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.
We are highlighting the last verse from Mos Def’s song “Wahid” from his 2009 album The Ecstatic for our Wordsmith Wednesday this week.
The words are:
“Schooling the young like Rev. Run
Quote Pac and tell ’em keep their heads up
And when the pressure comes down press back and press up
Fret not ghetto world guess what?
God is on your side, the devil is a lie
The Empire holds all the gold and the guns
But when all is said and done there’s only
La ilaha ill’Allah”
Mos Def is known for his legendary ability to smoothly weave sometimes dissident ideas together through idiosyncratic rhyme schemes, simultaneously painting in broadstroke and penciling in the details in the wet paint. These lines plant the power of knowledge and hope poetically against military and monetary might, reminding the marginalized to always push back against external pressures that threaten to crush them.As a non-believer from a loose Polish/Italian Catholic background, I don’t connect as much with the religious connotations of this verse as much as I value its message of encouragement and emboldenment of young people coming up in world that may discourage or diminish them. However, it bears noting that the Arabic line roughly translates to “there is no other god than God” in English, referring to idea that all temporary/secular struggle and desires dissipate in the face of eternal Truth, a concept shared between major monotheistic religions.
In light of our current social and political landscape, it’s important to remember the elements that should unite us in pursuit of Truth, regardless of religious beliefs (or lack thereof): protection of the weak/marginalized/impoverished, morally and ethically sound thought and action, sustained resistance in the face of corruption and abuse of power. Strength through love and empathy is far more sustainable than through guns and gold. Keep your head up and keep pressing back, everyone.
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.
Our Wordsmith Wednesday this week is Black Thought’s verse from The Roots’ song “Make My” off their 2011 album, Undun.
The lyrics are:
“Trying to control the fits of panic/
Unwritten and unravelled/
It’s the dead man’s pedantic/
Whatever, see it’s really just a matter of semantics/
When everybody’s fresh out of collateral to damage and/
My splaying got me praying like a mantis/
I begin to vanish/
Feel the pull of the blank canvas/
I’m contemplating that special dedication/
To whomever it concern, my letter of resignation/
Back to black/
My dark coronation/
The heat of the day/
The long robe of muerte/
That soul is in the atmosphere like airplay/
If there’s a heaven I can’t find the stairway”
Without delving too deep into personal connection with these lines, the masterful manipulation of language, or focusing on the fact that this verse is a curtain call on a classic tragedy of a concept album that unrolls in reverse, I want to highlight that these words always floor me with their effortless density and brilliant darkness. Black Thought expresses a dying man’s internal monologue, whether his fate is sealed by his own hand or by the hand of another man, eloquently navigating those final moments with a emotional and lyrical fabric that’s as beautiful in its bleakness as any exploration of the psychology of death I’ve ever read. This verse is the black diamond on an album full of lyrical gems.
Yasiin Bey, born Dante Smith and formerly known as Mos Def, said of writing:
“What I take from writers I like is their economy – the ability to use language to very effective ends. The ability to have somebody read something and see it, or for somebody to paint an entire landscape of visual imagery with just sheets of words – that’s magical.”
Don’t be afraid to chop your story down to its essential parts. Maybe when you’re done, somebody will feel something because of those little black symbols you’ve strung together.
When you’ve gotten your work down to its bare and beautiful bones, send it over to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.