Joe Stile | BASSic
Mo’ money, mo’ problems
Published: Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 00:10
Kendrick Lamar is one of the most exciting new rappers in the industry. He has the lyrical density of an early Jay−Z and the verbal dexterity of a still−hungry Lil’ Wayne. There’s a reason why legendary producer Dr. Dre is touting Lamar as the latest in a long line of extraordinary proteges.
While Lamar should be praised for his complex rhyme structures and diction, his storytelling ability is what sets him above his contemporaries. The stories in his song “Money Trees” are all about one thing: consequences.
In his first verse, Lamar breathlessly raps about how when he was younger, he bragged about having unprotected sex with a woman named Sherane. Still, a careless listener could easily miss his quick references to Usher Raymond’s song “Let it Burn” and Kendrick having “hot sauce” on his “Ramen.” While most gangsta−rap glorifies male promiscuity, it often leaves out the repercussions that arise from a reckless lifestyle, including STDs.
Lamar, like a master author, maintains the perspective of his naive teenage self while simultaneously letting the listener know he understands that he made many of his teenage mistakes because he bought into the illusion of the “gangsta” life. For example, Lamar spends much of his verse explaining how when he was younger, he wanted to make money any way he could, whether by rapping or by robbing homes. Lamar elevates this standard rap theme by incorporating a string of phrases into the chorus that all follow the same structure and begin with “A dollar might...”
Through this structure, Lamar laments that making all this money might ruin loyalties, change who he is or make him a target for others. In a rap universe that still lives by C.R.E.A.M., Lamar is wise enough to know that even something that seems so instinctual in rap — like getting money — has consequences. Everything people do is a choice and all choices have ramifications.
As Lamar puts it, there is a “poison” to any choice. In the second verse, when Lamar references listening to E−40’s music, he explains how the “good life” and the “thug life” rappers talk about are warped and ignore the pitfalls of these lifestyles.
Lamar boils it all down in the song’s hook when he says, “It go Halle Berry or Hallelujah / Pick your poison.” People can choose between “Halle Berry” — which Lamar uses as a metaphor for the glamorous, shallow Hollywood lifestyle — or “Hallelujah” — which is Lamar’s metaphor for an introspective and personal life.
All of this is built on a prominent Beach House sample. At first it would appear that the nostalgic California pop duo would have little in common with hip−hop music, but the sample does makes sense.
Beach House creates all−encompassing atmospheres that have slight darknesses to them. The lyrics to Beach House’s “Silver Soul,” where the sample comes from, is all about illusions and inevitabilities, making it a perfect match for Lamar’s verses. “Money Trees” is about facing the realities of what Lamar used to dream about, and it is layered over the sounds of a self−proclaimed “dream−pop” group. These tiny touches give Lamar striking sonic and verbal unity.
The track ends with a voicemail from Lamar’s mother from back when he was a teenager. On the tape, his mother tells him he needs to stop driving around and return her car already because she has errands to run. This is the moment when young Lamar is hit by reality and has to stop role−playing the “rapper life.”
Lamar is able to wrap a personal story of his youth, an introspective look at his teenage mindset and a commentary on the way people project themselves into this one song. It’s a very ambitious task, but Lamar pulls it all off effortlessly.
Joe Stile is a senior majoring in political science. He can be reached at Joe.Stile@tufts.edu.