The first time I saw an audience simultaneously discomforted and reassured was at a P.O.S concert. After he sang one of his new songs, “Wearing a Bear,” he explained that the goofy dance he did at the end was for the day of his death (#ripPOS). He had done a different dance at every show because he wanted his tribute to be thousands of fans doing various goofy dances and posting them to social media.

P.O.S is the stage name for Stefon Alexander. As P.O.S, Alexander has released 4 punk-infused hip-hop albums and has achieved prominence in the underground rap community—especially in the Minneapolis (his home) hip-hop scene. In 2012, Alexander announced that his kidneys were failing as a result of scarring that started when he was a teenager. He received a kidney transplant in March 2013.

The new P.O.S album, Chill, dummy seems designed to capture an ambivalence about how to feel when facing death and being rescued by generosity—an ambivalence that is, I think, perfectly embodied in the silly dance mentioned a couple paragraphs ago. The album, as a whole, expresses the lack of any easy conclusions from facing death directly both during a health crisis and afterward, day by day. Chill, dummy seems to also work through his political resentments, retaining some form of anticapitalistic outrage while self-correcting in the direction of self-care and giving attention to himself and his family. Alexander is by turns angry, depressed, motivated, and humbled. He seems to have been stripped of any pretensions of self-importance, so he can occasionally laugh in between the more intense moments of his life—without giving up or betraying his principles.

“Wearing a Bear” has some wonderful, reference-laden, and clever lines that express his simultaneous engagement and disengagement with serious topics:

Talking to these mutant teens, splintering
Making sure the foot won’t win again
Default fine, everything’s cool
The demeanor of a bomb pop
Chilling in a pool with a bomb pop
Dripping on these four finger jewels
I don’t give a fuck
Least about the shit that’s buggin you eh
Watch the news and then realizing I do
And theorizing about who
Exactly do I gotta kill
Just jokes y’all, I’m pacifist

The tone is set by a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TURTLE POWER!) reference; he’s relaxed and lets world events stream on by while he chills like he’s holding a bomb pop—until the news looms. After that, well, it’s “#blacklives / Some of y’all indifferent […] / Some of y’all thought racism was over because the president is black.”

There are some other songs to which he brings in a truly whimsical, almost self-parodying side (e.g., “Same dude new guts / Literal and figurative” from “Pieces/Ruins”; “Make noise / Take toys / Shovel face bully” from “Bully”), but there’s a shift very quickly to another reading of the album title. Alexander is telling himself to chill because he has so little power over the future—and holding onto self-righteousness or wasting time with self-promotion is poison. A particularly affecting song is “Thieves/Kings,” a reflection on how effort and virtue always lead to the same result, i.e., death (“We can live like thieves / We can live like kings / They could be the same thing”). He spits out a verse about a fellow Minnesotan—filmmaker Andre Durand—“Appallingly talented fearless and yeah / Prolly as careless as every last one of my very best friends / And gone way too soon.” A high synth track kicks in as Alexander sputters out, the music crying, screaming for him. This is the counterpoint to the silliness at the end of “Wearing a Bear,” facing reality without answers, without a sick verse to wrap it all up. In “Faded” Alexander begs for love; in “Gravedigger” he focuses on “Tryna use a hundred percent / Of this little bit a flash that I have” by “sitting back broke / Pushing facts and hope.” There’s inevitability and defiance throughout these tracks. He will admit that his friend Andre fell too soon and that his health has failed him in ways he couldn’t have imagined—but he screams at it and focuses on messy, broken human connection.

Nowhere is the focus on human connection more acute than in “sleepdrone/superposition,” a nearly 9-minute track that closes out Chill, dummy. Alexander pours out his heart alongside four featured collaborators, including his son who raps as Hard_R. The first half of the song title refers to the backing track, a slow drone that only picks up for the chorus; the sleepdrone also represents the meaninglessness that his aggressive vulnerability is fighting against. He repeats over and over that he is “trying to exist in superposition,” a reference to Schrödinger’s cat experiment, by which he declares that despite his health limitations (the cat is dead), he will continue declaring truth and pursuing connection (the cat is alive). The social and political advocacy that have characterized his whole career remain deeply important to him: “I’m Chris Dorner I’m Doberman dirty off leash / I’m Mike Brown I’m Eric Garner I can’t breathe.” But his advocacy is tempered by the effects of his kidney transplant:

I tried to write a note to everyone who came out and supported when my kidney couldn’t clean up my poisonous blood
But I just stared at the page
And when I wrote it I felt nothing but the numbing of cliché and tasted nothing but batteries and iron all over my tongue
Words rusted in place

I feel like now is the time to admit what careful readers already realize: my take on this album is so centered around the direct engagement with a life-threatening health condition precisely because nothing like that has ever happened to me. I am all too aware of the healthy person’s idolization of the brave, sick person—and, more specifically, aware that this sentiment can veer into maudlin fetishizing (Cf. “Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Dec’d” from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn).

With all that noted, I will state what I have learned about the relationship between art and suffering: great art post-suffering is preceded by great art. Suffering itself isn’t a baptism into a higher state of consciousness; after the diagnosis or the surgery, one remains the same person as before albeit with different experiences. Chill, dummy wasn’t handed down to Alexander by the Angel of Mortality. As with his previous work, he directly confronts the uncertainty and pain and tells his listeners about that raw and messy experience. “Goodbye,” a song from a previous P.O.S album, shows very effectively that this has been a long-running practice and not one solely gained from a literal near-death experience. In “Goodbye,” Alexander links his own perseverance to those who are worse off than him. There is law here (and, really, throughout his work—it’s political, after all), but it is based on our shared humanity. It’s not perseverance to do great deeds. Alexander tells us that just living is perseverance for some people—well, for all people, but his friends experience this truth more concretely than many of his fans:

All right, a lot of my friends shake when they don’t drink
All my friends wheeze in they sleep, all my friends think green
But can’t afford to live it, can’t ignore the cynics
Can’t explore the gimmicks, can’t report the dividends
Limited only by the need to stay fed
And giving up is like Latin, it’s dead
It don’t happen, don’t even cross the head
Lost in our own web but it’s our bed, sleep sucks

The hook encourages us to recognize “when the world won’t stop” because of the difficulties we face. The law of this situation is that “it’s on you” to get through it, but at least the brokenness is universal. Those of us in good health and status tend to avoid these realities—both for our ourselves and in the vast multitudes who are worse off. A main component of the P.O.S oeuvre has been to take his more (hipster, entitled, suburban/urban) well-off listeners to the places of suffering where he and other black Americans live. Early gangster rap brought the low anthropology of urban life (and, by extension, of all human society) to the white teenagers of the 1980s, and P.O.S continues in that tradition with the addition of explicit political force.

Chill, dummy is, overall, about how Alexander has persevered through shocks to his health and disappointments about persistent, racially-driven inequalities in American culture. It’s not a pretty, calm, “all is well with my soul” perseverance. His driving anger remains and is in some ways amplified by his personal struggles, but the latter have taken prominence in his psyche in the writing of his latest album. He thereby gives us a window into his own grief and anger and insight. In a raw, gritty way, Chill, dummy affirms our humanity and acknowledges our struggles in the present moment—all those moments we’re “still here” in the Middle West or Pacific West or Northeast or wherever else we’re listening.