By: Doron Levine  | 

Tell Me Honestly: Thoughts on R. City’s “Locked Away”

People who think that our hip-hop culture lacks depth have to listen to Z100 a little more often. This station’s often irritating habit of playing the same five or six songs on repeat affords its listeners the opportunity to meditate on the music, to contemplate the various pieces and their relevance to the pursuit of the Good Life.

True, some of the songs they’ve been airing recently admittedly lack the profundity we’ve grown accustomed to expect from the likes of Fetty Wap and DJ Snake. But one song that has been playing for some time now on our local hip-hop stations grabbed my attention. Released a few months ago and praised for its reggae fusion tempo overlaid with soothing vocals, “Locked Away” by R. City featuring Adam Levine is refreshing evidence of overlap between the popular and the profound.

Disguised as just another shallow love ballad, “Locked Away” zeroes in on a primary difficulty that lurks behind the institution of marriage. Without, perhaps, having consciously lingered on this particular point, we all intuitively recognize the difference between liking something and loving something. We like a thing for it positive qualities. I like salmon because it is tasty, fireplaces because they are cozy, road trips because they are adventurous, and Arnold because he is an agreeable guy.

But love transcends the appeal of the thing loved. We don’t love our parents because they are agreeable – no doubt most parents can be exceedingly disagreeable at times. Conversely, parents do not stop loving their children when they suddenly mutate into cantankerous adolescents. And one doesn’t quit loving one's mother country when it loses a war or its economy tanks. We love things not for their good attributes but regardless of them. When we love something, we wish it to be good and we will take pains to make it lovable.

This is irrational. The notion of a stubborn love that persists regardless of the loved thing’s lovability seems arbitrary and much less justifiable than the more reasonable policy of liking things when they are likable. What is the nature of this uncritical affection? The bottom line is that nobody knows what generates this bond or why it persists, but we can observe that it resides in situations of natural or biological relations. Love for family stems from consanguinity, and national ties lie in shared ancestry and heritage developed and cultivated upon common soil.

Particularly with regards to the family, its accidental and arbitrary nature is its strength. Biology often pairs children with parents who are similar to them in personality and temperament. But the process of creating new people is complicated and, in many respects, random, and it can therefore yield great surprises, sometimes throwing together a diverse group of people who otherwise would never have associated with one another and calling them a family. And because families are not created by choice, there is also a general recognition that they cannot be dissolved by choice. Parents don’t stop loving their children when they become grouchy because the relationship never hinged on either party’s congeniality. And the same goes for siblings. Your brother may be extraordinarily peevish at times, but he is still your brother.

Now contrast this with marriage. In “Locked Away,” R. City astutely draws our attention to a dilemma that lies at the heart of this form of love. He points out that, when we consider marriage in the context of other familial connections, we notice that, unlike other forms of kinship, marriage is not an accident. Wherever you stand on the contemporary debates about marriage—whether you see marriage as a sacred institution or as a mere social construct—as a matter of empirical fact marriage is a legal agreement, originating in liking and not in loving. In our society, two people decide to marry because they find each other likable. Generally arranged by consenting individuals, marriage is the result of personal initiative, not an accident of biology.

So the question becomes, what happens if one of the spouses is no longer likable? In other words, how does marriage make the leap from liking to love? In “Locked Away,” R. City and Adam Levine pose this question starkly. The narrator of "Locked Away" asks his wife (or significant other) whether she would remain with him under the pressure of various trying circumstances, such as his being thrown in jail (“If I got locked away”) or spontaneously losing all of his assets (“and we lost it all today”). More incisively, he asks if she would still love him if he were to reveal his personal flaws or if he “couldn’t be strong.” Does she have a basic unbreakable love for him, or does she like him only for his desirable qualities?

The answer to this question would become apparent in the event that one of these possible events should be actualized, but the song’s brilliance lies in its articulation of hypotheticals. The speaker in the song is presumably a free man with comfortable finances, but he realizes that the scenarios that he has dreamt up are relevant to the current status of his relationship; the nature of his wife’s love for him now is dependent on how she is disposed to act in these far-out scenarios. However unlikely it is that he will become imprisoned or impoverished, he is plagued by these visions because he wants to know if he is liked or if he is loved.

Our intuitions tell us that marriage should and often does make this transition to love. We are probably all familiar with real-life scenarios where two people get married and then find themselves in a difficult scenario which, had it occurred during the courtship period, probably would have forestalled or cancelled the marriage. But when a marriage remains strong through such adversity, we view this as heroic.

It is regarding precisely this sort of heroism that the narrator in “Locked Away” interrogates his wife. He asks, “Would you really die for me?” At what point does the answer to this question become yes? Surely people choose to marry someone because of his or her likable qualities, but when does the relationship transform into a devoted and self-sacrificing love that no longer hinges on either party’s likability? We can only hope that R. City is not done composing and that their next reggae hit will provide us with an adequate answer.