“The Blacker the Berry”

There was actually another significant music happening, this one in the hip hop world, I’d intended to include with my last post, but which I think deserves to be more than a footnote. Kendrick Lamar dropped something that, in my opinion, carries more weight than either Kanye’s pulling-a-Kanye or Drake’s pulling-a-Beyoncé (seriously, surprise album releases are so 2013, and they don’t even end up winning you the Grammy riiiiiight?). At this point we’re all well aware that the past year-or-so has been a tough one, to put it lightly, for race relations in our country. Ideas of fairness and progress have been challenged; notions of privilege and disparity have been given unprecedented attention.

With these challenges and new perspectives has come a whole, confusing, spectrum of emotions for people of all colors. Kendrick’s never had a problem tackling the hard subjects in his lyrics, though. Section.80 was such a powerful and insightful album for me (I’ll never forget hearing, “‘How old are you?’ She say 22, I say 23. ‘Okay, then we all crack babies.'” for the first time.), and it opens with a pretty simple, if impractical, solution to the Race Problem: fuck your ethnicity. That said, Kendrick’s proud of his. While remaining true to his heritage, he goes to great lengths to subvert stereotypes about and realities within his community. His breakthrough hit “Swimming Pools” poses as a standard party anthem but is really a scathing critique of the shallowness of a lifestyle centered around excess. He shines on Pusha T’s “Nosetalgia,” using the tale of his rejection of the drug-dealing legacy handed to him by his father and grandfather (“Pops, your ass is washed up, with all due respect… Every verse is a brick. Your son dope!“) to counter Pusha’s sentimental reflection on his own crack-slinging days. And last year’s “i,” which the Academy did find Grammy-worthy, is a celebration– an affirmation of love even when the world’s a ghetto full of big guns and picket signs.

“The Blacker the Berry,” to use a completely unoriginal comparison, may well be the Malcolm X to “i”‘s Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s aggressive and pushes buttons. You’re supposed to feel uncomfortable in parts. Put simply, it’s an honest and heartbreaking glimpse into the mindset of a black man in America, revolving around an enigmatic ‘hypocrisy’. But I’ll leave the more knowledgeable interpretations to the Pulitzer Prize winners and bow out here. Remember this: every race start from the block.

In this final couplet, Kendrick Lamar employs a rhetorical move akin to—and in its way even more devastating than—Common’s move in the last line of “I Used to Love H.E.R.”: snapping an entire lyric into place with a surprise revelation of something hitherto left unspoken. In “H.E.R.”, Common reveals the identity of the song’s “her”—hip hop itself—forcing the listener to re-evaluate the entire meaning and intent of the song. Here, Kendrick Lamar reveals the nature of the enigmatic hypocrisy that the speaker has previously confessed to three times in the song without elaborating: that he grieved over the murder of Trayvon Martin when he himself has been responsible for the death of a young black man. Common’s “her” is not a woman but hip hop itself; Lamar’s “I” is not (or not only) Kendrick Lamar but his community as a whole. This revelation forces the listener to a deeper and broader understanding of the song’s “you”, and to consider the possibility that “hypocrisy” is, in certain situations, a much more complicated moral position than is generally allowed, and perhaps an inevitable one.

(Michael Chabon‘s two cents on Genius.com)

“I Love You, Honeybear”

Anyone familiar with my Bright Eyes fixation of nearly well over a decade will be aware that when it comes to music I’m (I mean, why mince words here?) a sucker for a “tortured soul”-type full of self-loathing and cynicism, who possesses the poetic finesse with which to spin his bleak outlook into the most heart-wrenching of verses. Someone who demonstrates the kind of unrepentant honesty that almost surely would be off-putting in real life, but from a safe distance makes one feel like a confidant. Like Conor Oberst, Josh Tillman (masquerading as Father John Misty) ticks all these boxes with the added bonus of having the voice of an angel (whereas an old girlfriend of my brother’s once compared Conor to a goat). There aren’t exact parallels between the two, of course… Oberst is mopey and introspective; Tillman, jaded and callous. If anything, I’ve pegged Justin Vernon as Tillman’s indie-music-universe foil-slash-nemesis, what with their whimsical pseudonyms and beards and affinities for women named Emma.

In any case, “I Love You, Honeybear” is one of those albums that just makes you feel so many things. It’s filthy (“Mascara, blood, ash, and cum on the Rorschach sheets where we make love” are the album’s opening words, if you don’t count the three crooning “Honeybear”s that precede), hilarious (“She says, like, literally, music is the air she breathes; and the malaprops make me wanna fuckin scream. I wonder if she even knows what that word means.”), sweet (“You left a note in your perfect script: ‘Stay as long as you want.’ I haven’t left your bed since.”), confessional (“I didn’t call when grandma died. I spend my money getting drunk and high. I’ve done things unprotected, proceeded to drive home wasted, bought things to win over siblings; I’ve said awful things, such awful things.”), anguished (“Now I’ve got a lifetime to consider the ways I grow more disappointing to you as my beauty warps and fades.”), but above all, beautiful. Basic folk melodies get fleshed out with these great brass and string arrangements, plus all those vocal harmonies… Haha. It’s nice. Really worth a listen (or seventy).

(Oh also Marlon got me the vinyl for Valentine’s Day, so that‘s pretty awesome too.)

(Oh also, don’t get me wrong– for all the talk of goats and mopeyness I’m still very much on Team Oberst.)

For more FJM fun, you could check out his appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast; his meandering, admittedly self-indulgent (but engaging!) personal-statement-of-sorts+”Instructiongs For Listening” (Also serves as an album insert. Whatever you do don’t miss the accompaniment to “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me”); or Pitchfork’s write-up of “Bored in the USA” as Best New Track last November. “Maybe Tillman’s just one of us, not even sure if we’re being sarcastic anymore.”