Failure is always an option: on Unkle Adams’ YouTube series

‘… it seems improbable that human existence can be reduced to so little; one imagines, in spite of oneself, that sooner or later something is bound to happen. A big mistake.’

– Michel Houllebecq, Whatever


Over the past few weeks, Canadian rapper Curtis ‘Unkle’ Adams has been releasing a very bizarre set of videos on his YouTube channel.

If you’ve never heard of Unkle Adams, I’m sure you’re in the majority. Before last Saturday, he was a minor blip on my radar, a presence I was aware of more as an internet curio rather than a musician – to say he exists adjacent to rap music is to vastly stretch the definition of ‘adjacent’.

This is not to say he isn’t recognisable as a type, that type being the ahistorical rap fan, with an apparent interest in the form but seemingly no interest in the content, context, or artistry of the genre as it actually stands. Remember your over-serious high school friend that liked Logic and Aesop Rock because they didn’t talk about ‘guns and bitches’? Throw in a dash of meandering self-help and you more or less have the Unk: a competent yet corny musician who gives off the vibe of a humourless leprechaun.

Over time, he’s built up an ironic (or post-ironic) fanbase of ‘Nephews’, an entropic in-joke poking fun at his delusions of grandeur, his laboured take on rap (both musically and thematically – think midi horns and self-help) and his insistence on hackneyed originality: ‘this rapper rips the mic without talking about guns, drugs hoes or jewellery’, as the mythos goes. In his new video series, the ‘At Least a Million Mission’, these elements crystallise into something approaching perfection.

The long-winded videos have two major thrusts: first, his stated goal to make ‘at least a million’ dollars, and thus to make it as a musician (a role that is seen as more or less latent and inevitable, in one of many example of Adams’ almost unhinged self-confidence). The second, interwoven with this ambitious goal, is the underbelly of his desire for success: from the outset, Unkle Adams informs us that he is over $150,000 dollars in debt (which is well over $200,000 at the time of writing). He has piled debt upon debt in paying for beats, studio time, production and videos (to name the least peripheral of it) and shows no sign of – or desire to – stop. Unk speaks to us as a means of speaking to himself: the voice of the problem gambler, loud enough to drown out the inner monologue that must be rising in volume all the time. One more flutter, one more, one more.

Over the course of the ‘At Least a Million Mission’, we witness this willingness for debt in real time. The videos begin with the news that Unkle Adams has sold his house, and during the series we see him sell his car, his possessions, run up Home Depot store credit, flip TVs and drills, (unknowingly) sign scam contracts, and plenty more. At the same time, the Unk can’t stop spending money: unnecessary haircuts, Payless shoes, superfluous studio time, drone footage, etc, etc.

It’s clear that Unkle Adams has never known ingrained poverty, despite his very real financial woes; his flippant spending isn’t the desperation of someone who has never had the ability to throw money around, living large for the first time (think of Chief Keef’s vastly more endearing and forgivable glut of Gucci belts and toy Ferraris – to say nothing of his vaster talent), but rather someone secure enough of their place in the world to fly in the face of all evidence and act like deliverance from debt is just around the corner.

This is a crucial aspect of the videos, and probably the most fascinating one. For all that can be said about Unkle Adams – his inverted fame from failure, his fanbase’s irony-turned-pathos, his egotism, his lack of understanding and inability to engage with rap music – what resounds the most in considering the man and his condition is his faith. Faith in himself, for sure, but even more that that, faith in the very principle of work ethic, determination, and perseverance.

No matter what the Unk does, no matter how low he sinks, he remains confident that effort – context-free, unconsidered effort – will ensure him fame and fortune. There’s even a coldly exchange-oriented aspect to the equation, a sense that the debt is what will drive the eventual success: as long as the transactions continue being made, the purchase is guaranteed (you pays your money and you takes your choice). The relationship between self-help positivity and bootstrapping capitalism is rarely seen in such sharp relief – here is a man who does not understand that it is entirely possible to try your hardest and still fail miserably (perhaps bringing to mind the timeless adage of Homer Simpson, never try).

Would I recommend watching the videos in their entirety? It’s hard to say. If you do watch them, be prepared for repetition, circumlocution, more repetition, and bad editing. Be prepared for boredom to give way to schadenfreude to give way to empathy to give way to depression, and then be ready for the boredom to return. It’s a trip into a certain kind of hell, and a trip that we have no way of knowing the end of. ‘Go as far as you can see’, implores Unkle Adams in one of the videos, ‘and then you’ll see a bit further.’ This isn’t true in the case of the ‘At Least a Million Mission’. We plunge ceaselessly into the darkness, with no way to judge the length or extent of the fall – no other way, that is, other than the resounding smack that no doubt waits at the very bottom.

‘Failure is not an option’ is the statement of the Unk’s that is at the heart of the video series, appearing somewhere in the midst of the climactic ninth episode, where Adams declares that he’ll be releasing the series up to that point now, rather than, as originally planned, after he has reached his goal – a promise he came good on, and yet another example of the gambler’s self-baiting, deliberate backing themselves into a corner. This is the purest distillation of his Hopsin meets Willy Loman meets Tony Robbins psychological aesthetic: the idea that success is always possible, always exists as a way to find freedom and liberation. Unkle Adams doesn’t need to get a job, to conserve money, or to shift focus, as the powers of self-realisation (something very close to the central premise of The Secret) will prevail.

In reality, what the videos illustrate, to me at least, is the opposite: that maybe the promise of success, and all that comes with it, is the greatest horror of them all, more brutal than insignificance or lack of trying or even failure itself. The flipside of such an unmitigated faith in the effort = success equation – the American Dream itself, really – is the personal shouldering of failure if that success doesn’t come about: maybe I didn’t try hard enough? Maybe I let myself down? In the sober light of late capitalism, maybe it just isn’t graspable. Maybe the power to live up to our dreams and live life to the fullest isn’t really an option for some of us – or most of us, in fact. Perhaps we should learn to recognise that success is out of our hands: that we aren’t in the right place at the right time, that we don’t have the upward mobility, or that we simply aren’t good enough for that particular dream. In my mind is the top-polled answer when asking the residents of Denmark, supposedly the happiest nation on earth, what they attribute their satisfaction to: low expectations.

If it’s not Zen acceptance, it’s at least less wasted energy.

Yet, beyond the psychological profile, the portrait of the American Dream in decline, and the horror of hope, what I was really left with after watching ‘At Least a Million Mission’ was sadness. A muted, dull sadness, tempered somewhat by Unkle Adams’ painful egotism and pigheadededness, but a sadness nonetheless. What will become of this strange man and his weird, inverted fame? More, what will become of me; what will become of any of us?

Maybe beyond this sorrow and confusion, and beyond the brutal confines of self-expression and success, there’s another way to see the ‘At Least a Million Mission’, and one slightly less defeatist (if less grounded in reality). In the Gay Science, Nietzsche defines the ‘heroic’ as the simultaneous facing down of both one’s highest hope and greatest suffering, and maybe this is the lasting impression we should hold of Unkle Adams. His strange tale continues into 2018, with new instalments coming semi-regularly – new challenges, new debts – and maybe, at the end of the day, this is the only hero we’re going to get. Maybe it’s the only kind of hero we’d want. Any old fool can succeed, and any of us could (and as I’ve argued, maybe should) give up. It takes a special kind of figure, though, to elevate their failure, however unwittingly, into their success – to show us the way as we descend.

Perhaps we should imagine Unkle Adams happy.


Image: Unkle Adams still

Laurence Barratt-Manning

Laurence Barratt-Manning is a writer from Australia, who currently lives in Cambridge, UK.

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