A fear of death is just anxiety about whatever lies beyond, but a fear of dying is anxiety about right now. MAVI, the sagest 23-year-old you’ll ever meet, knows the difference. Like all great musicians, both past and future, he already understands the afterlife: “I been gave my soul away to the drum, I’ma live forever,” he declares on “Baking Soda.” He’ll be immortalized in headphones, record collections, and car speakers. The question that percolates throughout Laughing so Hard, it Hurts isn’t about how to leave a legacy, but rather how to exist in a meaningful way.
It’s an album about pain, but the North Carolina rapper doesn’t seem interested in a “tortured artist” narrative. Though his honesty and vulnerability are occasionally bracing, he keeps the vibe bright and inviting; it’s like walking into a sunlit room that was a bit chillier than you expected. Over the glowing chords of “Spoiled Brat,” he acknowledges being a “complicated man,” keeping his mother at a distance but welcoming attention from adoring fans and alluring women. The soothing guitars that billow behind him on “My Good Ghosts” fail to mask his distress about how interminable depression can feel. And despite the buoyancy of the beat on “Having My Way,” MAVI wrestles with whether or not he believes in free will.
Though the subject matter trends heavy, the Charlotte rapper never lingers too long in the shadows. He’s constantly in motion, processing his feelings and surroundings in what feels like real time. The beats, half of which were supplied by Wulf Morpheus and Dylvinci, stumble into place, loop for a little bit, and then flutter off into the ether. They’re glossy and gorgeous, scraping the gnarled edges off Let the Sun Talk’s lo-fi murk. MAVI demoed these songs to percussion-less versions of the beats, embedding his dexterous flow fully into the music and exploring all possible pockets. These final versions, complete with drums, feel incredibly lived in, as though each element drew itself to the other magnetically.
MAVI favors unorthodox song structures, often blurring the verse and chorus into one long tone poem. In most cases, hooks are simply footnotes, supplements to his main idea. It all feels as though he’s trying to keep up with his own brain, racing to finish articulating each thought as it appears. It can make for a dense first listen, even as its 38 minutes breeze by. His writing alternates between carefully manicured full paragraphs and stream of consciousness detail.
Take “High John,” as an example: when the drums drop out during the verse, MAVI strings together disparate imagery of summer nights in Sumter, South Carolina and moments of flexing his new wealth. It all coalesces into a rumination on learning that prioritizing oneself can sometimes disappoint others: “Twelfth grade I rode east with Ahmir to go and meet the plug/We learned we built this off belief, we ain’t even need the drugs/I told mom I’ll trek D.C. if it’ll please her, but degree don’t seem to speak no more/The pain hit deeper when your people ain’t in reach no more/’Cause greed would feed them more.”
Though MAVI spends a lot of time on Laughing so Hard going over moments of shame or anxiety, he remains hopeful. He hopes “they still make love in [his] size,” not because he thinks he’s unloveable, but because he has a lot of it to give. Though sometimes his mental health feels like “crawling through tacks,” he wants to live a life without regrets. He’s remarkably grounded for being such an existential young man. In an interview with Okayplayer earlier this year, MAVI described Laughing so Hard as “an opportunity to smile, not to cry.” The record’s brilliance lies in how deeply he understands the connection between the two.
MAVI’s mellow trademark places more emphasis on subtle beauty than turbulent soul on "Laughing so Hard, it Hurts." With this comes a newfound nuance in MAVI’s pen, conceptualizing his raw emotions in even more visceral ways. pic.twitter.com/JO7JSq7WMn
— iwillkillyounigga (@TreDoesnt) October 15, 2022
Never listened to MAVI before, started listening to Laughing so Hard, it Hurts when it dropped and haven't stopped since
AOTY contender pic.twitter.com/SS8GxmDA4g
— Beats, Rhymes & Lists (@BeatRhymeLists) October 17, 2022
this new mavi such a vibe 🔁 laughing so hard, it hurts
— sage♻️ (@ninetysixsage) October 14, 2022