I have a good but useless memory. I remember trivial things in great detail; I forget important things totally, and repeatedly. The problem is that I can’t choose–or account for–what sticks. Right now, I remember–almost minute-to-minute–a Christmas party from 2004. But I can’t do math.
For example: it’s the late spring of 2000, and I’m in my fourth-period SGA class. Fourth-period SGA means I’m doing nothing for two hours but eating chips while Girls-Who-Are-Out-Of-My-League make banners. One of them starts singing a song. This girl is shy, a cheerleader, very Baptist, and (this day) wearing leopard print pants. If you’ve ever spent time in Memphis, you know there’s no conflict in that sentence. She’s using a red sparkle pen to make a poster. And she’s singing, softly, thoughtlessly:
“Never meant to make your daughter cry/I apologized a trillion times/I’m sorry, Miss Jackson (oooh)/I am for real.”
And scene. It seems a random thing to remember, thirteen years later. But it isn’t, because that is the exact moment I fell in love with Outkast, and the exact moment I realized what I love about pop music.
Song of the Week: Kendrick Lamar, “Swimming Pools (Drank)”
Much has already been written about Kendrick Lamar, his major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and its single “Swimming Pools (Drank).” All of the praise is well-deserved. Most of it has come from music journalists, hip hop fanatics, or some combination therein. I’m neither. I’m a singer/songwriter from Memphis, Tennessee. I’m not equipped to place this record in a larger cultural context. I’m just a song junkie. And I love this song.
“Swimming Pools (Drank)” is a cautionary tale dressed as a party song. It doesn’t tell one individual’s story concerning alcohol; it tells several. It’s not limited to one character or one perspective. It’s not even limited to one state of mind. We hear from peers, adults, his own conscience–all in a whirlwind of narrative, wordplay, and vaguely detailed surroundings. The song is at once razor-sharp and marble-mouthed, all-knowing and dumb drunk, heightened and dulled. It simultaneously outlines the reasons alcohol is appealing and the problems it causes. And then it enacts the escapist joy of drunkenness. The verses are sober and (often) frightening. The chorus is intoxicating and fun. There are no bad guys or good guys, no clear motives or easy decisions.
In this way, “Swimming Pools” is typical of good kid, m.A.A.d city. Like Outkast’s Stankonia, the entire album tells a story, brings to life dozens of characters, and creates its own world. Some artists describe their experience. Some might point a finger. Many folk singers in 1963 lamented the murder of Medgar Evers and vilified his killer; Bob Dylan wrote “Only A Pawn In Their Game.” Many rappers have rhymed about baby-mama-drama; Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” spreads the blame equally, giving voice (and credence) to each side of the problem. Serious issues have complex causes. No one’s actions, thoughts, or motives exist in a vacuum.
Of course, Kendrick Lamar isn’t the only rapper grappling with a complicated world. Some artists create escapist hits; others preach stark realism to their own niche choir. What’s rare about “Swimming Pools” are its powers of subversion–it poses as the former to bring a new audience to the latter.
Take Lamar’s latest (also charting) single, “Backseat Freestyle.” If “Swimming Pools” deftly subverts a genre, “Backseat Freestyle” openly satirizes it. The entire song can be summed up by the first words out of Lamar’s mouth: “Martin had a dream…Kendrick had a dream.” What follows are the grand and depraved teenage dreams of a young Lamar, meant to be compared to those of MLK once upon a time. That premise, by itself, could be interesting or sanctimonious. The hook, by itself, could feel like any other club banger. Together, we get something special: a song with genuine affection for and real criticism of the genre. We can hear why a sixteen year-old Lamar would be attracted to those dreams, and we can hear why he’s bored of them today. In case we didn’t already get the point, the video hammers it home: a shirtless guy sings about a girl shaking her ass. Cut to the requisite ass-shaking-girl, while a totally impassive Kendrick Lamar stares in the opposite direction.
Like Outkast or so many others, Lamar seems simultaneously devoted to and at war with cliche. As Andre 3000 once cast off in one of last decade’s biggest hits, “y’all don’t wanna hear me, you just wanna dance.” He said this during the dance break of a simple, infectious love song about all the ways love can go wrong. But Outkast, and Lamar, don’t settle for one. You’re gonna hear them AND you’re gonna dance. But, crucially, not in that order.
It’s good to write a melody that the whole world sings; it’s good to write a lyric that makes a person think. But it’s great to catch millions passionately singing words they wouldn’t themselves think. That’s the unique power of the best pop music: sometimes, it gets you before you get it.