A Triumph in Song: “Collect Calls” by Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar


The most common negative feedback I hear after I write about the problems with modern day music is, without a doubt, “it’s just music, it’s not that serious.” No matter what the criticism is or who it is about, I will always hear that jab. The second most common one is pretty much “who are you?”, which I take a little more personally, but this isn’t about the reasons I cry at night. I once had a friend tell me that he didn’t like Hip-Hop/Rap music because it was too simple. “It takes no talent. You don’t have to actually learn any instruments. You can just get a synthesizer, push some buttons, and you have a song.” Now, if you take both of those criticisms together, the only logical conclusion is that Hip-Hop is “simple, talentless” music that is just “not that serious.” Of course, I beg to differ. In fact, I would argue that Hip-Hop has the unique potential to tell untold stories to people who wouldn’t listen otherwise. Take Kendrick Lamar for example. After attending the annual UCLA BruinBash concert starring the Compton-native rapper, I couldn’t help but notice that a majority of the crowd had been rapping along for most of his set. I also couldn’t help but notice that most of the crowd looked nothing like Kendrick Lamar and probably hailed from places that looked nothing like Compton… But they loved his music and they knew the words. At the same time, I kinda agree with my friend about talent and music. If I pick up a guitar and pluck away at the strings, I may be playing the guitar, but I am not REALLY playing the guitar. On the same note, if some tattooed Black guy from a crummy part of town picks up a microphone and rhymes “no” with “hoe” with “hoe” with “hoe,” he may be rapping, but he’s not REALLY rapping. In Rap/Hip-Hop, the instrument is the mind and it is actually quite easy to tell if someone can REALLY play that instrument. As evidence of this, I point to a triumph in song… A piece of work that, in its alluring complexity does more in 3 minutes and 58 seconds than most activists can do with 5 hours. This week’s song is “Collect Calls” by Kendrick Lamar.

One thing about creative literature is that it sometimes allows you to escape your own life and venture into that of another. At other times, it connects you to the life of someone else through common experiences. “Collect Calls” does both. As children, our relationships with our mothers are beautifully simple, yet painfully complex. She’s always there for you when you’re in need, whether it be a couple of dollars to get some candy from the corner store or when you just needed someone to talk with after the weight of life has just gotten too heavy. She’s also the one who cracks the whip when you act up. Got a D on that report card? For a moment, you hope to never see her again because you know you’ve both disappointed and ANGERED her. Got a detention in school? You hope to God that your principal does not call your mother. I’m generalizing, but we’ve all had these experiences or something similar. It may have been with your grandmother, aunt, stepmother, or father, but these relationships are part of what makes us human. What “Collect Calls” does is gives us a walkthrough of that humanity for someone who is often robbed of their humanity in the public eye: the criminal.

“Momma take this mothafuckin’ block off

Tryna reach you everyday, collect calls

Never get through, and I go through withdrawals

Say who told you that I wanted this the

I just wanted to vent or

Ask you if you give me your rent for

A attorney, I can pay you back more”

A son calling his mother in a time of need. We’ve all been there. We’ve all needed “to vent” to someone. At the same time, this son is asking his mother to use her rent money to pay for a lawyer because he has clearly screwed up. Most of us haven’t been in a situation where we’re facing years, but we’ve done the “can I please borrow some money? I really need it. I’ll pay you back… with interest.” The urgency in his voice forces you past the idea of every Black man in jail being some battle-hardened, emotionless, deep-voiced thug. That is a stereotype and characterization that we instinctively develop for him and we don’t even know what crime he committed. His voice contradicts the old adage “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.” which assumes that prisoners, under no circumstances, deserve sympathy.

“Pulled up, and they put me in them cop cars

Please believe me, This ain’t easy by far

You forgot you’re talking to your only son

Remember when you put me in that relay run

I was racing, chasing dreams to be the best

You had told me that the very day I won

All I need is you to give me some support

Investigation saying that the same report

From a witness just might testify in court

DA say I take a deal, or take a loss”

His mother still has the block for his collect calls on. He is still pleading for her to speak with him. What do we all do when we really need someone to help us? We plead to our pasts. He reminds her that he’s her only son and brings up old childhood memories of his mother’s love. That is the support and love that he wants from his mom now. By now, we’re feeling some kinda way about momma. Your son is doing all of this pleading to you and you still have the block on? How can you be so selfish? The next verse answers that question:

“No its not neglection, I have just accepted

Your fate and what its gon’ be

Remember all the nights that I cried

Thinking that my only son just died

Peeking through the window, Kicking through the door

It’s you they looking for, Raid outside

Rather see you locked up than dead

Only you would say that I’m selfish”

Ah, now we hear from momma! After all of that wondering about why she won’t even speak to her son through the phone, she tells us why. The beauty of this is that we can understand her pain and rationale perfectly. The sadness of this is that this is a reality for so many mothers. As he recounted his “relay run” and the love and support that she gave her “only son,” she recounts every night that she cried wondering if her only son was dead. She remembers the raid on her home as they arrested him. Then, she reveals that the realest, yet most chilling decision that some mothers have to make is in their own minds. She has to come to peace with the idea that her son will be locked away in prison for years, because he will at least be alive. She loves him enough to want him to live, knowing that running around in these ghetto streets will likely leave him at the coroner’s office.

I’ve done a lot of generalizing about people’s relationships with their mothers, but here I won’t generalize. I won’t even venture to say that most of the people reading this have ever had to answer a collect call from a correctional facility. The triumph in this song is that it gives that experience to each and every listener. Kendrick’s mainstream appeal means that each and every one of those White, Asian, Black, Latino listeners at that UCLA BruinBash concert have an opportunity to see what life is like behind that wall that separates the ghettos and the hoods from the suburbs and the woods. The message in the song is poignant for EVERY LISTENER. It gives prisoners a human side, allowing us to see that not every man (or woman) behind bars is some hardened beast or a violent caricature as often depicted elsewhere. It also shows young men growing up in these communities that there’s only so much a mother can take. It tells them that when those cell doors shut, there’s no reset button or “get out of jail free” card. By conveying the tragedy of the hood to those within it and those outside of it, Kendrick Lamar has created a Triumph in Song.




8 Comments Add yours

  1. I usually do not listen to this music but I loved this… Thanks for sharing

  2. John Noire says:

    Great piece. The way Kendrick reveals that twist/shift in perspective at the end is genius. Also, really appreciate you showing people that there’s more to hip-hop than it seems. Hip-Hop has been neglected as an art form for far too long and hopefully, with artists like Kendrick in the mainstream, that will change sometime soon.

  3. blancoa1011 says:

    I would not have come across this song if you hadn’t written about it. Keep the reviews and analyses coming. Your perspective is necessary. So much for those people who ask who are you any way.

  4. youtreetv says:

    Though the situation is different in location and race, the issues are still relevant here. As a teacher I found it hard when I heard colleagues tell me not to bother with certain students because they were worthless, yet all they wanted was someone to listen to them, to understand them and love them. Hard love through action is also important. By showing where the boundaries are of where to not cross the line, parents give true love to their children. And this is all students are asking for in the class and respect. It doesn’t have to be physical and shouting, but the actions parents and teachers take are so important. The quieter I was in class the more the students listened but the more I discovered about them the more they learnt in the class.

    My children now seem to be my parents at times, teaching me so much but also caring for me. They have learnt the worth of caring for others. Much of what you have written reminds me of different moments in my sons’ lives. The power of the story you have told evokes such memories and also teaches us how we need to slow down and listen to others, even if we do not have the answers, by allowing the other person to speak they can usually find the solution themselves. This is the message I get from the story told in the song but this comes through the story you shared – powerful work.

    1. Wow! Powerful. I will share your comment because it’s an awesome story itself!

      1. youtreetv says:

        Thanks Marques, you got me thinking about my own experience working with students. Funny things, a couple of days ago I was transferring old Super 8mm footage from the 90s and saw one of my boys in a school race aged 6, so also had lots of pictures in my head as colouring for the story you told. All the best George

  5. Conway says:

    It’s worse than you think. His Mom is the witness… Damn

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