I’m mobbing through Bushwick, Brooklyn, in the back of a cab, listening to Lady Wray’s “Piece of Me” for the 12th time in a row, and I’m crying — very, very hard — and no, it’s not ugly crying. In fact, I’m pretty sure I look beautiful right now.
There is no greater balm in the universe than a Black woman singing (I said what I said). I remember being a young gay boy in San Francisco, hanging out at the Eagle bar in SoMa, when an older white gay explained to me that he only talks to Black women therapists. He went on: “I like my health care like I like my house music — I want a beautiful Black woman telling me that everything is going to be OK.” I was 23 and literally balked at the nerve of this man. I hate to admit it, but now that I’m 41 and I finally — maybe — understand what things like heartbreak are about, I completely agree with him.
There has to be a reason it’s called soul music, right? Perhaps because that’s where it grips you the most? In my short lifetime, I feel like I’ve seen every nationality, age group and social class of singer do their jarring impersonation of a Black woman singing soul, but, cultural erasure be damned, it’s like Tammi and Marvin sang: Ain’t nothing like the real thing, goddamn it.
Why this song? I wasn’t even breaking up with anybody the first time I heard it in an Oakland bar and the opening lines cut like a knife: “You’ve been the best at times/You walk me through my darkest days/Why must it turn around?” A few months later I was in New York, on what I thought would be my final rock ’n’ roll tour. I had been playing music since I was 12 and had achieved two goals I’d had since I was a kid: signing to the legendary indie label Sub Pop, and opening for Bikini Kill. My lifelong obsession with music had seemed to reach its logical conclusion. I decided it was time to get a new hobby — like baking, or veganism. I was saying goodbye to a part of my life, and I felt an internal shift: What next? Eventually I ended up in the back of a cab in Bushwick, listening to the song on repeat.
Her voice transfixes me because she’s got that element of soul — hell, of singing in general — that one cannot reach by just ‘hitting the right notes.’
I have been listening to Nicole Wray (before the “Lady” days) — a California-born soul singer with that kind of irresistible, honey-dipped voice one can only be born with, no doubt — since the 1990s, when Missy Elliott gave her a vote of confidence by rapping on her debut single, “Make It Hot.” But the thing I think I love most about “Piece of Me” — and really about every soul song about heartache, heartbreak or love lost — is that its conviction is all in the delivery. You’ve either lived through loss or you haven’t, and no amount of frenzied vocal trilling can make it otherwise. You can’t fake this: “I’ll let you take a piece of me. … And if that’s not enough/I’ll let you go peacefully.” I tear up as I type it.
What Lady Wray did here is both genuine and colossal. Her voice transfixes me because she’s got that element of soul — hell, of singing in general — that one cannot reach by just “hitting the right notes.” That is only a small part; one must also land the character one is invoking. The perfect breakup song must also be a sort of theater, where the singer becomes the character fully. The very cadence of the song, her voice, sonically pristine, still spells out a certain longing and despair. Remember the definition of “soul”: the spiritual part of both human being or animal regarded as simultaneously immaterial and immortal. I am transformed every time I hear “Piece of Me,” which by the end of the night will probably be close to 30 times.
“Piece of Me” gives that throwback feel — it’s heavy. The digital world exists in a cloud, and the music itself feels as ethereal. For all our complaints about A.I. “taking over music” (I would like to point out that this was foreshadowed more than a decade ago when autotune became omnipresent, condensing all emotion into that tinny computer sound), “Piece of Me” sits in counterpoise, a song mixed through tape reels and heavy wooden machinery. It feels as if the song were creating its own black hole when it was made. Who can escape the condensed emotional singularity of a breakup song?
I grew up in Alabama, and though I defected to punk rock as a teenager, I was a child of the blues. My great-grandfather, Hard Rock Charlie, played the chitlin’ circuits from Chattanooga to Chicago in the 1930s. His son J.J. Malone, who came to California in his youth to play music (much like I did), worked alongside the likes of Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker and Creedence Clearwater Revival. It’s in my blood to understand a very true, very sad and very beautiful song. But who among us has not experienced deep loss yet still found a way to keep going? “Piece of Me” taps into that universal fact, reiterating the troubled paradox of both love and life: We are forever heartbroken, and forever hopeful.
Brontez Purnell is a California-based writer whose books include “100 Boyfriends” (FSG, 2021), which won the 2022 Lambda Literary Award in Gay Fiction.