Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Music of Kendrick Lamar - Keisha's Song

It's hard to believe, now, that there was ever a time when Kendrick Lamar (aka K-Dot) wasn't on the musical map. He's world famous, grammy nominated (and won), and by all accounts is still delving deeper into his craft.

I can attest that my first introduction to Kendrick was a really short one. A college friend of mine had A.D.H.D posted up on his Facebook account. I didn't know much about K-Dot, but all that straight cursing in the chorus (which also doubles up as the intro) just turned me off. So I just turned it off. Anyway, my truest introduction to him was on "Power Circle" by the MayBach Music Group (MMG). I'm definitely not a Rick Ross fan (and his contribution is the worst of the song), and it didn't help that he does the intro to the song. Anyway, one day I randomly let the song play out and was surprised by two contributors: first up, Wale, switched up his flow and had poetic bars; surprise two was the ultimate reveal - Kendrick Lamar.

Power Circle is really a chest-thumping track with each contributor chiming in either a lyrical boast, or some rags-to-riches story; but Kendrick's verse is different, eclectic, otherworldly, and its content is all over the place...it totally shocks you (in a good way). Literally, his intro, which is a one-breath 12-second take, was,

"Look inside the eyes of the last Mohican survived | You won't last the weekend outside | Seen a pastor tweaking that sank his teeth in a rock his demise | Later on in the evening you had the grieving of angels that cried | See a demon don't compromise"

This wasn't mere bravado; this was Kendrick elevating the song to something else. Some people seeing this as being a bit "extra", but I believe a lot more people appreciated the extra effort.

After wearing out that verse, I immediately set out to find out more about K-Dot. This was before "Good Kid M.A.A.D City" (GKMC) dropped, so I got to listen to "Overly Dedicated" and "Section.80", and some of his collabos on Youtube. Through Section.80, I encountered A.D.H.D again (and viewed it a little more favourably this time), but the concept album also served up another gem: "Keisha's Song (Her Pain)."

This song has been referred to as this generation's version of Tupac's "Brenda's Got A Baby"; Kendrick get's more self-referential when he raps that
She (Keisha) play Mr. Shakur | That's her favourite rapper | bumping Brenda's got a Baby while a pervert yelling at her 
Sure, this is conscious rap, and so we've got many ways to tell similar stories. Tupac's tale of a minor from a dysfunctional family whose life spirals downward after getting pregnant is a sad story; however, what pulls me out of the moment is that excessive R&B crooning they have on the track, and I don't favour the instrumental background either. One truth still remains about how I listen to music: I've got to resonate to the beat before I can even relate to the words. Not easy to catch the message if the beat is putting me off.

So, for Keisha's song, we get a flipped version of the Alan Parson's Project track "Old and Wise", which I had encountered once on Zion I's ode to Hip Hop "Bird's Eye View". The sample here is only slightly recognizable in the intro and then they warp it; they took that opening Violin/Oboe section and manipulate it, then they sprinkled in the opening piano notes to give this epic soulful feel. After that, they just added in a hard beat, and added a little more piano to fill it out. There used to be a video floating around of how it was done, but maybe it got taken down when Kendrick got sued for using the sample. Anyway, part I is cool for me: the beat is perfect!

Part II is the storytelling. Kendrick weaves a story of Keisha, an under-aged prostitute, basically showing us what a day in her life is like. The first verse focuses on her getting herself ready so she can hustle to make the money, which she doesn't see much of; the second verse tackles her paranoia about her profession, which is necessary by default because of run-ins with the police, one of which is detailed here; the third verse brings things full circle and we're given the impression that Keisha has been numbed into this way of life. She wasn't taught anything better. Unlike Brenda, it's her father who is missing from the family picture, and it's her mother's boyfriend who ends up taking away her innocence so early in life; because she wasn't taught anything better, she lacks the tools to turn her guilt into redemption.

I won't really delve into all things Kendrick does to make this song so poetic. Would take too much time, and it would sap the joy out of this little post. I will focus on one point that he specifically uses to contextualize/ground these verses; he basically makes a point of starting each verse,
"Lord knows she's beautiful | Lord knows the usuals leaving her body sore..."
Similarly, the end of each verse begins in (more or less) the same way:
It was a block away from Lueder's Park, I seen the El Camino parked | And In her heart she hate it there, but in her mind she made it where nothing really matters | Still she hit the back seat..."
He uses this very ending to emphasize a concept from each of the verses; in as much as it's something familiar, each verse is propelled in a different direction. In the first verse it focuses on her profession, with the back seat as her "office", the second focuses on her "satiating"a police officer, and the third shows us that more than being a mere office, the back seat is the "bondage" into which abuse pushed her; ultimately, it leads to her demise.

Ashtrobot (aka Ash Riser) provides a short Sinatra-esque chorus that bookends each verse, reminding us that Keisha's not alone on these streets.
"Fancy girls on Long Beach Boulevard, flagging down all of these flashy cars" 
I love this song and consider it Kendrick's best to-date. There is some vulgarity in the song (actually less than I've always thought it had considering the subject matter), but it doesn't detract much from the matter at hand. This is what Rap music can be at its best, giving us a lens into some of society's more gritty aspects, and giving us much food for thought. And there is a lot to unpack here; in case you might have missed it, this song is referenced and addressed in "Sing About Me" from GKMC, and takes on an eerie aspect once you realize that his sister, who he says he played this song to as a warning, also ended up getting pregnant as a minor.

This song for me is ultimate Kendrick. It may get lost in his discography now that he's famous, but if you get a chance give it a listen and marvel at his best work ever.

Have a great day.

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