“We Cry Together” is probably the most conversation-stopping song on Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant and challenging fifth album “Mr. Morale & the High Steppers” — a horrifyingly realistic recreation of an argument in an abusive relationship that finds Lamar and actress Taylour Paige saying absolutely horrible things to each other, with her delivering an entire verse while sobbing, and apparently culminates with the two of them having sex.
The most commonly cited precedent for “We Cry Together” is Eminem’s 2000 song “Kim,” an even more horrifying scenario in which he murders his real-life ex-wife. It’s plenty upsetting but in many ways is more like a horror film, with Eminem voicing both characters. But what is most unsettling about “We Cry Together” is the anguish and anger in its delivery, conveyed so powerfully by Lamar — who is the only credited lyricist — and Paige. While there’s no shortage of yelling or violent lyrics in the annals of popular music, particularly heavy metal and hip-hop, that kind of deeply upsetting screaming and crying has few precedents in major songs.
One particularly harrowing example is “The Boiler,” a single released 40 years ago by the Special A.K.A., a group assembled from the extended musical family around pioneering British ska legends the Specials after that group split in 1981. Set over increasingly ominous ska-jazz music, the song is a narration by vocalist Rhoda Dakar about an evening that culminates in a date-rape. Centered around a story about a lonely woman (a “boiler” is a British slang term) on a date with a man she gradually realizes is dangerous, it’s anchored by a pummeling beat, Jerry Dammers’ demented-calliope organ and Dick Cuthell’s braying trumpet, all of which grow more and more threatening as Dakar’s narrative gets increasingly uneasy and frightened, until the song concludes with 90 straight seconds of her horrifying screaming — the kind of oh-my-god-call-911-right-now shrieking that triggers the amygdala, the area of the brain that generates a fear response. It’s a deeply powerful and disturbing song that you can’t un-hear — we can’t put enough trigger warnings on it — which was presumably the point. (There’s no indication that Lamar is aware of the song.)
A sad irony of the Specials’ career is how many of the group’s madly skanking fans were completely oblivious to the deeply political meanings behind many of their bouncy, cheerful-sounding songs: Nearly every one had a socially relevant point and perspective, whether it was racism, the stupidity of unplanned parenthood or simply feeling alienated on a Friday night. The group’s final single, “Ghost Town,” was a stinging indictment of the race riots that plagued Britain in the summer of 1981 and reached No. 1 on the country’s singles charts as the group imploded, with the three singers forming Fun Boy 3 and Dammers and others continuing with singers Dakar (previously with British ska outfit the Bodysnatchers) and Stan Campbell under the Special A.K.A. moniker.
“The Boiler,” released in January of 1982, certainly continued the group’s socially relevant messaging, but it removed virtually every vestige of the pop and fun that made the Specials’ music go down so easily. The song somehow reached No. 35 on the British singles chart, and Dakar even sang it on the BBC’s “Oxford Road Show,” a performance that is surreal enough in itself, as she dances through the first verses and then becomes far more serious as it progresses. The Special A.K.A. ultimately would release just one album (which did not include “The Boiler”), but made an indelible mark on the world with their galvanizing song “Free Nelson Mandela” in 1984. Dakar picked up her solo career in 2007 and has continued to tour and record ever since, with an album called “Version Girl” comprised of reggae covers of songs like the Pretenders’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” and Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” due later in the year.
Speaking with Variety over Zoom on Monday night, Dakar had mixed feelings about “We Cry Together.”
“It’s kind of disappointing, because she caves at the end, doesn’t she?,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Oh no, she’s gonna go back to him!’ And at the end, where she caves and says, ‘fuck me,’ I was really disappointed: I’m reading it as an abusive relationship where she is essentially colluding in the abuse. That’s something women don’t get taught not to do, in a sense. You know, ‘He may be abusive, but at least I’ve got a man.’ It made me annoyed.”
Dakar is quick to acknowledge that although she is a big fan of the British rap hybrid grime — “because it’s about where I come from” — and felt a connection to ’80s rap pioneers like Public Enemy and N.W.A, contemporary American hip-hop doesn’t really speak to her, although her kids are fans.
Looking at Lamar’s larger discography and lyrics, “His life experience has been so different from mine that I can’t relate,” she says. “If you’re Black in the U.K., you can’t relate to the level of the level of racism that he will have come up against, because it’s not as blatant. Racism here is very different; I suppose it’s more sort of nuanced. You know how English people talk to each other, all nuance and inference: An American will just come up and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got some green shit on your face!’ but an English person would never tell you that. (Laughter) They would be mortified to say it, and just let you walk around with this thing on your face all day.”
She is also surprising low-key about the creation of “The Boiler” and any musical or societal impact it might have had. “I wasn’t trying to do anything,” she says. “We’d just decided to be in a band — [the Bodysnatchers] didn’t know how to play our instruments or how to write songs, and we had our first gig in a month.” The original idea for the song came about during a Bodysnatchers rehearsal. “I had been in youth theater and I wanted to be an actress,” she says “but then you realize that you will only ever play nurses and prostitutes for the rest of your life, because that’s all there was for Black women in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But that’s where my experience in storytelling came from.
“Anyway, one day in rehearsal I just started to do what was an improvisation from a story [about an incident] that somebody had told me not long before, so it was essentially a piece of theatre. And because I was completely wrapped up in the idea of the actors’ studio and Stanislavski and emotional memory and all of that, that’s how I was able to make it real: You use the emotional memory technique, which can trigger you into appearing as if you’re reliving something had happened to you, but you’re just telling a story.
The song, later recorded with the Special A.K.A., “was [written] before we really had a term to describe it: Now we call that date rape.”
Responding to an observation that she’s downplaying how powerful and impactful the song is, she says, “Well, thank you. But obviously, I have no idea how it lands because I’m entirely the other side of it. It’s a piece of theatre: How it lands to you is whatever you make of it.
“People sometimes say to me, ‘Why don’t you do sing “The Boiler” [at concerts] now?,’ because it’s kind of culturally appropriate. It’s because the character was a young girl in her 20s, and I don’t know that I could pull that off now. A woman of my age wouldn’t get sucked into that [kind of situation] — at least I’d like to think she wouldn’t — so the story would have to be different. Actually, it would be probably be something like more like the Kendrick Lamar song [‘We Cry Together’], about domestic violence.”
Which, in a way, brings the discussion full circle. “People will probably shoot me down in flames for saying this,” she concludes, “but I’d say to Kendrick Lamar: If you want to know what a woman thinks about domestic violence, don’t write the words for her!”