“I was Trojan-horsing FX. If I told them what I really wanted to do, it wouldn’t have gotten made.” —Donald Glover ("Donald Glover Can’t Save You")
I. Blame It on The...
Shots are poured and downed on Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools (Drank).” The song doesn’t demand listeners follow like Lil Jon commanding partiers on LMFAO’s “Shots,” but there’s an enchanting encouragement to drink while the hook plays on the good kid, m.A.A.d city single.
This reaction has occurred in every club or house party setting I’ve been in; the taste of Jack Daniels, Ciroc, or Grand Marnier hits tongues and immediately, “Pour up, drank” is shouted. That’s the awkward irony of “Swimming Pools”; it isn’t a song about drinking more, but the consequences that come with drunkenness and alcoholism.
A few years ago, Jessica Chassin posed the following question on Huffington Post: "How Did a Song With a Strong Anti-Drinking Message Turn Into a Drinking Anthem?" The answer is simple: the song sounds like fun. Sonically, “Swimming Pools” contains the kind of commercial crossover beat that would catch the ear of a '12 Drake or Wiz Khalifa.
The mellow wooziness and trap bounce of T-Minus’ production mirrors the standard for a radio record. Compton Kenny’s chorus is melodic and infectious; there’s a simplicity that easily translates to listeners looking for something fun with a touch of catchy. Before Molly and Xanax started sending out invites, alcohol was the vice of mainstream radio. T-Pain, Miguel, Jamie Foxx, and countless others have achieved certified hits making party records about blissful intoxication.
Kendrick didn’t follow their formula of selling bacchanal enjoyment, though. Underneath the shallow pleasure of “Swimming Pools” lies the internal conflict of drinking, the reality of peer pressure provokers, and going beyond one's tolerance limit into a pool of poison. The message is well-known, but depending on the setting, the translation becomes skewed.
Terrence "Punch" Henderson, president of Top Dawg Entertainment, mentions the intentional deception in "The Making of Kendrick Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city":
"It’s a real deceptive record if you’re a casual listener. It sounds like we are celebrating having a good time before you actually dive into what he’s saying. He wrote it deceptive like that on purpose. If you just a casual listener go ahead, have fun. But if you really a fan of him you’ll get the message behind the record." —Punch
II. Trojan Horse
“Swimming Pools” doesn't break the laws of radio but rewrites what’s expected from commercial content. Without being sanctimonious about the ugliness of alcohol, the single seeped into space where the message could reach the masses by disguise. If “Swimming Pools” was a holier-than-thou seminar, its impact would be drastically different, especially in the context of its reception at radio and in clubs. But that speaks to Kendrick’s artistic approach, to his ability to be hip-hop’s Trojan horse.
On the first dozen listens, it didn’t occur to me that Kendrick was confessing his status as a sinner at the beginning of “Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe.” I heard and understood it, but I never gave much thought to how rare it was for a rapper to say such a thing on a record so targeted for radio. Before the drums drop and the hypnotic request to preserve the vibe is issued, Kendrick begs for forgiveness from the Lord. The Kanye lyric “But if I talk about God my record won't get played, huh?” comes to mind, but Kendrick never faced a shred of scrutiny. The song peaked at No. 32 on the Billboard Hot 100 and broke the top ten on both the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Rap Songs charts.
Before the release of DAMN., Kendrick admitted to The New York Times how his next album would speak of God. Since the topic wasn’t a new addition to his catalog, many, including myself, expected an album of songs in the same vein as “Faith,” “The Spiteful Chant,” or “How Much a Dollar Cost.” Kendrick surely wouldn't be following in Chance The Rapper's Coloring Book footsteps, but even his most faithful fans didn’t foresee his "God album" to be gift-wrapped in fear of damnation, and the book of Deuteronomy.
On his most commercially successful and accessible album, millions of listeners are forced to confront a heavy sense of existential dread. Weaved between the hilarious “HUMBLE.,” the catchy “LOYALTY.,” and the addictive “LOVE.” is a famous man who isn’t being prayed for, a world on the verge of being torched in hellfire, and prophecy curses on American soil—even the pleasures of success cannot provide escape from the claustrophobic sense that it’s all closing in.
III. Brains Blown Out
Each time bodies bop to “DNA.,” I wonder how many are devouring the madness Paula’s oldest son paints. Each time “m.A.A.d city” inspires a mosh pit, the same question arises. The descriptive lyricism sounds like a war zone. Kids react to Kendrick reflecting on seeing bodies on top of bodies as if it's Crime Mob’s “Knuck If You Buck."
If he rapped these lyrics into a news camera instead of a microphone overtop a boisterous beat with his flawless flow, the thrill would be replaced by chills; Kendrick makes life within the belly of the beast sound like scenes from a John Singleton film. Similar to how you can’t look away in Boyz n the Hood when the dirty officer’s gun is pressed against Tre’s throat, the harsher elements of Kendrick’s music are deeply ingrained in the listening experience.
Attempts to see a local girlfriend end in a boot-stomping by unexpected adversaries; an early morning home invasion ends with the dead body of a friend filling the street with crimson; a young prostitute murdered without remorse; kids who aren’t old enough to drink driving underneath the moonlight praying they see 21. The rapture depicted on the opening of untitled unmastered. is intense; Kendrick’s death is the first thing you hear after pressing play on DAMN. or the last thing if you reverse the tracklist. You can’t reach the soul-uplifting “Alright” without confronting the soul-aching “u.”
There’s a sense of crisis no matter how upbeat the funk or jubilant the bassline. Kendrick's albums aren’t filled with light―any brightness is an illusion, any fun is deception. I once wrote about how 21 Savage’s terrifying reality transformed into trap amusement and how Future’s misery became party anthems for the masses, but no one ever thinks of Kendrick’s music within this framework. One of hip-hop's very best, most popular MCs has one of the darkest mainstream discographies.
IV. The Price of Greatness Is Responsibility
Kendrick Lamar has never shied away from internal struggle or external strife, delivering both through penmanship that has allowed him to gain universal accessibility. In a 2011 interview with HipHopDX, after the release of Section.80, Kendrick touched on how music is bigger than his personal desires to create:
"It’s just my life and the experiences of those around me and how I put it in my music and the cause and effect after I put it in my music. The response that I got, I walk in the streets every day in the city of Compton. People come up to me every day and tell me how I’m [making] music that is helping them get through life and I’m speaking for them. So, a whole year of going on with the same type of responses, I couldn’t help but sit back and realize that the music is just bigger than me now. I can’t be selfish and just make records that I want to make." —Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick deeply considers the messages he’s delivering his audience with each album. He’s not worried about critics, but the Compton families who need to hear someone speak for their surroundings. Instead of molding trap records in the likeness of “New Freezer,” it’s more important to Kendrick to craft a record like “i,” with the purpose of speaking on self-love for those who need it the most. He borrowed Big Sean’s record to declare his rap supremacy rather than taking the stance on a project of his own. Every album lives by the ethos declared on “The Heart Pt. 2”: “My uncle doing life inside prison he wasn't wrapped too tight / He told me rap about life, not rap niggas.”
“I can’t change nothing. Change takes years and time, longer than probably what I will live. But, what I can do is make people think a little more,” Lamar told HipHopDX in 2011. His every message doesn’t always reach a wider audience, his every politic doesn't align with mine, but he creates discussion like no other living, breathing MC.
The beauty of Kendrick’s curator role in the Black Panther The Album is how it allowed him to focus on a project without toting the world’s weight. The album is fun, the most purely fun album Kendrick has authored since O(verly) D(edicated). His every appearance is loose: flow flexes, songwriter exercises, and lyrical acrobatics. I can't imagine records like "X," "Paramedic!" or "Big Shot" making the conceptual labyrinth his albums are built within. Black Panther The Album is Kendrick's More Life, a playlist project full of hits and not a studio album.
Albums are for saving the world.
UPDATE: After this piece was published, TDE president Punch revealed that not only has Kendrick knowingly employed a "Trojan horse" approach, he has referenced it in an unreleased track:
By Yoh, aka, Jack Danyohials aka @Yoh31