," he sings. When Qari takes his guest verse, he raps, "I feel blessed when I'm supposed to be cursed," acknowledging that Black people are always on trial for merely existing—and pushing back against that judgment.

Elsewhere Wilder touches on themes that have become more crucial to him as he's gotten older. On "Aura Prelude," he addresses the pressures of being an artist, while on "Black Aura" (featuring Saba), he talks about protecting himself while working in a soul-sucking industry: "Burn sage / The ashes fall / Along wit' the energy / The ashes fall / Along with a version of you and me."

On "Ms. Communication," Wilder goes back and forth with his girl, making excuses for his behavior and indirectly indicting himself for shirking responsibility. On "Sea," his meditative coo mingles with Da-P's sparse production, and the track feels like an inversion of "Ms. Communication": Wilder holds himself accountable for how he treated a former lover.

Wilder can't speak on his traumas without recalling his youth. The song "Craig" is inspired in part by a story about a childhood friend and neighbor who was also in foster care. Wilder remembers one day when he and his buddies saw Craig run out into the rain. "He looked up at the sky and said, 'Is that all you got, God?'" Wilder says. "Literally, a bolt of lightning hit right next to him. It was like God [said], 'Stop playing with me, bro.' Craig just ducked and ran back on the porch like, 'Yo, what the fuck!'" In the song, Wilder croons to himself, "You play too much." He gives an honest account of the hardships he and his people have endured, and of tender moments overshadowed by violence.

"I wanted to tell this story about me and my timing," Wilder says, referring to the death of his little brother a couple years ago. "I felt like I played with the opportunities of having a conversation with him, and then after he passed away, it was a sting that fucked with me about [the fact that] I can't play with time anymore."

On "9mm," Wilder tells the tale of a boy who's given a gun at a young age and told to become a man. At the end of the song, he makes a bitter joke about how little America as a whole cares about the inequities faced by the Black community: "Back to your regularly scheduled programming," he sings. "Sorry for the interruption."

"Being Black in America, or any community that is systemically oppressed, you add on [anything else], it's going to fuck them up even worse," Wilder says. "You're going to see the individuals who are really being affected by the system. As a person who had to exist in the government system, I've seen people who don't care about these communities and kids—who don't care about what happens to them. They're just there for a check."

"That's only going to perpetuate violence," he continues, "because these individuals who are already starving—now they're not just hungry, their friends and families are dying around them. What do you expect to happen now?"

"So now you have these kids who are acting out and who need actual help, but these systems that were set up to help have failed them. And not even failed them, since they're playing and working the exact way that they've been set up to work."

DLIGTYH shows how such systemic bias and neglect have shaped Wilder's life. That past is out of his hands, but he doesn't want to gamble with the time he has left.

"I've always had this really playful fucking spirit about me," he says. "I still do, but not to the point of playing with my life—playing with relationships and people who were close to me, and thinking that I'll get a chance to do that again. Now it's just this voice in my head, like, 'N***a, stop playing. You don't have that opportunity to play like that.'"  v

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