Will This Make Me Good, the second album from Brooklyn musician Nick Hakim, begins with the Earth on fire. Cities crumble, tides rise, and yet “All These Changes” is a climate catastrophe dirge that swaddles and rocks you with its bobbing guitar strum, sighing strings and Hakim’s own tender croon, which assures, “She’ll flood us out her heart is flaming/Pretty soon we’ll be underwater.” By the song’s end, the sea’s subsumed us, but the Earth has taken pity, allowed us to adapt and beat on through the current, looking down to “see New York under our feet.”
That mixture of misfortune and cursed hope takes various forms throughout Will This Make Me Good, an album that feels like a dispatch from the deep, black pit of the hypotheticals its title elicits. It’s an engaging, sometimes muddled — as dispatches from such a place often are — but frequently brilliant collection that expands the horizons of the already dexterous approach to psychedelic soul Hakim showcased on his excellent 2017 debut, Green Twins. Its subject matter is as myriad as its sounds, with meditations on grief, self-care, love, community, depression and decay. Even Hakim has acknowledged that Will This Make Me Good can come across as messy or a bit confused, but he rightly treats that reading as a feature, not a bug: “There’s so much pressure on artists to commit to being one thing, or to restrict an album to exploring just one subject or sound,” he says. “But my life isn’t like that, and so my music can’t be like that either.”
The extent to which Will This Make Me Good does have a thematic through line is contained in that titular question. It could apply to practically every song on the album, but it comes from one in particular, the second track “WTMMG,” where it’s wielded as the hook in a song about growing up over-medicated. “Will this shit make me good?” Hakim wonders, his vocals layered and smashed into a mass that sounds desperate, furious, resigned and contemptuous all at once. It’s part of a murky, mired mood that seeps through the album’s opening moments, and its crescendo arrives in the form of the organ that squeals and squirms beneath the lurching stomp of the following song, “Bouncing.” It’s very much a “New York City Song,” stuck in the city’s unique crush of isolation amid the masses, and it ends with Hakim repeating a phrase and melody that spiral upwards, “All these lonely strangers/Marching through the snowstorm/Tryna find some peace of mind/We all keep bouncing.” And though eventually the words fall away, Hakim keeps following the tune until all that’s left to do is wail. “Bouncing” may depict a bustling, pre-plague NYC, but the sense of solidarity Hakim conjures provides a particular comfort now.
Trained at the Berklee College of Music, Hakim is unafraid to take his genre explorations to more challenging places, where the rhythms start to wobble and the vocal and instrumental melodies seem to tug and twist against each other as they search for some sort of peace. On “Drum Thing” he blasts everything from the snares to his voice into the red as he slides up against something near Thundercat’s goofball funk. On “Vincent Tyler,” he reworks a tender soul tune first released in 2018 into a bit of uncanny, low frequency R&B. Though the original version of “Vincent Tyler” may be an “easier listen,” this new one may be more daring and rewarding. In the song, a group of people venture into an alley the morning after hearing gunshots to find a dead body (it was ostensibly inspired by the 2007 killing of a Vincent Tyler in Hakim’s hometown of Washington D.C.). Hakim tells this story in straightforward strokes, but his layered vocals have an uneven quiver and the synths and drums move with a queasy shuffle: “Vincent Tyler” conveys the tension between just how hard it should be to stare violence in the face, and just how natural it’s become to do so.
This kind of experimentation isn’t the only musical mode on Will This Make Me Good. “All These Instruments” is a tender folk-soul devotional Hakim co-wrote with his brother Danny, while “Crumpy” — another superb “New York City Song” — finds him settling easily into the contemporary slacker indie rock mold perfected by the track’s guest guitarist, Mac DeMarco. And then there are standouts like “God’s Dirty Work” and “Qadir,” which most directly recall the deep grooves of Hakim’s Seventies soul forebears. “Qadir,” in particular, is the album’s beating heart, and its mix of dusty drums, supple bass, light keys, hand drums, flute and choir provide a delicious breath of air after the thick fog of the album’s opening suite and the interlude “Let It Out.” In the song, Hakim follows the reverberations of the death of a childhood friend, Qadir, from personal grief, to the ways we shield ourselves from pain, to the kindness we owe ourselves, our loved ones and our neighbours. The question Hakim asks in the chorus is a simple, evocative nugget of dust-to-dust psychedelia — “Qadir what’s the deal now?/What did you plant in your mother’s garden?” — and though it feels like it’s seeking the same thing as “Will this make me good?” it may also be acknowledging that the answer ultimately awaits us beyond this plane.
Until that time then, what to do? For Hakim, there’s plenty of solace to be found in community. Will This Make Me Good was made with the help of an array of contributors, and musicians are perhaps uniquely attuned to the ways people can make each other good. A more classic variation on that same theme can be found on the closer, “Whoo,” a love song, pure and simple, and maybe the first bit of pure joy on the record. Not that that makes everything before it an abject bummer, but the release is well-earned, from the opening line, “You were smiling cheek to ear” to the closing guitar solo which recalls Prince at his most heroic. “I stopped abusing myself around you,” Hakim sings on the refrain, “I started using myself around you.” It’s a tidy bit of wordplay, not too clever, not too saccharine, and not an answer in and of itself, but a snapshot of the place where we might begin to start looking for one.