Love has been one of, if not the, most inspirational themes in art history. Painters have spent painstaking hours rendering the details of their muses. Authors have penned tales and tomes on the great mysteries of romance. Musicians have spilled their emotions on wax, sometimes melodramatic but often sincere. It’s a force that drives creativity — even if said creativity stems from the absence of love. Hip-hop is no exception. Countless rappers allowed themselves to get sensitive about a special someone, even if it meant breaking a pre-established character.
Shaolin lyricist Method Man channeled Romeo energy on “I’ll Be There For You.” 50 Cent deviated from the gangsta-rap playbook on “21 Questions.” Drake and his ability to find love in a one night stand formed the basis of many classic tracks. Ja Rule set the early millennium ablaze with his declaration that every thug needs a lady. Fabolous removed his punchline crown and placed it ever so gently on the floor. LL Cool J went from asking mama to knock you out to asking mama for her daughter’s hand in marriage. Eminem took a step back from murdering his ex-wife to reflecting on their complicated relationship. It’s almost fair to say that every rapper has explored the love song in one way or another — not to be confused with the lust song, a far more popular topic.
Though getting romantic might be unfamiliar territory, it’s not uncommon to see a given rapper staying within their stylistic comfort zone when doing so. That’s not to say the act of rapping is inherently less romantic than that of singing — it’s simply an observation that many emcees prefer to stick to the script, keeping their flow and cadence relatively familiar. Still, it’s hard to deny that some approaches can be more effective than others. Double-time flow over a hard-hitting drill beat might send the wrong message. In that sense, the music is as important as the lyrics. For Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. standout “LOVE,” arguably one of the greatest modern love songs in recent memory, the instrumental plays a pivotal role in setting the table.
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Off the top, Sounwave and Teddy Walton’s production choice brings a distinct quality. The song alternates between the chords of F major and B flat major, a I to IV transition not often seen in hip-hop songwriting. For some context, a musical key is reliant on the relationship between seven chords, made up of tonal chord qualities. Often depicted in Roman numerals, the I, IV, and V are generally major; conversely, ii, iii, and vi are minor. In the most basic form, major is HAPPY and minor is SAD. While a I-vi progression might begin on a high note only to plummet into melancholy, a I-IV sits comfortably in positive territory. Though it doesn’t necessarily come to a decisive resolution, the wandering quality of the progression serves to enhance Kendrick’s detached whimsy. Enhancing the soundscape is the chosen synthesizer, atmospheric bordering on cloud-rap; the whole package is reminiscent of a high-school dance in the mid-eighties.
As he tends to do, Kendrick uses his voice as an additional instrument to build on the existing harmony. Contrasted against Zacari’s soaring falsetto, Kendrick’s unconventional cadence is endearing in its sincerity. He’s not looking to impress but rather to express. Many have correctly deduced that “LOVE” is a dedication to his wife, who he once described as his best friend. Rather than turning their story into an elaborately penned story, Kendrick instead relies on the narrative tools of ambiguity and inference. The end result is not entirely different from an inside joke, in which the meaning will hold a different meaning to the intended recipient. For the rest of us, it might be tempting to write his lyrics off as simple. Yet here the simplicity works in the song’s favor on a deeper thematic level. Where Kendrick is generally a layered writer, packing his bars with meaning and subtext, “LOVE” finds him reverting to the childhood stages. Anchoring his wistful verse around the recurring line “I’m on the way,” Kendrick lays out a series of personal snapshots in a fragmented stream of consciousness style. There are no larger than life declarations but rather small slices of life. “Remember Gardena, I took the studio camera, I know Top will be mad at me,” he raps, directly drawing on his partner’s nostalgia while indirectly sparking our own — those who have experienced similar moments will likely make their own connections accordingly.
So on this day ostensibly designed to celebrate romance, why not throw on Kendrick Lamar’s “LOVE” and see where it takes you? And if you still find yourself unmoved, there’s always plan B.