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.
Our words this week are from The White Stripes’ song “Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise” off their album De Stihl.
“truth doesn’t make a noise”
This line has stuck with me since I first heard it in my early teens. I’ve written in the margins of notebooks. I’ve scribbled it on bathroom stall walls. I’ve worked it into short stories. It’s a reminder to attempt to block out the ceaseless static that surrounds me in on a daily basis and try to reach for something more permanent, more stable. Something closer to truth than the empty promises of politicians or the shiny new trash vying for our money and attention. I believe that actions speak louder than words and in the coming years it will be action (or the lack thereof) that shapes our reality. So stay active, engaged, vigilant. Try to do the grunt work on the ground. You don’t need to talk about. You just need to do it. We need to do it. The truth may be subjective, but direct and sustained aid to those in need in your community is concrete. Good luck. Let us know how we can help.
The words this week appear in the Japandroids song “Younger Us” from their 2012 album Celebration Rockreleased on Polyvinyl Records.
The lines are:
“Remember that time you were already in bed/
Said ‘fuck it’ got up to drink with me instead”
I remember getting the seven inch this song originally appeared while on summer break back at my parents’ house in the south burbs of Chicago and immediately heading down to the basement record player to spin it. Since then this track has woven itself into my mental fabric, providing the sonic backdrop to Champaign-Urbana nights and the fits of nostalgia that bring back a yearning each Fall for the wide-angle-Future feelings I associate with that time in my life. In these two lines, Brian King provides the perfect emotional snapshot of the transition from adolescence to adulthood, stuck between the bored prudence of maturity and spontaneous stupidity of youth, reaching blindly for one while clutching the strings of the other. These words will always remind me of roaming the streets of Urbana in search of a bus stop or the smothered beat of a house party, semi-cognizant of impending conclusion to this pseud0-reality but choosing the comfort of carelessness instead. This one goes out to my friends struggling keep a passion for life under the tightening stranglehold of social expectation. We’ll always have younger us to remind us to stay crazy forever.
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.
This week’s words are from Jim Croce’s song “Operator” off his 1972 album, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”
The lyrics are:
“Give me the number if you can find it/
So I can call just to tell ’em I’m fine/
And to show/
I’ve overcome the blow/
I’ve learned to take it well/
I only wish my words/
Could just convince myself/
That it just wasn’t real/
But that’s not the way it feels”
There’s something elementally Midwestern about Croce’s music to me. He’s at his best when he’s almost apologetically honest and vulnerable, crafting emotionally rich story-telling into something bite-sized. This song in particular with it’s use of one-sided phone conversation as a vehicle to work through the uncertainty and denial of a heartbroken lover shows his ability to navigate lyrical landscapes masterfully, capturing complex emotions and simplifying them enough to make them universal. His loss songs don’t wallow in sorrow, but have a certain accepting wistfulness that make them three dimensional and genuine. I always feel like I’m sharing the room with a straightforward sage when I’m listening to Jim Croce.
“Your mother would not approve/
of how my mother raised me/
but I do/
I finally do”
With lyrics consistently somehow both vague and specific, Mitski Miyawaki possesses the often indefinable skill of great (song)writers: the ability to make you feel as if you’re getting a glimpse of their unique worldview, a piece of their perspective, while simultaneously articulating part of your own inner dialogue in language you hadn’t thought to use yet. These seventeen words strung together this way bring up latent feelings about my upbringing, the angst of being looked down upon because of perception of my class, and ultimately accepting in semi/pseudo-adulthood that I agree with many of the values and sensibilities I was raised with. The beauty occurs when my interpretation is morphed by consideration of Mitski’s gender, race, her stated intentions of the song, and the rest of the song’s lyrics, which completely shifts the meaning and can give me insight into her worldview by attempting to use a different lens when looking at these same words. That’s how art can help you empathize, how words can help you learn.
This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is from the final song, “End of the Line,” off of Murder By Death’s 2003 album Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them?
“I can hear the rails a rattlin’ against the hectic fray so set the bone with a cardboard split and strike the nail against the flint and set the fields on fire let the devil come let him come I’ll be waitin’ for him this time I am stronger now and I can fight it I’ll be waitin’ at the end of the line at the end of the line.”
What is so amazing about this set of words is that it is the final lines of an album that tells a terrifying story. Beginning with the song “The Devil in Mexico,” we are introduced to the Devil and the town he’s come to claim. Even in song we receive a detailed, eerie, complex, description of him and know that he has all the worst intentions. Murder By Death aren’t trying to tell an emotional, pulling at the heart strings tale, just the oldest story of a town defending its home from an all-encompassing evil.