theory: my appreciation of Kendrick Lamar is related to the specificity of place in his music. He is from Compton, making music about Compton, for people from Compton to listen to. The rest of the world is allowed into this relationship between artist/location because as an artist he is interested/invested in the explaining why this location means so much to him.
I like Drake best when he is acting as an avatar of the city of Toronto. Drake makes the specificity of “running through the 6 with my woes” into something transcendent. He invites the audience to see his city. I have mixed feelings about Drake the musician, but basically, he isn’t as interesting as Drake who wears old man sweaters to Raptors games, and is so Canadian he actually used to be on Degrassi.
Rap lends itself to specificity in place more than other sort of music. I’m not entirely sure why, but I know this is true. I think it might be because it’s spoken. It’s a conversation. The rapper is talking to the audience. There are a lot of words, a lot of chances to communicate.
I know there has been work done about hip hop and authenticity, but I’m not in the mood to find back the readings, and I don’t feel like I need academia to back me up here. Being real is an important quality in hip hop, or at least something to nod at. The emphasis on reality would naturally lead to a specificity of place.
It’s interesting that one of the only rock acts that I think of as being hyper specific about place is Lifter Puller. They’re a very talky band. Craig Finn says a whole lot of words. Also, they’re from my town. I get every place reference, I know every street. That’s one of my favorite things about Lifter Puller — a shared sense of space. These songs are about my city, and therefore more relevant to my life than songs about other places. I take the 21 bus home, listening to “Lake Street is for Lovers”, and I know exactly what they mean.
Or like, Atmosphere, “January on Lake Street.” I have been there. Every part of the video that isn’t shot on Lake is physically painful, and that so obviously isn’t January — where is the ice? Where’s the snow? I can say from personal experience that walking down Lake Street in January is not a lot of fun. That isn’t really the point of the song, really, I’m not super into that song, but it’s about my place, and that means something to me.
“Southsiders” tho— I’m a south mpls girl, “Southsiders” really means a lot to me. Here is music from where I’m from, talking to me. That’s pretty special.
The possibility of specificity leads to these weird moments of rupture, where things don’t quite line up right, or where there’s room to imagine something that wasn’t intended. Like the song “Bitter,” where Slug says, “You’re as cold as a river in the winter.” This line fucks me up. I had this song stuck in my head for a week solid when the single came out, and I couldn’t get over that line because he says “as A river” not “as THE river.” In the Cities it’s always THE river, it’s always the Mississippi. But I guess not right here, not necessarily. There was a chance for specificity, I expected it, and the absence still feels glaring in a weird way. It’s a little thing, but it bugs me.
That specificity, the shared sense of location, can add so much. “In Her Music Box” is such a great song, and there isn’t a ton of description, but he says it’s Lake Street, and because of that I have such a specific vision of where this story is taking place it only adds to the already rich story.
There’s a connection between me and this music and this place, which changes how I hear things, makes it richer. When artists who aren’t making music about places I know I’m still able to enjoy that sort of specificity. Music that’s grounded in a certain place brings more than just the music, but the setting too. It’s hearing a glimpse of someone else’s relationship to their location, which is something I really appreciate.
There are some bands that sound rootless, they could be from anywhere, sometimes even anytime. These are mostly not bands I’m crazy about. I like music with a sense of place, of character — music that is more than just itself, but a part of a world. Music that is located somewhere specific.
I could go on and on about this, about how Doomtree talking about Powderhorn makes my heart sing, about how some bands sound like New York City, and others sound like London, about how there are at least two different ways a band can sound like New Jersey. I’m not sure how this love of specificity in location connects to my love of Americana, but I’m sure it’s there. (Americana is dreaming of a specific imagination, using a common set of landmarks to gesture to a world that never really existed, and is mostly gone now?)
This started as an excuse to talk about Kendrick Lamar, because I really like talking about Kendrick Lamar, to the point that the people I talk to have gotten sick of it. Their loss.