Given the title of my blog—a reference to the sixth song on Kendrick Lamar’s second studio album good kid, m.A.A.d. city—a post about KDot seems appropriate for a debut essay (I hope you weren’t expecting a review of the 1993 Tupac Shakur drama/romance). GKMC presents several talking points for the issues prevalent in present-day hip-hop. Here, I’ll focus on the rapper’s ability to garner billboard success with a socially conscious album, by means of Kendrick’s radio hit “Swimming Pools (Drank).”
Early on in his career, Kendrick’s lyricism earned him great promise as a young artist. In his premier album Section 80, the Compton rapper confirmed that he wouldn’t follow the typical path for young rap artists who sign to major labels: he refused to give up his conscious lyrics for the sake of commercial success. With Section.80, Kendrick built on his foundation, adding a collection of soulful tracks that put his ambitious vision of success in the spotlight. Alas, the album received no mainstream attention, didn’t manage to break the Billboard 100, and produced no radio hits. Kendrick was forced to rely on his underground fanbase and a strong group of followers in the blogosphere for quality reception. As of 2011, few in the mainstream audience were familiar with KDot.
One year later the first single from GKMC, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” was released with an accompanying video, and completely different sound than Kendrick had produced prior. Upon first listen, the song might sound like a typical radio single party anthem. The distorted “Pour up, Drank” call and answer precedes a sing-song hook about diving into a pool full of liquor. You can picture a private pool party where the “girls wanna play baywatch,” and Kendick diving off the rooftop. But is that really the song’s subject matter?
Let’s close read the song’s first verse:
Now I done grew up
Round some people living their lives in bottles
Granddaddy had the golden flask
Back stroke 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
With a closer look, the song’s hook is only a magnified example of the dangers of peer pressure and substance abuse. Kendrick discusses his childhood, growing up around his grandfather’s “golden flask.” Kendrick becomes a victim of peer pressure, succumbing to requests to binge drink to “fit in with the popular, that was my problem.” The “swimming pool” is not a symbol of the party lifestyle, but rather the deadly, drowning effects of alcohol abuse.
In the song’s second verse, Kendrick’s conscience voices a final plea:
(Okay, now open your mind up and listen to me Kendrick
I am your conscience, if you do not hear me
Then you will be history Kendrick
I know that you’re nauseous right now
And I’m hoping to lead you to victory Kendrick)
If I take another one down
I’mma drown in some poison abusing my limit
Begging Kendrick to halt the peer pressure, his conscience asks him to put down the bottle so he can “lead you to victory Kendrick.” Listening to his conscience, Kendrick comes up for air before he “takes another one down” and “[drowns] in some poison].” Kendrick uses his conscience to show how he had to look within himself to rise above peer pressure and avoid a dangerous lifestyle of alcohol abuse.
The lyrics aren’t particularly encoded—if you listen even remotely carefully, the song’s message is clear—but the song’s catchy hook was enough to gain substantial radio play and earn much deserved hype for his album. Kendrick disguised the song as a party anthem, essentially tricking the mainstream into listening to a radio single that is really about the dangers of substance abuse. Moreover, the song was KDot’s demo test to his new listeners: if they found the song catchy enough to play on repeat, could they also appreciate the deeper meaning to his lyrics?
We’ve seen the demise of several rappers– i.e. Wiz Khalifa, Wale, Plies, and Flo Rida–when they surrender their lyrical soul to make radio hits. On the other side of the coin, some of the best lyricists in hip-hop have yet to reach billboard success. Artists like Common and Talib Kweli stand firm that the lyrical quality of their music will always trump commercial fame. Yet, in an industry where radio play stands as the only source of mainstream recognition, temptations to make radio hits come frequently. Few artists find the recipe to produce socially conscious hits that can also earn radio spins; Kanye West, OutKast, and Lupe Fiasco are scarce testaments. I argue that Kendrick Lamar deserves to be on the short list. By camouflaging his radio single as a party anthem, Kendrick tricked listeners into appreciating a socially conscious message. “Swimming Pools (Drank)” effectively gained radio success, building a solid groundwork for the billboard success of GKMC. While the entire album deserves legitimate lyrical analysis, his radio single alone is proof that KDot has found the recipe to maintaining his lyricism in an industry littered with sell-outs.