I choreograph seven steps to heaven
In hell, waiting to exhale
Common is trying to figure out how to get to heaven (peace, prosperity) from the “hell” of urban life. Until he does so he will be “waiting to exhale” —– that is, living in a state of almost insupportable tension.
Notable allusions: (1) The Miles Davis album Seven Steps to Heaven, named after the title track written by Davis/Feldman, which quickly became a jazz standard. Here the “steps” are literal —– hence the choreography. (2) The Terry McMillan novel (and later the film) Waiting to Exhale, which Common uses for its evocative title, and not so much its themes of black middle class struggle and female friendship. (3) The act of breathing, which is of course central to the song’s thematics.
When Common talks about “choreograph[ing] Seven Steps to Heaven,” he also seems to be alluding to his thought process as he contemplates the death of his friend, and his soul’s ascent to the great hereafter.
Finally, don’t miss the homonym In hell/Inhale: before doing something that requires great exertion or effort it is common to take a deep breath.
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