“I have crossed the seas, I have left cities behind me, and I have followed the source of rivers towards their source or plunged into forests, always making for other cities. I have had women, I have fought with men; and I could never turn back any more than a record can spin in reverse. And all that was leading me where ? To this very moment…” – Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
The past two Cities Aviv album covers contain one constant, a lone Gavin Mays expressing individuality via a black baseball cap embroidered with the mantra “life is real”. On 2012’s Black Pleasure (MISHKA) his gaze is to the floor, but his symbolic hat is tilted high. With the release of Come To Life last week on Young One Records, Mays is pictured shirtless, looking forward so that no matter the angle his eyes lock with yours, steering your eyeballs to the mantric words “life is real” above his brow. None of this is coincidental.
“The whole idea [on “Don’t Ever Look Back”] is you’ve entered this continuous journey and you’re reaching a further point,” he says. “Passing through that portal, that portal is still connected to the last universe you left, moving on into the next and all still wrapped into their own sphere of sorts. Then reaching the point where you know you’re out [of it]. You’re looking at this person who’s come with you. They are you. You are them.”
Mays describes Come To Life as split between two intentions; the first is escaping the gridlock and the latter is a rapturous journey through a portal. Existing in the elbow of the record is “Perpetuate The Real,” in which Mays seeks genuine interaction over an emoji, stating “there ain’t no Google definition for the way you feel.” Much like Sartre’s dejected historian in Nausea, Mays views inanimate objects and artificial interactions as hindrances to his spiritual freedom. It’s also touched upon in earlier works like “Simulation” on Black Pleasure (“is you real or a simulation? / is you real or assimilatin’?”); Mays asks more of his generation and rap associates. It’s easy to give in to the digital low road ahead, but Cities Aviv is about looking higher towards escape portals, extending a hand to join him to the next gateway.
He goes on, “ You’ve decided I’m not going to look back on the past anymore. I’ve already done that shit. I’m not going to think too hard on the future because I’m headed there. I’m moving.”
The album finds its greatest stride in “Still”(feat. Bizzarh), “Worlds Ov Pressure”, and “Don’t Ever Look Back”. On “Still,” Cities Aviv is preparing for transcendence, “I’ve never felt more alive.” Joined by Bizzarh, a presence not unlike THEEsatisfaction’s appearances on Shabazz Palaces’ Black Up, the Toronto-based singers reiterate the offer to join them in elevation: “And we are elevating / are you participating?” If you’re still not convinced, “Worlds Ov Pressure” is Cities Aviv speaking with empathy and understanding “remember when we used to be gods? / instead of seeking to know one / instead of searching for no one.” It’s all building towards “Don’t Ever Look Back”, which is the coming of the next life, a higher plane of existence.
“This record is bringing everything I’ve done to the floor and merging it with what I’m about to do so all those distances are in one,” he says.
Since the release of Digital Lows in 2011, Mays has fielded countless questions on the role of Memphis rap (particularly 3-6 Mafia) in his music, his past in hardcore bands, and the sampling of Modest Mouse’s “Float On”. All seemingly miss the point of the Cities Aviv aesthetic. Mays’ experimentation is pushing the form—a foundation in rap with an ear for new wave contrast—but the emphasis of history, region, and in some instances hipster fetishism forced upon his art represent a cancer of misinterpretation. It reflects a lack of analysis beyond regionalism and sonic texture, both static old world mentalities guilty of falsifying Millennial culture in general.
“If I’m going to throw a message out there I have to choose wisely because it’s so easy to say ‘fuck this nigga, that nigga’, whatever. Kill this person, that person, whatever,” says Mays. “Or take the route of I’m holier than thou, conscious bullshit. It’s all so easy to do. Instead, if I’m going to present a take, it has to be my own personal take.”
Early Cities Aviv records drenched the vocals in reverb, burying the message. Come To Life recites loud sermons of “Do you realize? Or recognize?”, posing queries meant to awaken the sleepy minded.
Hip hop has fostered 5-percenters, the neo-soulites, the black militants, the nihilistic, the materialistic, and the occult—though the last’s legitimacy is debatable. Cities Aviv is the next logical step, an individual concerned with universal truths, challenging one of the big social questions of our time: Are young people finished with the ancient religions?
“Numerous people are removing themselves from a formulaic existence,” he says. “Some might cite [Aleister] Crowley, Some might cite [Jean-Paul] Sartre, whomever… in the end there’s a universal existence that transcends all that, transcends all those worlds with the moment. In the end that’s all that’s fucking important.”
Millennial liturgy is the absence of dogma, a spiritual grab bag culled from occultists, philosophers, visionary scientists, and existential literary figures. Elder generations fear the generation as godless and depraved. The truth is many of them are operating on a higher spiritual plane by not only denying conformity but possessing the gumption to construct answers that satisfy their deepest impulses rather than suppress them for the sake of the status quo.
“People have been talking about it forever and I think it’s just going to become more prevalent as the years move on,” Mays states. “It’s important to think about these ideas outside of trends and dogmas because it’s so easy to be another rapper and say ‘Jesus this’ or take the other route of inverted crosses. The fake is going to dissolve moving forward. It will come to light and to the light.”
“Considering the end of the world technically happened in 2012, moving forward and we’re still here, what do we do now? What is left for humanity? What is our global cause? What is real anymore?”
Seeking answers, Gavin Mays bumrushed friends and strangers on the street with a tape recorder for the past two years, posing the questions during his travels to San Jose, Huntsville, and in his Brooklyn neighborhood. He found that in those off-hand moments, which he pastes into his albums, the hunches he had about Great Energy, a New Consciousness, were not just his, but resonating among peers.
“No one ran from me,” he says of the field recordings. “I felt the general energy everywhere I was going. Going out west and kicking it with Antwon was awesome. Kicking it with people down South and up in New York, I was feeling a general shift of consciousness. People were moving out from this deviant flight towards destruction, even though regardless it will exist on a global scale.”
New Age pontificators theorized after December 21, 2012 the world would undergo a positive physical and spiritual transformation, rather than a doomsday. A month before the cataclysmic date, Mays released Black Pleasure, an album he considers born of his darkest days. Post-December 21, Cities Aviv spent the early months of 2013 writing Come To Life, redirecting himself out of a black hole and towards a pure light.
Black Pleasure and Come To Life exist as polar opposites; if you see color in music each album art mirrors the content within. The former operates in moody, claustrophobic r&b textures run through toy speakers and distortion, while Come To Life inverts the same techniques towards a brighter outlook, dialing back the mordant gnarl that once lashed harshly towards the phonies. Aware of some looming metaphysical energy, Mays realized that it was naive for him to assume that the 2012 move from Memphis to Brooklyn would “fix” him. He still had the same hang-ups with friends and girlfriends, saw the same struggles but on different faces.
“If I were still in Memphis right now, I’d probably be moping away,” he says. “I mean, I’d be doing the same shit I am now, but in how people interact with each other [there] is pretty blasé overall. It’s still blasé in New York, but it’s different. In New York people are so motivated and pressed to meet other people and pressed to converse with people, there’s a lot of fake interaction.”
Rejuvenated from the completion of his latest record, Come To Life is only the first portal for Cities Aviv. Mays has grand visions, zeniths even, for his next record. He’s continuing to ask the same question, to his friends and strangers on the street: “What do we do now? What is real?”