Wordsmith Wednesday: Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)”

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Our words this week come from the opening verse of Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” off his 2012 modern classic good kid, m.A.A.d. city.

The lyrics are:

“Now I done grew up ’round some people livin’ their life in bottles
Granddaddy had the golden flask, backstroke every day in Chicago
Some people like the way it feels, some people wanna kill their sorrows
Some people wanna fit in with the popular, that was my problem”

Choosing lines to highlight off this record was not easy. I could have shone a light on the pure storytelling of “The Art of Peer Pressure” or the fresh juxtapositions of parallel yet conflicting corrupting forces being explored in each verse on “Good Kid” or the masterful fourth-wall-breaking, character-constructing introspection and self-analysis on “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is a poetry collection, sparkling with wordplay, cemented in themes, and threaded with narrative. I chose these lines because they’re a beautiful example of Lamar’s ability to paint a rich picture and implant himself in it to navigate the details of that landscape. A celebration of indulgence on the surface, this song/poem unrolls to engage the social and psychological motivations for alcoholism, but that engagement rests on the foundation provided by this acknowledgement of Lamar’s understanding of the issue on a personal as well as a sociological level in these first lines. Wrapped up in a narrative of love / poverty / faith / violence / success / guilt, this song (especially the extended version) always resonates as an honest attempt to approach the causes and effects of alcoholism without being disconnected or self-righteous. It makes me think of myself, my family, and my future. It places both author and audience within narrative: at the bar, in the club, on the couch. It swirls and strikes. It weaves and breaths heavy. It’s K-Dot trying to connect the stray dots in permanent marker for you (and him) to learn from.

– NR

kendrick

Wordsmith Wednesday: Mississippi John Hurt “Frankie”

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The words we’re highlighting this week are from Mississippi John Hurt’s song “Frankie” recorded in 1928.

The words are:

“He’s my man and he done me wrong”

The ominous directness this line exemplifies some of the beautiful power of the blues. The use of variations of this line as a refrain throughout a song about the murder of a cheating man serves to tease out truth so deep and black you can’t help but reach your hand into it. This is a declaration assumedly as ancient as human relationships.This is love, betrayal, and justice all wrapped up into an honest, simple package that anyone ever burned by a partner can understand. This is a reminder to treat your lover with respect or the judge, whether secular or in the sky, may find them justified for putting you down in the smoke of their gun.

– NR

mississippi-john-hurt

Wordsmith Wednesday: Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”

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Our Wordsmith Wednesday this week comes from Otis Redding’s classic track “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” the posthumously released The Dock of the Bay.

The lines are:

“Left my home in Georgia/
Headed for the ‘frisco Bay/
‘Cause I’ve had nothing to live for/
It look like nothing’s gonna come my way

So I’m just gon’ sit on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
Sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time”

With these words, Redding encapsulates the hollow loneliness of moving to a new place in hopes of shifting out of a stagnant situation only to find the same empty horizon. When I moved to Nashville at the end of the summer in 2014, I semi-consciously sought to escape personal darkness and disappointment that seemed to surround my in the strip malls and cornfields of the Chicago suburbs. Living alone in faux-wood floored apartment on the north side, I spent most Saturday mornings that first year driving around on Gallatin and looking out the back door at the trash littered brush. The wistful acceptance in Redding’s words and delivery fills me with the feeling of those weekend mornings sitting at stoplights or staring at scraps of cellophane blow from bush to bush, waiting for something to change.

– NR

otis

Wordsmith Wednesday: Nas’ “One Love”

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Our words this week come from Nas’ track “One Love” off of his 1994 classic, Illmatic.

The lines are:

“But, yo, guess who got shot in the dome piece?
Jerome’s niece on her way home from Jones Beach
It’s bugged, plus Little Rob is selling drugs on the dime
Hanging out with young thugs that all carry 9s
And night time is more trife than ever
What up with Cormega? Did you see him? Are y’all together?”

The textual cadence of these words is only a shadow of the spoken delivery, but the internal rhymes and crisp colloquiality of Nas’ lyrics are undeniable. Illmatic is full of dense, image intensive verses but the stylized envisioning of letters to jailed friends found on “One Love” has always stood out to me. The conversational relation of urban tragedy/reality is presented with such familiarity and frankness that I instantly relate to the unnamed recipient of Nas’ news. I feel the sadness of a little girl from the neighborhood being shot dead while walking home. I feel the anger of knowing another young kid from the block is getting involved in the same nonsense that killed that innocent child. I feel the guarded closeness between separated male friends, the commrodary of shared struggle. The clear-eyed bitterness and empathetic realism in Nas’ lyrics on Illmatic is part of the reason the record is a masterpiece, but the unique creative vision and flawless execution on “One Love” make it a touchstone for urban storytelling in my eyes/ears/mind.

– NR

Nas

Wordsmith Wednesday: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

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Today’s words come from the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

The excerpt is:

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

When we read The Things They Carried in senior year high school English class, I remembered being struck by the directness and vivid imagery of the book, especially this chapter. O’Brien writes with a blend of austerity and attention to detail that made my teenage self feel as though I could contemplate the human cost of war without ever having experienced the pain for myself. I had lived most of my adolescent life with a vague fear of Vietnam-esque draft being instated for the seemingly unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this book taught me how to navigate some of those feelings from a distance in case I ever had to confront them for real. I think that is part of the beauty of literature: it can give you insight into an experience vicariously so that you can learn from, or at least look at, situations from a variety of angles without every having to go through them yourself. Sometimes there is not a clear lesson, but simply a human emotion or event to be considered, just a testament to the reality that is humanity.

Love and respect to all the men and women who have survived or become victims to the horrors of war as well as to their family and friends.

-NR

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower”

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Our words this week are the first sentence to Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

The sentence reads:

“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”

These words set the tone for the book series that spanned Stephen King’s entire career and skill set. These lines, as the series itself, draw the reader into an epic yet simple story of a man’s pursuit of his enemy as well as his obsession. In twelve words, King submerses you in the world he is about to create in your head, into a scene expansive yet full of suspense. This series was the first Stephen King I ever read and has connected me to my father, friends, girlfriend, and other fans of the gunslinger’s journey since early adolescence. I’m looking forward to returning to Mid-World some time soon, whether on screen or on page.

Thankee sai.

– NR

KIng

Wordsmith Wednesday: Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”

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Our Wordsmith Wednesday comes from Kurt Vonnegut‘s “Cat’s Cradle” and consists of two related passages from different parts of the book. The excerpts read:

“‘He must have surprised himself when he made a cat’s cradle out of the string, and maybe it reminded him of his own childhood. He all of a sudden came out of his study and did something he’d never done before. He tried to play with me. Not only had he never
played with me before; he had hardly ever even spoken to me.

‘But he went down on his knees on the carpet next to me, and he showed me his teeth, and he waved that tangle of string in my face. ‘See? See? See?’ he asked. ‘Cat’s cradle. See the cat’s cradle? See where the nice pussycat sleeps? Meow. Meow.”

‘His pores looked as big as craters on the moon. His ears and nostrils were stuffed with hair. Cigar smoke made him smell like the mouth of Hell. So close up, my father was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. I dream about it all the time.

‘And then he sang. ‘Rockabye catsy, in the tree top’; he
sang, ‘when the wind blows, the cray-dull will rock. If the bough breaks, the cray-dull will fall. Down will come craydull, catsy and all.’

‘I burst into tears. I jumped up and I ran out of the house as fast as I could go.’

‘No wonder kids grow up crazy. A cat’s cradle is nothing but a bunch of X’s between somebody’s hands, and little kids look and look and look at all those X’s…’

‘And?’

‘No damn cat, and no damn cradle.'”

With these words, Vonnegut planted the seed to a simple truth in my seventeen year old mind, one that solidifies the longer I spin on this multi-colored space rock: nobody really knows what they’re doing. Not your parents. Not your boss. Not your teacher. Certainly not you. Some people have convinced themselves of certainty better than others, but it’s everybody’s first shot at this thing. Everyone’s perspective can offer insight and learning from the experiences of others is essential to success, but it’s vital not to lose focus searching an answer that doesn’t exist. There’s no skeleton key to a successful life. It’s all just a bunch of X’s.

– NR

Kurt Vonnegut