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  • Ahmed Ragheb

Almost Therapy: On Treble NLS’ Reine: Story of an American Reject

Treble NLS’ 2018 album, Reine: Story of an American Reject, is an astonishingly honest piece of art. Ahmed Ragheb argues that this makes it both rare and emotionally valuable to listeners coming out of a particularly difficult year. He sits down with Treble to discuss the album and healing through art.

Treble NLS The Pittsburgher Reine: Story of an American Reject
Illustration: The Pittsburgher / Photograph: Emmai Alaquiva

The odds are that in the last year and a half you considered—really considered, maybe even for the first time—your mental health. I know I did. Perhaps you’re secure in your mental health, perhaps you only think you are but I’ll bet there were times during the course of 2020 and 2021 that you really had to ask yourself (or had someone else ask—or asked someone else), “Are you okay?” Maybe loss or sickness got you there, maybe it was the isolation (or lack of it for those stuck at home with partners, family members, or roommates), maybe it was 9 minutes and 29 seconds of trauma filmed and countless hours of trauma unfilmed. Maybe it was something completely unrelated to the outside world that got you to look in the mirror and ask: “Are you okay?” It’s a simple question but it can save lives. It can also be the first step on a journey of self-reflection and self-improvement—more often than not a painful journey. So why is it so difficult for us to ask ourselves that very simple question? I don’t exactly know the answer, only that it is difficult and sometimes impossible for people to really ask themselves if they need help. Often we need someone to step in and ask it for us. Even then, we rarely want to hear it. We want, and often need, for them to go first, to open up and show us that it’s safe. But what if no one asks? What if they do and aren’t willing to open up themselves—what if that simple question isn’t quite enough for us. I’ve thought about this a lot lately—I’ve had a lot of time—and I don’t quite believe hope is lost for those who don’t feel they have somebody coming to their rescue.

Mental health, isolation, self-honesty, and opening up were all on my mind one winter morning while doing laundry and listening to some music that my girlfriend had just added to our shared library. That’s how I first came across Treble NLS’ exquisite 2018 album, Reine: Story of an American Reject. It struck me like a bolt of lightning, albeit understated (as understated as a bolt of lighting can be). It seemed to arrive at the perfect moment: in the depths of a brutally cold and sunless winter; during the darkest-before-dawn phase of the pandemic; in the midst of isolation and lockdown that had me at my wits’ end; during an artistic dry spell (a sort of paralysis) as I had not experienced before; and just as I separated my folded underwear and bundled socks in to their own piles. It isn’t often that one is actually stopped dead in their tracks, as they say, by a song or album, but I was—honest. I climbed atop my pile of unfolded shirts and jeans and settled in, going back to track one. The album is, in essence, a concept album built around the pursuit and ultimate rejection of a romantic interest who lives abroad (in France, hence the title Reine [queen]). When I eventually sat down with Treble months later to talk about the album, I learned that this concept was very much a reality for him. “The goal was to impress the girl I was writing about. I would write these songs, record them, mix them, and send them to her,” he told me. But then when he realized the relationship wasn’t going anywhere, he reflected on the songs he had made, and what he was going to do with them. “I can do something that rappers don’t usually do: I can be honest and be like, ‘I got fucking rejected,’” he said. “If I’m going to make this an entire project, I want to make it a project that speaks to the normal person—the regular person who’s not the one that gets all the girls, who has been through rejection more times than your average rapper. I’m a normal guy too—I get rejected.” The emotional paralysis I was experiencing as I first heard the album wasn’t related to a relationship or rejection, and to be frank that subject matter does not much speak to me—I’ve never really been one for romance/break-up music, film, or literature—it just isn’t my thing. And yet, this one absolutely tore through me in that moment (and still does to this day). It wasn’t the feelings of love, lust, or rejection detailed so evocatively on the album that resonated with me but the dark emotions that lie on the peripheries of love, lust, and rejection. Emotions that we’ve all felt at one time or another, for one reason or another, emotions that for so many of us became supercharged during isolation.

What is so astounding about Reine is the honesty with which Treble presents himself on the record—it’s almost jarring and is the single most impressive aspect of the album. That’s not to say that it isn’t impressive in all the ways that a stellar, meticulous album usually is, it’s just the aspect that is most rare. For an artist to be honest, to present themselves in a truly honest manner in the course of a piece of art is a herculean task. It is, in my opinion, the goal of all good art but, also in my opinion, it is not achieved by 99 out of 100 artists. It is what separates great from good, adults from children, Van Gogh from Van Damme. Dishonesty in an artist is unacceptable, but partial honesty—opening up but not going all the way—is often tolerated because total honesty is difficult—really difficult. It’s something I struggle with in my own art; in fact, I’m not even doing it here, in this article—I’ve only vaguely alluded to personal issues faced last and this year—there's your partial honesty at work. Treble, through this album, has done away with partial honesty, with concealing his emotions from the listener and has, for those of his listeners in need of it, opened up unprompted; he’s “gone first” for us so that we can feel safe in going second. “It’s still surprising to people to be human on a track,” he said. “That’s what’s crazy to me. People hear it and are still surprised by how honest it is.”

Reine: Story of an American Reject album cover Treble NLS The Pittsburgher
Reine: Story of an American Reject (Never Lose Sight Records, 2018)

To that end, the album does a remarkably good job at making you feel you are in the singer’s mind, a troubled mind—Treble’s mind. It is a mind sick with paranoia and self-doubt, confused and angry, blaming its own shortcomings for failures not within its control. Sound familiar? Despite the specificity of the lyrics and the extremity of emotion, the narrator is always within reach, always relatable. It’s you and it’s me. When asked if it was hard for him to be so open on a record he knows friends and family would hear, he told me, “I’m an open book already. There’s nothing that I’ve been through that I feel like I can’t talk about because I know someone out there has been through something similar.” He then added, “Another thing that’s interesting is I realized that people don’t pay attention to lyrics as much, so when I’m as open as I am—I’m open in a very lyrical way—my challenge is to see who’s listening.”

The opening track, “Romance,” sets us in motion: man falls for woman. The track itself begins with a voice—augmented into an impossibly high pitch—contending, “And it sounds more like / A distant dream / More than a near reality.” These first words set an important tone for the album and establish a narrative style and something of a sub-character that lurks within the thoughts of the narrator’s outer character, reemerging occasionally—sometimes with a deepened pitch, sometimes with a raised pitch. The narrator (and this sub-narrator) is often at a loss for words, trying to find the right phrasing and going back and correcting himself, hoping to get himself across in just the right way. “She was like the host of my train of thought / or more so like the captain,” the sub-narrator interjects on “Romance.” “Nahhh,” he continues, “She was the train / Naw she was something better / She was like that first time you mix yams and mac and cheese together.” This kind of second-guessing and rephrasing occurs often throughout the album and is enormously effective in keeping us inside the narrator’s mind. It’s almost as though we are listening to Treble write the album as we listen to it.

Many of the tracks on the album end with a female voice (our reine, we presume) delivering spoken-word lines in French, acting as something of a foil to our narrator. This is yet another way that Treble holds the listener close to his psyche: she speaks to us in a foreign language, for which we receive no translation—we are on our own, left to our own devices trying to decipher sentences that have no meaning to us (at least those of us who don’t remember any of our high school French). In this way, the listener is not allowed to stray too far from the narrator’s point of view. What’s more is that, according to Treble, this voice we hear is in fact the voice of the woman he wrote the songs for in the first place. “She was very much part of the process,” he told me. To work alongside the muse of such an emotionally sensitive album is a testament to the kind of openness Treble has committed himself to with these songs.

Structurally, the album is divided into two halves: the first traces the narrator’s deepening infatuation and the second his deepening mental crises and eventual self-redemption. “American Reject,” sitting firmly at the album’s middle point, is the hinge on which the two halves revolve. It is the moment we have been waiting for since we heard the title of the very album, it’s that wait that made even the most excited and optimistic tracks that preceded it (“Signs” and “Picture Perfect”) tragic, doomed to fail. It opens with those same revealing lines that began the album: “And it sounds more like / A distant dream / More than a near reality.” But the meaning has changed completely, indeed the voice is no longer high-pitched—it’s been dragged down to a deep, low and heavy pitch. We have come crashing down to earth. It sets the tone for the brutal process of facing yourself and your perceived shortcomings that is to come on the second half of the album. “Alone” is what we would call rock bottom, but Treble does not lay us gently down; with “American Reject” and “Alone” he crashes us, full force into that rock—so hard, in fact, that we begin to bounce upward in the next three tracks. “I’m realizing that when I talk about my mental health and the process of getting through my mental struggles I reach an audience that can connect to it,” Treble said. “I’m reaching an audience that might not have known how to verbalize what they were going through until they heard [it in song]. And they’re like: ‘That! That's what it is!’”

The album ends with “On Me,” arguably the most powerful track we’ve heard yet. It’s not a case of Treble leaving the best for last though—the song could not have come a second sooner. It’s the culmination of everything experienced to that point, the answer to Treble asking himself the question we began with: “Are you okay?” And what’s the answer? The only honest answer that we’d believe at this point: I don’t know but that’s on me. It’s a powerful testament to regaining agency, to, by sheer willpower, pulling the world back into focus and reframing one’s mental state.

You don’t make me happy

You don’t make me cry

You don’t make me mad, you don’t make me sad, you don’t make me rise

You don’t make me calm, you don’t write my songs, you don’t make me quiet

You don’t see the sides of my teary eyes, you don’t make em dry, nah

That shit’s on me.

The album forced me to ask myself if I was okay at a moment wherein I wasn’t—and almost nobody else was either. “When I open up it creates a space of vulnerability that invites the person I’m talking to to open up a little bit,” he said. “If I feel safe enough to open up, that kind of helps other people to feel safe.” His album didn’t ask the question for me, nor did it give me the answer but it sure as hell offered “to go first,” as it were, to open up and reveal the heart and soul of its writer. Treble NLS has created in Reine: Story of an American Reject a completely honest piece of art—that is to say, something of a masterpiece. It’s so transparent and lodged so deep in his psyche that it feels almost uncomfortable to listen to at times—as though we are peeking at pages of some hidden journal or diary. After a personal rejection, Treble was able to not just create a remarkable album, but go even further and turn it into positive action with his newly-launched clothing brand REJECT. With REJECT, he seeks to inspire acceptance, self-love, and self-worth while also rejecting the things that hold us back—like fear. When you’re going through those dark, manic, paranoid moments that we all go through, Treble appears like that bolt of lightning I felt last winter precisely to tell you that we all go through them. Treble’s album isn’t quite therapy but it feels pretty damn close. ▲

Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!

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