Kendrick Lamar and Blues Tropes

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Latecomer as always, See That My Blog is Kept Clean is back on the scene, and as usual, about a year late in acknowledging some hype-garnering artist. By this point, if you’re not familiar with Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City you’re doing something wrong. While much well-deserved praise has gone out to the clever voicemails that structure the album and Lamar’s competent verses, so far no one seems to have picked up on two somewhat odd instances of blues tropes that resonate with the album. The first is the most direct. On “Backstreet Freestyle,” Lamar intones “Goddamn, I’ve got bitches: wifey, girlfriend and mistress,” oddly echoing Son House’s assertion, “I’ve only loved but four women in my life: my mother, my sister, my kid gal and my wife.” (Wherein, “kid gal” refers to a girlfriend or mistress.)

Much more interesting, because Lamar’s version greatly alters the tone and setting, is the echoed version of the blues and country platitude “If the river was whiskey and I was a duck, I’d dive to the bottom and never come up.” In “Swimming Pools (Drank),” Lamar modifies this inherently rural trope to update the phrase to the postmodern landscape of contemporary Los Angeles: “I’ma show you how to turn it up a notch / First you get a swimming pool full of liquor then you dive in / Pool full of liquor then you dive in it.” As the song deals more ambiguously with alcohol consumption than the blues songs that typically feature the above lyric, “Swimming Pools” contrasts this typically irreverent blues trope against a background of dark synths. Changing the setting from a river to a swimming pool alters the iconography, while maintaining the social resonance.

And yes, I understand Lamar is probably not in any way actually attempting to quote either of these blues traditions, but I do find it fascinating that these two common scenarios could be transferred across the years and styles from the blues to contemporary hip-hop. Culture is continuous, there are no hard and fast boundaries, and what’s green will grow, no matter what form it takes. I’m back.

Kendrick Lamar, “Backstreet Freestyle” (2012)

Son House, “Death Letter Blues” (1965)

Muddy Waters, “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” (1950)

Kendrick Lamar, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” (2012)

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Filed under Blues, Country, Hip-Hop, Music, Post-War Blues, Pre-War Blues

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