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The Art of Storytelling : Kendrick Lamar & Frank Ocean

With the constant demands of our everyday lives, it can be a struggle to find the time read a book, a blog post or even a quick article on the news app. Often it’s much easier just to put your music on shuffle, sit back, relax and let the tunes play on as nothing more than a faint hum in the background.

This tends to be the reality for me. However, every now and then one song will play and stop me dead in my tracks. I have to stop; I’m gripped by the storyteller. I’m no longer just listening; I’m visualising and understanding a completely different perspective than my own. And to me that’s power.

So, in today’s post, I wanted to do a deep dive into two of my favourite songs, whose lyrics in my opinion, are worth reading, disassembling and revelling in their greatness.

I thought I’d kick off the list with the song that inspired this post. Written by arguably the best lyrist of our generation (though I’m sure I’m slightly bias because of my adoration for him), it’s ‘How Much a Dollar Cost’ by Kendrick Lamar. This track encapsulates everything I admire about Kendrick: his ability to use melody to enhance a message, his ingenious lyricism and his power to not only tell a story but teach it. And this song really does teach.

‘How Much a Dollar Cost’ starts off with a morose chord progression and from the start you feel an air of cynicism, we can almost guess what we’re in for within the first twenty seconds of the instrumental.

Kendrick begins telling the story of an encounter with a homeless man asking for money, to his distaste. From early on it’s clear the narrator believes he has worked hard for his place in life and sees no reason for giving handouts. However, as the song progresses, you’re taken along the narrator’s internal journey of guilt, infuriation and realization. A constant “should I, shouldn’t I” battle that’s all too relatable.

Throughout the song Kendrick showcases his masterful use of figurative language and skilful poesy. One of my favourite lines in the song is “Deep water, powder blue skies that crack open”. In the first verse Kendrick sees the homeless man and does not hesitant to assume he’s a crack addict. Yet there’s an air of pity from Kendrick, as if he wants to avoid such harsh speculation. Instead, he uses this euphemism to paint a prettier picture of the mans suspected vices.

In the last verse after repeated rejection and tirade from the narrator, the beggar reveals himself as God, ending with the line “I’ll tell you how much a dollar cost, the price of a spot in heaven, embrace your loss – I am God”. This last verse plays ode to the Bible parable of the Sheep and the Goats, which is a story that encourages Christians to help those around them for the reward of a place in heaven. At this point the song has reached its climax and suddenly falls back into a soothing melody sang by Ronald Isley. This moment feels like a push to reflect on the journey we’ve just been on and consider the lesson.

Regardless of your religious beliefs, the message in ‘How Much a Dollar Cost’ is one we can all learn from. Refusing to offer help to those around you, however small, is only a reflection of your own selfishness. One dollar can be nothing to one man and all the difference to another.

‘How Much a Dollar Cost’ forces the listeners own introspection and in my opinion this type of potency in song writing is few and far between. I couldn’t recommend enough that you head over to Genius for a full dissection of this track, it really is an experience. Not to mention Obama named this his favourite song of 2015!

Next up is a track by another musical legend and, like Kendrick, we’re spoilt for choice with his lyrical works of art.

‘Pink Matter’ by Frank Ocean ft. Andre 3000 is one of his many beautiful tracks. In this track Ocean discusses female form, sexuality and the complexity of relationships from a male perspective. In my opinion, it’s rare to hear this narrative from a male artist in RnB and Rap that empowers the way ‘Pink Matter’ does. I think that’s why it has always stuck with me. Nowadays, as women, we often choose to turn a blind eye to blatant objectification in lyrics, particularly in popular RnB and rap culture. As a fan of these genres it’s a shame to be left with an uneasy feeling every now and then.

Yet Ocean’s lyrics in ‘Pink Matter’ reinforce and remind me of my own perspective on femininity and sexuality and I always find myself sitting back after those 4 minutes 28 thinking “God, women are incredible”.

The song begins with a whimsical instrumental closely followed by Ocean’s velvety tones, a perfect illustration of ethereal feminety right from the start.

Ocean then begins speaking with ‘Sensei’ (many suggest this could be a personification of his conscience). In the first verse Ocean questions the brain’s purpose, “What do you think my brain is made for, is it just a container for the mind?”. Is it just the scientific ‘grey matter’ or is it something greater? The Sensei challenges his scepticism and questions if his woman and her ‘pink matter’ (her vagina) are more than just a vessel for a child. This juxtaposition expemplifies how much more powerful women are than just our bodies, much like we see our mind as far more extraordinary than just its fleshy host. In today’s society our value as women is often reduced down to our frames, so this line to me is particularly powerful.

Throughout the song there’s some stunning metaphors for the female anatomy, some of my favourites being:

the peaches and the mangos”, this euphemism depicts the sweetness and pleasure of the female erogenous zones and to me this paints such a beautiful image of vitality and nourishment. It also intensifies Ocean’s emotions towards females. As the song progresses his intensity illustrates how he doesn’t see women as simply a desire, but more as a need for survival.

“Cotton candy, Majin Buu”, once again, the narrator speaks of the sweetness of the female anatomy and looking back almost nostalgically with the mention of Majin Buu, a character from the anime show Dragon Ball-Z. Majin Buu’s power was to transform people, often making them sweet and caring. With this relation Ocean suggests women and their compelling sensuality have potential to do the same.

At the end of every verse Frank Ocean exclaims “she’s giving me pleasure”. His climactic vocals just before Andre 3000’s verse translate a sense of desperation. It's as if Ocean can’t physically survive without his woman or women in general. He begins to cry out these words, almost as if he’s in pain. We feel his pain and to me this is the finest moment of the track and never fails to give me goose bumps.

Immediately after, Andre 3000 takes it away with his distinctive nonchalant flow. Here the song delves into the complexity of relationships and the internal battle of wanting someone so badly, yet knowing you should leave them be.

I could go on for days about ‘Pink Matter’ and every time I listen to this amazing track and its story I feel empowered. It’s Ocean's praise that women should remind themselves of everyday because we truly are these magical, ethereal beings that he paints so effortlessly in 'Pink Matter'

Narrowing today's post down to just two songs has been a pretty tricky task. I believe good lyrics take many forms. Whether it's through the immaculate use of stylistic devices or through a skillfully told story, there to provide a lesson to its audience. I've noted power in lyrics that evoke strong emotional responses even if tackles a subject you can't relate to and in my eyes that's the beauty of music: the ability to connect millions of strangers through emotion. I think todays picks do that so beautifully.

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