By Adam Snavely
I recently attended a lecture in which a bestselling author gave a talk on the craft of writing, and was asked a question about literary fiction and the aesthetic qualities of writing. Literary fiction, as she defined it, generally contains a great wealth of beautiful aesthetic detail and devices that are pretty to read but are useless on the whole and make the work a little boring to read. “I’m more concerned with writing page-turners, books you really want to finish,” she confidently asserted before moving on to the next question.
After I managed to quell the existential rage swelling in the back of my throat, natural to the white-male-creative writing savant, the comment still had me questioning the distance between the literary elite and lowbrow novel. Could excellent technique and aesthetic beauty be used in a work that appealed to the masses? Something that didn’t descend immediately into cliché?
The problem, I found, was one familiar with anyone that really loves books and literature: not enough people read anymore to get a nice sample size. There is no readily apparent Pulitzer Prize-winning novel hailed as the next great American tale that not only causes the critics to weep by its sheer existence, but also copies to fly off the shelves in a manner which demands some sort of media attention. Sure, there have been plenty of great books written in the past ten years or so, but not that many people know about them, if we’re all being honest with ourselves. Searching different mediums for the type of piece I was looking for, however, proved a bit more fruitful, and possibly even more obvious: a piece of music, a rap album, no less, by one Kendrick Lamar.
Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was both critically-loved and commercially successful when it was released in 2012. Featuring an opening week of 242,000 copies sold and an eventual platinum certification (or 1,000,000 units sold, a feat practically unheard of in the second golden age of piracy), the album was also a smash with internet rap sites and more traditional music magazines alike, making Lamar an unlikely crossover star and ushering in the reemergence of what many called “true” West Coast hip hop, its lyrical skill and production harkening back to rap greats like Tupac and N.W.A. Furthermore, the album makes liberal use of specific devices common to music and hip hop, ones that correlate to “useless” aesthetic literary devices in written literature.
The album opens with a lo-fi audio recording of one of the more-loaded creeds in contemporary American culture, the Sinner’s Prayer:
Lord God, I come to You a sinner,
and I humbly repent for my sins.
I believe that Jesus is Lord.
I believe that You raised Him from the dead.
I will ask that Jesus will come to my life
and be my Lord and Savior.
I receive Jesus to take control of my life
and that I may live for Him from this day forth.
Thank you, Lord Jesus, for saving me with your precious blood.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
The song following, “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter,” details a young Lamar (or K. Dot, as he is referred to within the narrative of the album) chasing after a girl named Sherane, graphically describing the sexual interest the two seem to have for each other before an abrupt and unexpected ending. As the song ends, Kendrick’s vocal track cuts directly to the sound of a phone ringing and his Mother leaving him a voice message asking where he is and when he’ll be bringing her van back. It’s cell phone voicemail, but the quality of the sound recording clearly recalls scanning back through messages on an answering machine, listening to which ones you can delete and which ones still need to be dealt with.
Rappers (and some of the best rap albums of all time) love skits. They come in thirty-second bytes at the beginning and ends of songs. They can get their own track listing, or even appear in secret after the album ends; often adding humor, sometimes mixing gravity into the album’s content, or (as in the case of Kendrick’s album) building a storyline to follow throughout, these skits perform any number of duties on an album, and one of the most common devices seen in the skit is the answering machine interlude.
Whether it’s a friend recounting a wild night on the town back to Common or one of Guru’s (of Gang Starr fame) many girlfriends trying to meet up with him, or even K. Dot’s mom trying to figure out where he is so she can get her van back and get food stamps, the answering machine plays many different roles but itself remains a staple in hip hop, although its appearance has dwindled over the past several years. The appeal of the answering machine, especially in skit form, is simple: it serves to record memories, memos and other things to be done. An answering machine message is a reminder, something to be done that can either be addressed or ignored in the following song. And it can be as ridiculous as a Ludacris automated phone system designed only to make a crude joke to lead into a cruder song, or it can be used as Kendrick uses it, to add the artistic complexities of memory to his story.
Essentially, the sound of a sound recorder clicking on before the Sinner’s Prayer and a computerized voice telling his mother to leave a message after the tone is rap’s Tennessee Williams moment, the point where Tom Wingfield walks onto the stage and announces how the following production will run: “The scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic. Memory takes a lot of poetic license. It omits some details; others are exaggerated, according to the emotional value of the articles it touches, for memory is seated predominantly in the heart.” The problem with memory and discerning historical fact using memory as a primary source is the inherent fallibility of the human mind and ego. It’s simply too easy to misremember or embellish facts over the course of any period of time. The artist, on the other hand, uses this distortion as a tool. The facts don’t all have to be right. They can be ordered and arranged in such a way that works according to the artist’s vision and emotional motives. An answering machine is an answering machine, sure, but it’s a record of the past, and possibly a signifier of a distorted emotional connection.
Such a distinction is obvious in just the layout of the good kid m.A.A.d city narrative. It’s non-linear, and while it moves forward during the album, it often jumps forwards and backwards in relation to the pacing of material and the types of songs being placed back to back. For example, the listener hears the Sinner’s Prayer twice during the album. The album itself opens with it, and it’s immediately followed by a song about, as Lamar himself raps, “love or lust,” quite literally “the music of being young and dumb.” The Sinner’s Prayer immediately creates tension with the source material of the song it’s placed in, and makes sense given the conflicted nature of the album as a necessary opening. But the Sinner’s Prayer as it actually occurs in the context of the K. Dot narrative occurs much later in the album, when a darker series of events has led to the death of one of K. Dot’s friends. Directly after the song “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” in which Lamar raps about his frustration with life in Compton, running around and endlessly seeking revenge for lost loved ones, K. Dot and his friends are confronted by a woman who tells them of their need for God, and the same exact Sinner’s Prayer is recited as in the beginning of the album. It bookends the narrative of life in K. Dot’s neighborhood, not occurring naturally according to chronology, but according to the emotional narrative of memory that Kendrick creates; it didn’t happen exactly that way, but it belongs there.
The problem with using devices, then, and where they can travel into the realm of uselessness, is using such a device without a specific purpose, or just to be witty. If the answering machine can affect the emotional distortion of memory to great artistic effect, then its major downfall is the same as any device or landmark harkening back to a less-advanced time: the descent into cliché, sentimentalism, and kitsch. After all, as much as an answering machine could potentially signify a shift in memory, it can also be just a dumb old answering machine, thrown in because it’s clever, or worse, because the presence of the answering machine itself is supposed to carry some sort of artistic value. All literary genres and movements have their own hallmarks and similarities, and music is no different. But dropping an image or device into a song because the presence of that image or device is supposed to elevate the song regardless of what the artist does with it destroys possibility of meaning. This is a similar problem to the issues sentimentalism runs into often. Pining for a forgotten place or time not because of any specific reason but simply because that place and time existed and is now lost often leads to poor depictions of such places. They’re elevated to such a high place for really no good reason, and any good audience sniffs that stuff out quickly.
To see this problem in action, look at “Payphone” by Maroon 5. The chorus, in case you can’t recall that fateful stretch of radio doldrums, goes as follows:
I’m at a payphone trying to phone home
All of the change I spent on you.
Where have the times gone
Baby it’s all gone, where are the plans we laid for two?
The payphone in question performs a basic narrative function, begins a trite witticism, and then tries to create an atmosphere of nostalgia. Obviously, the narrator is attempting to contact a lost love. Where he found a payphone still in working order that is preferable to simply asking to borrow a cell phone in such dire straits, we may never know. Second, the payphone starts a pun that receives its pay-off in the very next line with the narrator spending his metaphorical “change” on the partner he previously engaged in romantic relations with. No further comment needed there. Finally, the payphone is supposed to connect the feelings of lost love to a sepia-toned time somewhere in the past of Adam Levine’s mind, where people talked on payphones and fiercely chased after their broken relationships. The payphone must do this by just being there. It is dropped into the song as a wink to the past and not given any real purpose beyond being there because, as we all know, payphones used to be really great.
But everyone knows that’s not true. Payphones have always been the dingy, health-prohibitive emergency back-ups of anyone needing to call another person, least of all a guy trying to rescue a relationship. Maybe he could actually go talk to her. I don’t know. That seems like a pretty good idea, though. You can’t just put a payphone in there because the audience will understand that payphones used to be a thing and you trust them to go with it. It’s a lazy and ineffective way to write, creating more ridicule and scorn for the song than appreciation for the music you’re making.
The answering machine as a tool seems to be dying out in hip hop, which makes some sense on one hand, and is a little sad on the other. Obviously, answering machines just aren’t around anymore. The natural subject matter and available imagery to choose from for the aspiring rapper shifts, and shifts quickly in an age driven by the quantity of content a website can possibly push out in a given day. Things become obsolete. When’s the last time you even left a voicemail message for someone as opposed to just hanging up after a few rings and shooting off a text?
But maybe the point and purpose of using something like an answering machine is being lost too. It’s telling that the latest good example of an answering machine skit that I can write about is already three years old, just as telling as a best-selling author opining to students at a liberal arts college that literary fiction is boring and its devices useless. That’s a bigger problem. If we cannot produce good art, how do we expect to be able to think for ourselves? The canon of literary fiction is littered not just with vast descriptions of people and places. There is methodology and purpose behind it, a message to be conveyed by the author more than just a plotline in order for the reader to more easily “turn pages.” Throughout history, oppressive regimes did not shut down radio stations, raze news headquarters to the ground, or invade technical and engineering schools. Usually they could buy those places out or force their people into management positions easily enough. The things they burned, utterly destroyed so that no trace could be found, were books. And it seems that there’s not a lot of books left that are worth burning.
 The exact wording was closer to “there will be five pages of exposition on setting and theme, and you’re kind of reading along like ‘why is all this here?’”
 from The Glass Menagerie
 Ask Brian Williams.
 As an aside, Lamar’s faith makes frequent appearances in his music, but his frequent use of coarse language typically disqualifies him from being considered a “Christian” artist by many of the Contemporary Christian Music crows. And while I’m hesitant to link to a Buzzfeed article pretty much always, this article by Reggie Ugwu does a great job exploring the tension between Lamar’s supposed “secularity” and “Christianity,” using examples from his music as well as interviews with people like Evangelicalism’s favorite rapper Lecrae.
 I’m jumping genres here, obviously. I’m not claiming the image of a payphone as artistic currency in either hip hop or that white-washed RnPop (or whatever it is Maroon 5 does). I’m just saying it’s a lazy image. Follow along. You’ll see.