Soundtrack Signifying Emotion and Conclusion in Television: BJ The Chicago Kid’s “Heart Crush” and Issa Rae’s Insecure

Image from NPR

The song “Heart Crush” by BJ the Chicago Kid (In My Mind, 2016) plays during the final moments of season one of HBO’s Insecure — created by Issa Rae — after the main character discovers that her boyfriend, whom she expects to have returned from his sabbatical from their relationship, has instead moved all of his belongings out of their shared apartment. The decision to play this song at this particular moment reinforces the emotions of surprise and disappointment experienced by the main character, as well as signifies a moment of change and closure, which often occurs at the conclusion of television season finales. More specifically, the song emphasizes conclusive sections by manipulating motion through musical devices like texture and melodic phrasing. Overall, “Heart Crush” is particularly fitting to accompany this television moment because the narrative of painful growth and conclusion that the song cultivates via motion-halting post-choruses and a formally unconventional, textually sparse ending section parallels and enhances similar emotions conveyed by the main character onscreen.

Firstly, the song’s tonality warrants discussion, as the key is somewhat ambiguous. That is, the individual pitches played throughout in any given instrumental part are D, E, F♯, G, A, B, and C♯, but arguments can be made for either the key of G lydian or D major, and the decision to label the song as one or the other depends greatly on which instrument the listener pays attention to most diligently. For example, the electric guitar 1 part plays a harmonic loop consisting of G major, D major, and A major throughout the entire song, which is the most compelling evidence for labeling the song as G lydian, both because the G major chord occurs on a strong beat, lasting for a full bar, and because of the occurrence of what would, in this case, be a lydian II chord (Clement, 2013, 95, 101–102; “Common Pitch Structures,” 2020, 1; “Harmony,” 2018, 37–38). The D major chord then comes in halfway through the loop pattern and only lasts for three eighth notes before the A major chord replaces it. Understanding the harmony as it occurs in the electric guitar 1 part, the G major chord seems to receive the most rhythmic emphasis and durational importance, and the A major — or major II — chord is diatonic to the key of G only in a lydian modal context, which could be compelling evidence in designating G major as the song’s tonic. However, the melody — which is realized primarily by the main vocal part and the electric guitar 2 part during the guitar solo — tends to hover around D and, in fact, almost entirely avoids the pitch of G, except for select moments like the end of the second chorus as an embellishment to the F♯ when the artist sings the word “crush” or in the stepwise ascension that occurs during the guitar solo. Additionally, B minor — D major’s relative minor — does not believably work as a tonic in the context of this song because the full chord never occurs in the harmonic accompaniment, while the B pitches in the melody occur more rarely than D pitches and they do not fall in metrically prominent places. The melody, then, indicates that the song’s key is D major.

One way to reconcile this ambiguous tonal center would be to refer to it as a loop divorce, because the harmony repeats the same three chords seemingly without a specific harmonic or cadential goal in mind, while the melody consistently hovers around or wants to resolve to the pitch of D, and occasionally F♯ (Nobile, 2015, 193–197). Conversely, a potential argument in favor of G lydian might understand the G major chord as an emergent tonic in the melody, which arises only when BJ The Chicago Kid sings the G-note embellishment at the end of the second chorus during a moment of increased intensity (Spicer, 2017). This argument in favor of G lydian is weaker than the argument for D major, however, because the alleged emergent tonic is missing both its third and its fifth. That is, the arrival of the first G in this moment comes before the accompanying G major chord in the harmony, which undercuts the notion that there is a link between these harmonic and melodic elements rather than simply a coincidental concurrence. What is more, the G pitch is only an embellishment intended to accentuate the F♯ — the true harmonic goal of the melody in this moment — which fits more comfortably into a D major triad as a third, as opposed to the seventh of a G major triad. As a result, the argument in favor of D major as the tonal center with a loop divorce between harmony and melody is the most fitting assessment of the song’s key, although the contrasting goals of the harmony and melody are certainly worth noting.

In addition to an ambiguous tonal center, “Heart Crush” also has interesting formal attributes because, while it appears to adhere to the classic verse-chorus pattern for the first three minutes, by the end of the song the structure unravels into its own, relatively unique construction. Additionally, the post-choruses warrant particular attention because, instead of matching or continuing the energy and motion of the preceding sections, they have more stagnant energy and a lack of motion that actually contrasts with the choruses. Overall, the form — which somewhat adheres to the terminally climatic model, as the end of the song ends up providing some of the most interesting or intense moments — is as follows:

PART I (BEGINNING SECTION)

Intro (4 measures, 0:00–0:12[1]): electric guitar 1

A. Verse 1 (8 measures, 0:10–0:37): electric guitar 1, main vocals

B. Pre-Chorus (4 measures, 0:37–0:50): EG 1, MV, electric guitar 2, background vocals

C. Chorus (8 measures, 0:49–1:15): EG 1, MV, EG 2, BV, drums

D. Post-Chorus (8 measures, 1:15–1:39): EG 1, MV, EG 2, BV

A. Verse 2 (8 measures, 1:39–2:05): EG 1, MV, EG 2, BV, drums

B. Pre-Chorus (4 measures, 2:05–2:17): EG 1, MV, EG 2, BV, drums (pick up at the end)

C. Chorus (8 measures, 2:17–2:44): EG 1, MV, EG 2, BV, drums (dips out halfway through the section this time), jazz organ

D. Post-Chorus (8 measures, 2:43–3:08): EG 1, MV, EG 2, BV, JO

PART II (ENDING SECTION)

Bridge (8 measures, 3:07–3:33): pitched MV (riff-like), EG 1, EG 2, drums, JO

“B”. Link comprised of B section without MV (4 measures, 3:33–3:45): EG 1, EG 2, BV, JO

“D”. Guitar Solo comprised of D section without MV and with drums (8 measures, 3:44-4:11): EG 1, EG 2, BV, drums, JO

Outro (8 measures, 4:10 -4:38): EG 1 (drops out at the end), EG 2, JO

(“Form in Pop-Rock Music,” 2020, 1; “Form,” 2018, 150, 152–154, 160–175). With regard to the song’s formal structure, its more unconventional elements tend to occur in sections that signify some sort of end or conclusion. That is, the post-choruses — which help to conclude the choruses, and, more broadly, each verse/pre-chorus/chorus group — go against their common function of continuing the choruses’ display of energy and motion by instead contrasting them with comparatively low energy and stillness. Furthermore, the overall structure of what seemingly begins as a verse-chorus pattern does not end simply with a bridge and then a repetition — or repetitions — of the chorus as is common for that model; instead, the entirety of the ending section constitutes its own unique structure composed of a bridge, a link, a guitar solo, and an outro, with no return to the chorus. Because the chorus is often considered to be the most crucial, or at least emblematic, section of a pop song, the choice to omit it from the last minute-and-a-half or so of the song is striking. As a result, the formal structure of “Heart Crush” subverts the listener’s expectations by defying classic conventions in its post-choruses and ending section.

These formal sections, which comprise the song’s structural conclusions, are worth further investigation, primarily with regard to the ways in which they affect the song’s overall motion by manipulating the musical element of texture. Motion in this context should be understood as the ability of repetitive, continuous elements like a steady drumbeat or harmonic loop to move a song forward and install within the listener an expectation that the song will continue in a certain way until it arrives at the end. In other words, motion indicates that musically there is something more to come, whereas lack of motion, halting moments, or stillness tend to indicate what the listener almost expects will be a song’s conclusion, even when there is still more musical material to come (de Clercq, 2016; “Rhythmic and Metric Theorisation,” 2020). In the case of “Heart Crush,” for example, the first post-chorus is relatively striking against the first chorus, or the most dynamic part to which the song has been building, because it does not continue its energy or forward motion. Instead, the post-chorus creates a halting effect for the listener by dropping the drum section and consequently thinning the section’s texture. In the second post-chorus, the same effect occurs, the only difference being that it begins halfway through the chorus this time. The sudden lack of a steady drumbeat creates moments of unexpected stillness because the listener has grown to expect the steadiness of a rhythmic beat as established in the first chorus, second verse, and first half of the second chorus (Covach, 2018, 55).

This sudden lack of an explicit drumbeat, however, is not the only musical element responsible for creating the halting effect, which is evident in the fact that other sections — the second pre-chorus, the link, and the outro — also employ the technique of suddenly dropping the strongest percussive element, but that these sections do not create the same feeling of stillness as the post-choruses. That is, in addition to dropping the percussion section, the post-choruses also still the motion established in the choruses by diluting the song’s energy with less complex melodic phrases, which helps contribute to the perception of the overall texture as less dense (“Melody,” 2018, 93–96). More specifically, the electric guitar 1 part repeats a simple, upward-moving riff while the vocal line is sparse, repeating the same set of lyrics twice. The overall end of the song is similarly scarce in its lyrical content, instead inventing its own version of primarily non-vocal continuations in order to conclude the song. It begins with a bridge featuring lyrics, which are pitched down an octave so as to seem less like the human voice and more like another non-vocal instrument, and the same lyrical line is repeated four times. After the bridge, the only vocals that occur for the rest of song are simple, background parts, which contain only vocalizations and no discernable lyrics. The most vocally recognizable part of the song — the chorus — does not occur again during this ending section. The lack of complex lyrical phrases — or any lyrics at all — in sections that provide conclusion are another unique aspect of the song, as they contribute to the halting effect of the post-choruses and the unconventionality of the ending section.

Ultimately, the emphasis placed on these conclusive sections is what makes “Heart Crush” such an appropriate choice to symbolize the closure that occurs at the end of the Insecure season one finale. That is, these concluding sections musically parallel and underscore the emotional processes that the main character has undergone throughout the season, which culminate in the episode’s final moments. For example, the unexpected stillness accomplished by the post-chorus mimics the main character’s surprise, disappointment, and upset felt as a result of her realization that her boyfriend has moved out and that their relationship has officially concluded. These emotions as articulated by the post-chorus are particularly striking when considered in stark contrast with the motion and energy of the chorus. Furthermore, the ending section demonstrates a desire for some form of continuation and the ultimate realization that too much has changed for the song to last forever, in many ways because the lack of lyrical content demonstrates a clear difference from the beginning of the song and what the listener has grown to expect as the norm. Additionally, the link that follows the bridge at first seems to represent the conclusion of the song, but the guitar solo steps in for one last attempt at maintaining some degree of normalcy, although it is undeniably different than what has come before. Finally, the outro represents acceptance that something substantial has changed and that closure — albeit negative — has arrived. This conclusion is further cemented by the fact that the continuous harmonic loop of G major-D major-A major, which has played throughout the entirety of the song, finally disappears for the last four measures. Essentially, the emphasis placed on conclusive formal sections symbolizes a type of closure and emotional distress similar to what the main character of Insecure experiences, which makes “Heart Crush” a particularly fitting song to include on the soundtrack at the end of the season.

In conclusion, rather than acting simply as aesthetic background music, “Heart Crush” adds another dimension to the emotional and conclusive narrative content of the final scene of Insecure’s season one finale. From its ambiguous tonal center to its unconventional structure with a focus on conclusive sections, there is a great deal to analyze throughout the song. More specifically the halting of motion and the emphasis placed on the ending section as a result of a thinner texture and less complex lyrical content allow the song to complement the scene that it underlies. Of course, it is difficult to apply generalizations to the kinds of songs that best work in television season finales, as these episodes may seek to portray any number of distinct emotions, but certainly some musical elements can help make a song more appropriate than others to help conclude television season narratives. Perhaps this is an area of study that deserves further research in the future.

[1] Some section track timings may overlap in order to incorporate melodic material that occurs as a pickup or that does not otherwise coincide exactly with a section’s delimitations based on measure.

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