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The Best Song of the Decade: A Slightly Informed Opinion Well-Argued
By Christopher Sloce
You can’t stream the best song of the decade on Spotify, even though it’s by the best rapper of the decade. You can listen to it on Youtube, where, in its top 3 iterations, there’s a FMV cut together with Looney Tune clips, a black and white lyrics video with wrong lyrics, and one including a static picture of Kendrick Lamar, said best rapper of the decade. It is a song where the best rapper of the decade isn’t even the best part of the song--not that he’s bad, but in the same way that on a Dinosaur Jr song, the best part is a guitar solo--because he is busy laying foundation and tensions for the final bits of release in the song. The song, however, is not cathartic. The song is not an anthem, but an anti-anthem, down to its knotty relationship with the audience. The song is “Cartoons and Cereal” by Kendrick Lamar and Gunplay.
It is, in many ways, a counterpoint to “Alright”, which Billboard’s 100 list said was one of the 100 best songs of the decade. “Alright” is the best or second best song on what I think is an inherently overrated album: an overly stuffed attempt at a magnum opus featuring silly voices, high school level writing techniques, some wan misogyny, and something that stumbles around like a drunken white elephant. “Alright” gives hope in the form of a God that is benevolent enough to care about the fights going on on Earth, this song loops back to a showing of Darkwing Duck that was interrupted by a gun fight. “Alright” became the theme song of Black Lives Matter. This song sounds more like what happened in Charlottesville: the moments of terror, panic, and reservation, after the car moved through the protestors and everybody ran for their lives. Why do you listen to it? Because it’s the tale of the decade. We are still opening new fronts in the battle for civil rights, with new alignments and new factions, but it remains a battle, where there are wins and losses, all in an attempt to move history forward.
What is “Cartoons and Cereal” about? It’s about how a world births Gunplay and Kendrick Lamar and how fate doesn’t play favorites. Nobody has said “Kill ‘em all and let god sort them out,” than the economic factors that create ghettos.. There is no reason that Kendrick, whose mother has him laying on the ground during a gunfight on a Saturday morning, could not be the same person at the end of the song shouting, “I ain’t seen the back of my eyelids for about the past seventy-two hours”. It’s about the pain of an audience that witnesses your trauma as entertainment, because Gunplay snarls, “Salt all in my wounds/tears all in my tunes/let my life loose in this booth/just for you, motherfucker, hope y’all amused.” It’s about the believed dichotomy of the good kid versus the bad one is paper-thin, nebulous, because you carry trauma in you like a swallowed coal that never quits burning, and that when the world itself around you continues to shovel that coal down your throat, the idea of good and bad will never be the full story.
Even in their careers, Kendrick has played the Gunplay and Gunplay has played the Kendrick: Kendrick was part of A$AP Rocky’s biggest song “Fuckin’ Problem”, laboriously rapping about sex, and Gunplay’s best song, “Bible on the Dash”, has him pleading with a pastor for the honest answer about a quick path to heaven. That’s because the roles we put rappers into (the poet, the gangster, the revolutionary, the pimp) are too small for the genre, where the appeal is the specific act of speech, to say what might be banal said normally said extravagantly becomes an insight into character.
We have a genre that has a Pulitzer Prize winner that also recently had a young star, Juice WRLD overdose. The conservative approach might be to say that there was something somebody did incorrectly and something that Kendrick did correctly, but when the world itself acts as the mad city from the title of Kendrick’s best album, it doesn’t matter. Genius doesn’t matter, inventiveness doesn’t matter, all that matters is the tragedy of the roll of the dice, the sudden appearance of the car speeding through the street to roll over kids just playing 4 corners.
As rap becomes more and more the genre, the contradictions will become greater, and the chief one will be this: the white gaze sanitizing some and damning others, without ever once willing to look beyond their auditory gentrification and see that all the great rap, without bounds, was about imparting bits of your psyche onto the world through music. To expect Gunplay to be more of a Kendrick damns both Kendrick and Gunplay to be just categories, and not artists. That’s why Gunplay was so angry in the booth and why Kendrick lays back, his rapping knotty and revelatory, a virtuoso performance in a whole career.
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