Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Retrospect for 'Retrospect For Life'

The song "Retrospect for Life" is featured on the 1997 album by Common One Day It'll All Make Sense, the eagerly awaited follow up to his masterpiece Resurrection. The song features the vocals of Lauryn Hill singing lines from Stevie Wonder's Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer. The song was the first single released for the album. Living in 2010, an era where the first single to a rap album is almost required to be some catchy club-friendly tune which can easily translate into a ringtone, the idea of a mellow, soulful, conceptual track about abortion being the lead commercial single for an album seems almost inconceivable. And even in 1997 it was far from typical, but then Common isn't your typical artist.

The song is about a man reflecting on the decision that he made with his current girlfriend to abort their child. The first verse of the song is addressed to the aborted child; the second verse is addressed to the girlfriend. While I would hesitate to call the song 'Pro-life' it is certainly anti-abortion. For me there is no distinction between those two things, but some people believe that a woman should have a legal right to terminate a pregnancy, even though they believe it's the wrong thing to do. Such people might correctly be labeled 'anti-abortion', but not 'pro-life'. I believe such a position is confused, but that isn't the point of this piece. The point is that Common might merely be espousing an anti-abortion position rather than a Pro-life one.

In the first verse Common reflects on what it would have meant for him to have a son:

You would've been much more than a mouth to feed
But someone, I woulda fed this information I read
And someone, my life for you I woulda had to lead
Instead I lead you to death
I'm sorry for takin your first breath
First step, and first cry

And he goes on to address his own hypocrisy:

Nerve I got to talk about them [people] with a gun
Must have really thought I was God to take the life of my son

These lines are both clever and profound. In the first bar he's referencing the ideals that he professes in his own music. Namely the fact that he opposes much of the violence in popular rap music, as well as the violence he sees within urban culture in general. Yet here he is performing an act of the most heinous violence against his own son for his own selfish purposes. While the second bar is a brilliant double entendre.

The song is not intended to be an ideological treatise on abortion or to even comment on the arguments that surround the legal and moral aspects of the issue. Instead it's approached in a manner that comes off as introspective and self-searching rather than as demagoguery. The downside to this is that some of the very human thoughts and emotions contain some very pitiful rationalizations which the narrator wanders through. Such as: "But I wasn't prepared mentally nor financially / Havin a child shouldn't have to bring out the man in me / Plus I wanted you to be raised within a family / I don't wanna, go through the drama of havin a baby's momma / Weekend visits and buyin J's ain't gon' make me a father" While these thoughts and concerns are certainly understandable, one should rightly point out that they are concerns that should probably be addressed before impregnating someone. Plus they ignore the viable option of putting the child up for adoption. Ultimately, though, the rationalizations lose out as a decidedly anti-abortion conclusion is reached, most poignantly at the end of the first verse: "from now on I'ma use self control instead of birth control / Cause 315 dollars ain't worth your soul / 315 dollars ain't worth your soul / 315 dollars ain't worth it."

While the first verse dealt more with the past--with the act that had taken place and the narrator's remorse--the second verse is more about the present and future. Addressed to his girlfriend it's an exploration of their relationship and where it's headed. How the abortion brought certain issues and emotions to the surface which now have to be dealt with. Ideally these would be the type of things that people in a mature relationship would consider and discuss before choosing to have sexual relations, but in the real world they often don't come up until after the fact.

Happy deep down but not joyed enough to have it
But even that's a lie, in less than two weeks, we was back at it
Is this unprotected love or safe to say it's lust
Bustin, more than the sweat is somebody you trust
Or is it that we don't trust each other enough
And believe havin this child'll make us have to stay together
I want you in my life cause you have made it better
Thinkin we are in love cause we can spend a day together?
We talkin spendin the rest of our lives
There's too many black women that can say they're mothers
but can't say that they're wives

The strength of the song is the personal, probing depth of the perspective that is taken. Rather than addressing the issues in a detatched or external way, they're addressed from from within. Its scope isn't limited to the question of abortion itself, but includes the nature of family, relationships, love etc. and how they are all interrelated. It's a powerful and poignant exploration of the abortion issue from a human perspective, with all the imperfection that that entails.

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