Arbitrary Pairings: Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift
I woke up this morning and saw that in the last twenty-four hours both Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid M.A.A.D City and Taylor Swift’s Red were available for download, and I listened to them this morning. It is an entirely arbitrary pairing, but the mind can draw connections between just about any damn thing. How wonderful.
What I’m about to say is almost boring in its across-expectation slap, but I sort of like the Taylor Swift album more than Kendrick’s. Now, K-dot released my second-favorite song of 2011, and his 2011 mixtape (which really had the polish and poise of a ‘real’ album) was one of my favorite things to listen to in a very long time. Add to that that “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is a breathtakingly weird and great song, and it’s certainly, like, some of the more out-there major label stuff I can recall seeing since Eminem’s “My Name Is”. (The Dr Dre stamp certainly goes a long way toward explaining, then… or is it just correlation without causation?)
I mean, fuck a dog, I really love Kendrick Lamar, but on first listen Good Kid M.A.A.D City is just not, er, great. Except for “Swimming Pools”, it’s probably not even really a step forward from Section.80. I mean, where the hell is “Cartoon & Cereal”? It seems like you should probably use the song that was so good it made Gunplay into a marketable commodity on your major label debut. It needs more weird. Kendrick’s weird, and that’s basically his main strength in my eyes. His Unique Selling Point in the parlance of advertising. Being weird, not in Donald Glover’s just like head-slappingly annoying way of “Oh look at me I wear skinny jeans and watch Star-Trek - I’m so weird”. Kendrick is like the kid who had a bad home life so he dove into some out-there esoterica and inhabited it like he was after squatter’s rights.
Plus to that, Kendrick’s got a great musical mind, and he’s a great self-mythologizer. Thus, “Cartoon and Cereal”, right? The rest of his storytelling chops are underdone, though. You get a nasty case of trichinosis from that. (Sorry.) A lot of the “I want to fuck that bitch” songs are pretty flat. Most of the “We do or don’t do drugs” ones are, too. The stories about how fucked up his childhood are, though, like — sorry to keep returning to it, but it’s probably the best song of the year — “Swimming Pools” are amazing. There just aren’t enough ‘banger’-type songs. The production is typical and slightly interesting, but not great. I’d rather listen to Schoolboy Q’s Habits and Contradictions on repeat just for the beats. (Hats off to whoever decided Portishead samples are now de rigueur!) There’s not enough TDE-style mythology (I guess Ab-Soul mined all that for Control System?). And what is the deal with playing some tape hiss cassette insertion sound at the beginning and end of an album? Just bookending your album with an audio-analog conceit doesn’t make it a self-contained unit of work. It being uniformly great makes it a self-contained unit of work. You’re confusing why Channel Orange is an instant classic - it’s not the bookending sound effects thing.
I mean, I guess now that I really think about it, Good Kid M.A.A.D City is not bad - not at all. It stands above most of the 7 gigs or so of my “2012 rap” playlist, but it’s just not quite thematically-uniform, sonically innovative, or, you know, just tight like R.A.P. Music or, well, that’s the only rap album from this year that I think is truly great. The other thing is, it doesn’t have super high peaks like Nicki Minaj’s Roman Reloaded, Future’s Pluto, or Waka’s Triple F (underrated at this point, BTW).
Ferchris’ssakes, I may not even like it more than the other TDE albums, Habits and Contradictions and Control System. Sorry, Kendrick, but you’re better than both of those guys so you’re getting graded on a curve.
Maybe the reason why Taylor Swift’s Red sort of seems better to listen to, then, is that I really give no shits about her at all. I actually (“actually”, as if that’s a controversial stance) dislike her. I think, maybe, some of the 30-something guys that poptimistically defend her may just be lecherous and bad at heart. Because, come on, great is the pulchritude and purity of Tay Tay. She’s like a living, breathing J. Crew catalog that sings you lil songs about how much she loves you. Add to that the “hipster”-bashing single “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (which is really just an adult re-write of “You Belong With Me” (which, hey, not a bad idea since that’s a great/catchy song)) and its super-super-super-super-super-super-super-super-super-super-super-twee video, and it seems a sure thing that I’d sort of hate it. Seeing as how it’s actually good, though - well, that makes it seem like a sequel to sliced bread or whatever. What I’m trying to say, then, is:
We sometimes make the mistake of confusing a ‘bad’ life with a more ‘interesting’ one or a more ‘artistically valid’ one. And conversely. So Kendrick’s album has a lot of stuff about conducting a B&E, dudes dying, getting addicted to drugs, and a mom-vocal-skit thing that really made me think of this incredibly sad Robert Frost poem. Taylor Swift mostly sings about being from middle America and falling in and out of love with guys. But the big fat but of it all is that most stories — in general, overall, spanning time — are not really that captivating. Really outrageously plotted stories are usually called out by the more literary-minded for being so. Stories are good because they’re told well, and Taylor Swift really does tell a story well.
I mean, the whole “Taylor Swift” writes her own songs thing sounds really stupid, but she’s good at writing songs (now?).
“All Too Well”, the longest song on Red at 5:29, should be boring - or at least uninteresting. It’s not. Despite its lack of ukelele, EDM breakdown, or Snow Patrol cameo, it’s one of the strongest songs on the album. And, it’s actually one of my favorite songs I’ve come across this year. It starts out,
I walked through the door with you
It was cold, but something ‘bout it felt like home somehow and I
Left my scarf there at your sister’s house
And you still got it in your drawer even now
It basically ends by saying,
But your keep my old scarf from that very first week
Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me
That seems like the sort of cheap bookend technique I criticized Kendrick for (on an album-level), but it works here. The whole song is just an astutely-observed study of being in and out of love. I mean, sorry but it just mirrors my own life experiences. “Cause here we are again on that little town street / You almost ran the red cause you were looking over me.” That’s a thing that happens! “You used to be a little kid with glasses in a twin size bed” - hey, I still have glasses, but I remember that twin size bed. The other thing is, Swift uses extended metaphors like an expert. There’s this middle verse about a masterpiece being lost in translation and then she’s a crumpled up piece of paper on the floor, and it’s just wonderful.
Now, what I’m not saying is that I think the white middle class American life is better (or worse - whatever) than the black lower class American life. I mean, that’s really just a stupid thing to even think about. There’s enough music in the world for some of it to be about one thing and other of it to be about another thing, and I’m certainly not going to be the ‘thing police’ and tell people to make things about other things than the things they want to make them about. Why would you want to be the ‘thing police’ when that sounds like the most dreadful job in the world?
Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift could both be characters on Friday Night Lights, and they would be the best ones. They would write all their own parts, and they’d both be tack sharp 3D renderings of real people - just how they come out in their own work. OK, gosh, it sounds like I’ve sort of talked myself back into Kendrick Lamar, now. I mean, he is a good storyteller, and rap is poorly (sort of) lacking in those. He just doesn’t have enough ‘bangers’ or ‘interesting ideas’ to make a 100% great album. (Yet?)
I guess the point of this whole essay is to say, if you are Kendrick Lamar fan but not a Taylor Swift fan, or vice versa, that you should check the other one out. Good Kid M.A.A.D City and Red are both really good, and they both really do the same thing. Either one would be the perfect gift for that person in your life who “likes everything except for country/rap”.
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