“Cartoon & Cereal” drops the listener into a child’s confusion as filtered through a media matrix. A boy sits in front of a TV in his Compton home, the noise and color from the television bleeding into the violence outside as he watches Darkwing Duck, just as the clipped and layered sound bites fit into the song’s complicated anatomy. “Don’t be like me, just finish watching cartoons,” the boy’s father tells him, leaving him to chill with an animated bird whose catchphrase is “Let’s get dangerous.”
Kendrick Lamar the songwriter has a novelist’s eye for detail, a poet’s appreciation for form as content, and an avant-garde filmmaker's willingness to bend reality for his artistic ends. In “Cartoon & Cereal” there’s the immediate bloodshed happening in Compton, and then there’s the world beyond the city that’s available through the TV, a kind of portal that every kid in front of every television set in every city can access together, all at the same time.
My music is for the world, not just for Compton, or myself.
Darkwing Duck ran from 1991 to 1992 on ABC—a sweet spot for the disaffected ’80s babies who are Lamar's true audience. He calls them “Section.80.” This very specific reference creates an opening in the song, a door through which an entire generation can enter. Because he watched the same TV as Lamar, a listener from a middle-class East Coast suburb can join the MC’s movement.
“My music is for the world, not just for Compton, or myself,” he says. “My fans look at me as a leader because I represent myself as a leader.” Kendick’s goal is to foster a deeper connection with his listeners and take his music beyond the boundaries of regional geography. Though Dre and ’Pac are larger-than-life figures in rap, both are inextricably linked to the West Coast. Lamar has different aspirations.
Section.80, a release remarkable for its intelligence, immersive narratives, and considerable empathy, makes his ambitions plain from the outset. The album opens with a track called “Fuck Your Ethnicity.” It’s hard to imagine a more direct statement of purpose. “Now I don’t give a fuck if you black, white, Asian, Hispanic, goddammit,” goes the hook. “That don’t mean shit to me, fuck your ethnicity.” Not that Lamar is “color blind,” or some other neutering cliché. His lyrics are replete with Black Panther imagery, pyramids, hieroglyphics. His songs tell his story, with a specific mythology, but they’re also inclusive in the sense that they’re open to any listener willing to put in the work to comprehend what’s going on.
Listen to the T-Minus-produced “Swimming Pools (Drank),” the single that’s received the biggest push in the run-up to the good kid release. As with “Cartoon & Cereal,” this song finds Lamar looking back—“Now I done grew up/’Round some people living their life in bottles”—but this time with the aid of a tuneful hook.
“Sonically, I knew ‘Swimming Pools’ would pull people in. It’s catchy as fuck, but it’s got lyrics in there,” Lamar says. “It’s not too crazy where you won’t be able to understand it, but it’s crazy enough where it’s something you want to keep listening to because you it feels like something else is happening, too.”
Pay attention only to the chorus, and you might miss the song’s critique of getting fucked up. That the message is slightly buried doesn’t bother him.
“If a person is going to be mad at me, it’s going to be a new listener who will listen to that song and think I’m on some party shit. Then they’ll get the album and think, ‘I don’t wanna fuck with this cat. He’s insane.’ Eventually, you’ll go back and listen, and say, ‘Oh, OK.’”
He speaks about the importance of balancing heady content and hummable hooks before cracking open his creative process in a single illuminating moment of ability, mumble-rapping the entire first verse of “Swimming Pools” without hesitation, then explaining how he had the whole song as “funny shit,” a melody of nonsense conjured in the booth, before he knew any of the actual words.
He admits, “It’s not nothing you can learn.”