Words By William E. Ketchum, III
Kendrick Lamar’s single “i” has received mixed reviews since its release last week, but fans are still hopeful for the Compton emcee’s upcoming project. Supporters are patiently waiting to see how the song contextually fits into the full picture on his follow-up to 2012’s heralded Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. WatchLOUD’s Max Weinstein wrote in his Op-ed “Kendrick Lamar And The Context Defense [OPINION]” that this logic doesn’t make sense. “An album is simply a collection of individual songs,” he wrote.
Sure, plenty of acts these days are plastering songs together in a playlist without direction. But there are still some musicians who haven’t forgotten about the art of crafting an album. With Good Kid, Kendrick Lamar crafted 12 songs that each contribute to a wider narrative. And despite Weinstein’s opinion, the full album context of a song can definitely contribute to its quality. Saying that an album is only a “collection of songs” is like saying a film is only a collection of scenes, or that a painting is only a collection of brush strokes.
A great example is Kendrick’s “Backseat Freestyle.” When the song first hit the ‘Net, many listeners said it lacked the thoughtfulness and depth that Kendrick Lamar showcased on Section.80. But once they heard GKMC as a whole, the picture was clearer. “Backseat Freestyle” is the scene of Kendrick having fun with friends while sharing a black in the backseat of a car. The song reflects the youthfulness of Kendrick’s crew and describes the mindset of people where they live– important parts of progressing the album’s story.
“’Backseat Freestyle’ is being in the mind state of being 16 years old and not having no cares in the world,” Kendrick Lamar reportedly said in an interview. “Not giving a damn about nothing, but life and money and what you see in front of you. It’s not me talking now, it’s me talking then.”
Kendrick Lamar isn’t the only artist who has songs that make more sense in the concept of a full album. Eminem’s “We Made You” initially just plays as another one of his seemingly obligatory pop singles. But on the divisive Relapse album, it comes right after “Same Song And Dance,” a record that sees a drug-addled Em kidnapping and raping women. The morbid chorus has Eminem repeating, “sing that song, it’s the last song you’ll ever get the chance to sing.” On “We Made You,” which comes right after, a woman is singing. The placement within the album gives the song a completely different feel.
It also goes the other way around–most people who appreciate the full album art form can name a situation where a song’s context within an album hurts it. It often comes in the form of a single that goes for radio but doesn’t fit into the album’s theme or narrative. “Studio,” a song from fellow TDE star Schoolboy Q’s Oxymoron, comes to mind. “Jigga My Nigga” would be fine on another album, but its lack of cohesion with The Blueprint’s soul samples from Kanye West, Just Blaze and Bink! makes it blemish on a classic.
Kendrick Lamar has already shown a strong ability to fit puzzle pieces together. Section.80 and good kid, m.A.A.d city are both highly conceptual albums, where each song is part of a bigger picture. Since Kendrick’s albums take a macro approach, fans wanting to withhold judgment before hearing a song in context is perfectly reasonable. If Weinstein believes the song is weak regardless and that the concept can’t redeem it, that’s acceptable. But invalidating the idea of album context enhancing song quality altogether is to discredit what Kendrick, and other artists, have been able to do in the past.
Follow William Ketchum on Twitter @WEKetchum
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