I woke up on MLK Jr. Day, Jan. 18, 2016 around 10:30 a.m., checked my laptop and got hype. New Kanye. I texted my editor, Chelsea, the news, and she informed me she had been listening to it on repeat all morning. We had both been looking forward to this song’s drop since its previewed snippet at the end of “Real Friends,” which was released a little over a week ago. At that point we had only heard the hook, the first two Yeezy bars and the first couple Kendrick bars. “A Yeezy song with Kendrick. Hot damn,” we thought. This obviously sparked the question, whose verse would dominate the song? 2015 was Kendrick’s year, I mean “To Pimp a Butterfly” is obviously one of the most incredible things to ever happen in rap. But Kanye is Kanye. His presence drips over everything. So when the song was delivered in full, the world finally got an answer.
When I pitched the idea for this article, I already knew who won. Chelsea did too, and it turns out we were of the same opinion. “I almost forget Kendrick is on the song,” was her response.
Kendrick’s verse is incredible. Everything Kendrick touches is incredible. The thing is, you need half an hour, a well-annotated rap genius page and a quick hand at navigating between internet tabs and a pause button just to begin to let what he’s saying sink in. Just like supply and demand, lyrical complexity and listenability have a sweet spot, and lately Kendrick hasn’t found the equilibrium.
He’s decidedly in his own world, and though he restrains from sending us on any Trysterian quest, he has become more and more Pynchonesque (#meta). In a friend’s review of The Crying of Lot 49, he argues that an audience owes an author “the effort requisite to understand what they try to tell us.” But I would argue that the same isn’t true for music. Music is ephemeral in nature; it consists of passing moments that on one hand can render excited goosebumps, but on the other can just as easily put you to sleep. By no means does Kendrick’s verse put anyone to sleep. It is often exciting, especially when he slows his cadence and allows us to sing along, “the head still good though / the head still good though.” But for the rest of it, you have to listen to it about 30 times to let it have its effect. And that destroys the ephemeral nature of music that I’m talking about, it takes away the feeling of the moment.
In an interview with Ahmad Rashad, Kobe once explained one of his favorite things about basketball. He talks about the sound the net makes when a player hits a perfect shot. Swish. Sound familiar? It wouldn’t be the first time Kanye and Kobe were connected:
But back to the perfect swish. That swish is the sweet spot. It’s the equilibrium between lyrical complexity and listenability. It is the ideal point where a song can be deep and also fun. It is the sound that inspires the applause at the end of the track. It is the stomach drop when Kanye gets real. It is the goosebumps when he mentions the cousin that stole the laptop again. Its the end-of-Whiplash feeling we get when he says “but Saint is baby Ye, I ain’t worried ’bout him.” Kendrick can weave words and twist himself into chambers of the mind most people never consider. But Kanye. Kanye slings his blood and guts into our faces. We can zone out and even ignore what Kendrick is saying (albeit, ill-advisedly). But when Kanye comes on, we are forced to wipe the gore from our eyes and witness the greatness.