Kendrick Lamar - Swimming Pools (Drank)

The theme of this essay, “Songs Of Love And Hate”, suggest an idea that seems pretty obvious: that it’s pretty reasonable to assume that thinking about the world in terms of concepts composed of equal-and-opposite propositions. The whole “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” thing that underlies our assumption that the world is made up of a closed system, an equation where, when everything is reckoned, adds up to zero. For a long time I thought that assumption made sense, especially on a conceptual level, which being honest was the only level I understood a lot of things being inexperienced with most things.

So, for example, I had a lot of stupid thoughts premised on this sort of dialectic assumption. One was that from the ages of fourteen to like twenty-three I was convinced I would try heroin. I was never in the same room as someone using heroin, and I’ve only met a handful of people who’ve used heroin - and I wouldn’t even in the deepest naive throws of drug romanticism trust any of them even to watch my dog for the weekend. But I still thought, you know, sort of hoped, that I would try it at some point, find it utterly captivating, and then be able to talk about it — if only just to myself — as one of those character-defining experiences that one receives and then uses (like the index to a particularly thorny book, say) to make sense of his messy life.

This foolishness arose because of two somewhat related and unequal forces: my own young foolishness and the movie Trainspotting.

Young people have all sorts of bad ideas, and they seem to predominate from music or TV. I mean, I think the whole reason why philosophy has had any cachet at all with the young and counter-cultural is that the wisest and (sometimes) most experienced thinkers have the facility to write relatively deep thoughts relatively clearly, such that naifs and boors can take the shine off what they meant and apply some hard-earned truth to their event-deficient lives.

Not that Irving Welsh or Lou Reed are necessarily, like, philosophers. Philosophers of the body, maybe. Sensual gourmands who write with the right mix of specificity and broadness, such that a teenager in upstate New York could fancy himself a would-be Renton, ready to sink into the floor of any Edinburgh flat at all. Such that he would (don’t tell my mother) even try smoking crack in London and have basically never turned down any illicit substance ever offered.

I don’t know. I think young people (and middle aged people and old people, but it’s less sexy and therefore less lucrative to talk about in a cultural context, I guess) really like using drugs because life usually sucks, and drugs are the easiest leverage, even easier than cheap credit and interest-only mortgages, to lift you up out of your doldrums for a little while. Whenever it was that I saw Trainspotting, that was when I got really obsessed with this idea, that drugs cheer you up, and it probably occurred to me before I had even experienced some real Grade A problems. It’s sort of sad that I don’t even remember when it was, but I do know that it was sometime around ninth grade, and then I’d watch it once, twice, three times, and then about five times a week for like years. I’d usually zone out or fast-forward after the three buckets part, definitely past the baby on the ceiling part. But I’d make sure I got to see that one scene where Renton pays a final visit to Mother Superior. You know, he ends up OD’ing and sinking into an increasingly coffin-like occlusion in the floor. Face slapped by the man with the habit, dragged downstairs, to a taxi, left outside a hospital, brought back to life by the UK’s crackerjack healthcare. And throughout Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” plays, and it’s like a giant flashing red arrow pointing at the dictionary definition of “irony”, but those giant flashing red arrows play well when you’re a teenager. It was this movie, and this scene really, that got me into The Velvet Underground really years before I’d be in a position to make that an actionable endeavor (ie, go to college and have people/websites tell me that the VU were like the greatest rock band in history). By the time I was in college and sort of got into the Velvet Underground, I had sped quickly past Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”, which in my mind still had a bit of subtlety as to what I thought it was about (that irony, after all), directly to “Heroin”. I listened to that seven-minute song about seven-hundred times, it feels like. It didn’t hurt that, as a dilettante guitarist, it was comprised of only like two chords and a lot of squall and squank, which both sounded impressive to me and was surprisingly easy to replicate using a 10-watt amp and an Epiphone SG.

(This is like an absurd amount of table setting, I easily admit.)

In any case, I’ve sort of run through one of my first and longest-lasting song-loves about a drug to illustrate a second, briefer affair of much greater depth.

I mean, I’m not saying that it’s hard to become a drug addict or anything, but it’s sort of prohibitive from a safety/cost/social acceptance. What drug isn’t prohibitive in these ways, in the more or less most important ways, is alcohol.

And I hope it’s clear, but I’m sure it’s not, so I’ll just say that the subtext to all of this somewhat prefatory material is that the things ostensibly against something — drugs, crime, war — almost inevitably make that thing seem appealing. Unless they’re like genius works of art, every thug crime movie makes thug crime look sort of sexy. Same with drug things or war movies. On the one hand, the best war movies make war seem horrific, but on the other hand, I’ve still never seen the second half of Full Metal Jacket, so whatever. (Is Thin Red Line a great war movie? That just made war seem boring to me…) But this antipathy-inducing subjectifying of great art is a notable feature of culture: as soon as, say, a pop song tells you that something is sort of bad, it almost always makes it seem sort of awesome.

So this is a pretty easy ‘get’. Kendrick Lamar’s star turn LP produced a few year-end-type songs. Pitchfork (sort of quixotically) placed “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” toward the top of its singles list, and “Backstreet Freestyle” saw some (deserved) attention. I think good kid’s “Drank” deserves better treatment, if only because most rap blog types probably wish that other ponderous and moral song were the album’s centerpiece single. (“Cartoons and Cereal, if you’re too focused/lazy to click-thru.) (I don’t, fwiw.)

I think “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is the best song Kendrick’s ever done. Maybe, since I’m not a twenty-something black kid from Compton, it’s the most relatable for me. I think it’s probably partially because of that, but also that it’s his most generally relatable song that’s also very good. I think it also plays strongly against type, i.e., like Pitchfork’s starry-eyed treatment of “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is the odd rap song about drinking that’s also against drinking. (I know there are a lot of rap songs against drinking, sort of, but this song is special because, see below.)

Very generally, it’s a song about the everyday drudgery of arriving at a party and being offered lots of alcohol. It’s a circumstance that’s repeated across homes, frats, happy hours, parties, apartments, underbridges, etc. etc. across the world.

Last year Kendrick was sort of dogged by the “conscious rapper” tag, and this year it helped make his major label debut slightly more weighty (read: Instant Classic). Still, whenever you’re telling people what to do (unless it has to do with partying, as it were), you’ll always come off as a conscious rapper. But the reason why getting slapped with that tag is sort of bad is that conscious rappers aren’t rockstars, because rockstars act like asses, therefore are not ‘conscious’. The great thing about “Swimming Pools (Drank), then, is that it’s the conscious song about getting unconscious. Literally: faded, passed out, faded. But what does that mean? Why does that make it great?

At the top of this essay (can you even remember such a time?), I mentioned how I used to think that the dialectical model of understanding (reality being constituted by equal and opposite propositions) made sense - the implication being that that makes sense to me no longer. Kendrick’s “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is a good datum for why it no longer makes sense.

On the surface, it’s a song about drinking being ‘bad’. Just look at the first verse:

Now I done grew up around some people living their lives in bottles.
Granddaddy had the golden flask, backstroke every day in Chicago.
Some people like the way it feels. Some people wanna kill their sorrows.
Some people wanna fit in with the popular. That was my problem.
I was in the dark room, loud tunes, looking to make a vow soon:
That I’m going get fucked up, filling up my cup. I see the crowd’s mood.
Changing by the minute and the record on repeat.
Took a sip then another sip then somebody said to me…

The song is about, again, a pretty common scenario: being in a big social scenario, everyone drinking. And here’s Kendrick Lamar, feeling the pressure and the urge, ready to get drunk. (And more, how girls just want guys’s to give them drinks, and the implication.) But the song’s really about how that’s a bad thing. Little Kendrick saw his folks, his family, his friends, all get subsumed — drowned — by drink. So the whole spiel — Pull up, drank. Headshot, drank. Sit down, drank. Stand up, drank. Pass out, drank. Wake up, drank. Faded, drank. Faded, drank. — is definitely a Bad Thing.

Thing is, “Swimming Pools (Drank)” makes a great drinking song. The part where, in the sort of second verse, where Kendrick double-time raps,

The freedom is granted as soon as the damage of vodka arrived.
This how you capitalize. This is parental advice.
Then apparently I’m over-influenced by what you are doing.

really perfectly captures the whole antipathetic nature of the song. Really, more than that. There’re several valences of prohibition and social signal involved. Your body, for one, tells you that you’re not feeling so well. (It also, before that, tells you you’re feeling great.) Your mom tells you not to get drunk and fuck with those girls anymore, but she and your dad are also getting bombed out every night after work. You see this and feel that bad feeling inside yourself, but drinking makes that feeling go away. There’s like two or three causal nexuses in play here making you want to drink, drink, hate to drink, stop drinking, and drink so much you pass out.

This, to my full experience, is like the most true thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

(Granted, the “this” was just something I just wrote. And I’ve, properly speaking, not ‘heard’ it. Moving on.)

In any case, there is an obvious dialectical tension in “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. It fits in neatly with Kendrick’s other masterpiece songs, “Fuck Your Ethnicity” and “Cartoons and Cereal”. That’s the rushed inhale head rush of an almost-theory. Black experience and post-racial America; tigers and lambs; latchkey kids and the left-behind preterite millennials. But Kendrick Lamar’s songs go further than just positing binary oppositions that seem to hold up our society like two-legged stools leaned against a dry rot wall. Because after all, there’s a remainder to “Swimming Pools (Drank)” that goes further than, exhausts, its present meaning. It’s that there’s this joy to the act, the sad act, that actually makes it something of a great drinking song.

It’s funny that at some point most people start to disdain the ‘drinking game’ as a crass and unnecessary — juvenile — means to getting drunk. Because what’s easier than drinking something? We don’t need no stinking games. The drinking song endures no such ignominy. From what I can tell, people all over the world love drinking songs. It’s also my understanding that Genghis Khan’s notoriously alcoholic son, Ögedei Khan, went on improbably to expand his father’s terrific empire. This does not mean that the social forces are good that lead one to drink.

The thing that I’m trying to get at is that, I think pretty clearly from a demographic perspective, it’s pretty unlikely that there are many people driven to try heroin from watching Trainspotting or listening to Lou Reed. And there’s not exactly a causal connection between listening to any number of drinking songs and drinking. But there is a curious lack of social taboo around drinking whereas there is one around doing hard drugs but it’s more formal or perfunctory than necessary because how many parents have even a locked-up heroin cabinet at home from which you can pilfer a little hit and then refresh it with, what, some dirt or something that looks sort of like heroin so that they won’t notice? Listening to “Heroin” a dozen times a day does not constitute a song of love and hate. I’d say it’s more like a song of love and love, where you love the song and love the idea behind the song. It’s a song of innocence, even if its subject matter is ostensibly quite dirty.

I find “Swimming Pools (Drank)” maddening and vexing because it makes a reasonable critique, yet lodged within its critique are the conditions to drink. The velocity of the song that carries us to euphoric chorus, th shoot-and-slam-on-bar cadence. The come down, mini-Kendrick voice. It’s a song of love and hate. A song that makes you feel that over-used shot of the heroin syringe, arm-stuck, plunger sucks in a bit of blood, then woosh. The image that suggests a feeling is one-up’d by the song that creates a feeling. I mean, if you ask me.

Or to put it better, a feeling and also an experience because “Swimming Pools (Drank)” is a song of experience. Because, speaking very broadly here, I know there are many exceptions, a lot of us have drinking problems. Whether it’s the one night a month where you wish you hadn’t said that thing, or the time you lost your wallet because you blacked out and probably left it at the bar or dropped it paying for a cab (which you took because you were too drunk to ride the subway). Or the time you became that person. Especially that time. You might not be an alcoholic because you don’t have that disease, but you’re on its radar. There is a spectrum - I find it funny that all this spectrum stuff w/r/t autism is occurring now, as if in every other facet of life and mental life things are black and white, cut and dry.

The song does more than pose the listener a choice: drink or don’t drink. It makes drinking the precondition to even understanding the song. It makes the more misery you’ve had with it all the more poignant because otherwise it would be a slightly misdirected radio single that precisely glorifies drinking. I’m saying that in a social setting, like, the meaning of the song gets sort of divorced from its sonic gestalt. (Like that blue jean commercial that uses “Fortunate Son” as pro-American PR pabulum.) “Swimming Pools (Drank)” goes beyond a simple dialectic to me, creating something more like a shitstorm of trouble.

Every time I listen to “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, I’m filled with almost unsurmountable dread because it just does all this stuff inside of me, the stuff I’m talking about above. I hate that feeling, of being out of control, bending to society, bending even further to my own chemical psychology. But I love that feeling. The first drink. The second drink. The third drink. Faded.

B Michael Payne

Brian previously appeared on OWOB writing about Kayne West. He’ll make another showing later this year.