Exploring Emotion in Poetry with Kendrick Lamar

I want my students to see all the artistic nuances that come with text, I want them to see the originality of the artists we study, and I want them to appreciate the imaginative beauty that is reading and interpreting poetry. Most importantly, I want them to have that first, visceral experience with this art: to feel.

Without any prompts, forewarning, or a clue of what’s to come next, I tell my unsuspecting students to take out their pens and write only one thing: what they feel. I quietly sit down in my chair, I turn off the lights, shut the door, turn up my speakers, and play Kendrick Lamar’s “Feel,” from the 2017 album, Damn. “Feel” is a slow burn backed with an ominous echo of background vocals, as if someone is struggling to speak. The song carries a melody that undertones two singers exchanging the lines, “ain’t nobody praying for me,” building the listener’s sense of urgency for nearly 40 seconds before the verse emerges. As Kendrick interrupts this call and response and begins the verse, an eerie, high-pitched vocal oscillates under his stressed lyrics, almost as if to interrupt the listener who is trying to make sense of these heightened emotions. The repetition of the word ‘feel’ serves as the foundation for the song’s intensity, and the cascading, tightly packed rhymes don’t allow much room to breathe. Even after hearing this song multiple times, it accomplishes something that not many others can: it literally increases my heart rate, it catches my breath in my chest as I try to follow each uncatchable word, nearly mimicking the lyrics: 

The feelin’, the feelin’ of false freedom
I’ll force-feed ’em the poison that fill ’em up in the prison
I feel like it’s just me
I feel like I can’t breathe
I feel like I can’t sleep

I remember hearing this song for the first time. I desperately reached for the lyrics that felt too close, and the words descended like rain with each drop. I couldn’t seem to hold on. It wasn’t the speed, it was the song’s raw emotion that went too quickly. I wanted to mull it over — holding each word in my hands, touching all of its edges and corners. But so it goes when listening to art instead of reading; one moment the feeling is there, and the next, it’s gone, eagerly awaiting my next listen.

I feel heartless, often off this
Feelin’ of fallin’, of fallin’ apart with
Darkest hours, lost it

As for my students, I knew that the lyrics’ closeness, alliteration, and internal rhyme might go consciously unnoticed upon first listen. Yet, as we listen for the first time in class, I can sense this urgency in my students. They desperately try to write something down, and I watch them fall short, staring at their blank, lined paper as the song comes to a close. It’s easy to feel the stress being built through Kendrick’s repetition, close rhyme, and the minimal rests, but right when they think they’ve got something to write, a new feeling, word, or image has caught their attention. 

Toward the end of the song, my students have given up trying to write; I see them sit back to take in the remainder, becoming somewhat comfortable with its pace. Yet with only seconds left, the song releases into an explosion of emotion, Kendrick finally breaks this tension that he so artfully constructs and declares —

“F– your feelings I mean this for imposters!”

Then, Kendrick explodes into the climax of the song with only four lines, mirroring within the listener his emotional exhaustion.

I can feel it, the phoenix sure to watch us
I can feel it, the dream is more than process
I can put a regime that forms a Loch Ness
I can feel it, the scream that haunts our logic!

I know how ethereal of an experience it can be to hear this song for the first time, and I was lucky enough to be the host for this group of teenagers, all of which know of Kendrick Lamar, but have never heard this song. I didn’t want to give any direction – I wanted them to turn off their analysis for a few moments and just, well, feel

Kendrick Lamar accepts the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music from Columbia University President Lee Bollinger. (Photo: Eileen Barroso/Columbia University)

This is what poetry units lacked for me in school. Typically, when my students are handed a poem, song lyrics, or any other piece of text, they immediately and understandably start to analyze it. They’ll reread lines, and always go straight to the question “well, what does the poem mean?” Through the teach-to-the-test curriculum they are taught to respond to a text in an analytical way, without first asking themselves “how does it make me feel?” However, using music as the focus of study in a poetry lesson can help alleviate this idea of analysis-only education. 

During the listening portion of this activity, I do not give students “Feel’s” printed lyrics — no lines from their desks. In that moment, they only have what they can feel, what they can hold onto from listening alone.

After hearing the song only one time, I ask my students to write their experience, and during this writing time I request absolute silence — no music, no questions, just their thoughts and a pen. I ask again, “write what you feel,” and I wait patiently. When most pens are back on their desks, I open the class up for discussion. The students’ responses vary, of course. Many pick up on the tension, the repetition, and other literary elements. Yet undoubtedly, they all write something about how they felt physically, saying things like “my heart raced,” “I felt like I couldn’t breathe,” and “I felt flustered.” 

These very real, physical feelings that art elicits are often what’s left out of today’s analytical-heavy curriculum. We want everything to match a standard; we want every lesson to be skill-based. And these are perfectly legitimate ways of interacting with a text, but these skills cannot add deeper meaning to something we don’t have an emotional connection to first. Moreover, since test-driven education primarily measures success by state-standard lists and exams, students are left to see poetry as only a requirement studied in school — something they won’t actually use when they graduate. But as we know, it can be so much more. By engaging in music that students can relate to, I’m hoping to change this analysis-first norm in my class.

After I let my students share their feelings about the song, we have a discussion guided by the following questions, evoking a conversation towards having an experience with art:

  • “How has your experience with poetry been thus far?” 
  • “How is listening to this song different than reading a poem” 
  • “How would listening to a poem be different than reading a poem?” 

I want my students to see all the artistic nuances that come with text, I want them to see the originality of the artists we study, and I want them to appreciate the imaginative beauty that is reading and interpreting poetry. Most importantly, I want them to have that first, visceral experience with this art: to feel. I ask that before we analyze poetry, look for literary elements, or discuss themes, we answer the question: “what was your experience with this piece?” 

To reinforce this idea with my students, I lead a listening exercise with many different pieces before asking them for analysis. For our next experience, we listen to Kendrick’s “Black Panther,” a similarly-paced, emotionally-driven song. We will listen and then write, with no prompt other than to write their experience. I usually find that while I didn’t ask them to use any literary jargon, identify elements, or initially analyze the song, students will often use all of those literary devices anyway to make sense of their feelings. Here’s one of their answers: 

The chaotic nature of this song brings about a feeling similar to the one you’d get if you were thrown into a pool of cold water without arms or legs. You hit the water and are immediately immersed in an environment filled with unease. You suddenly become acutely aware of anything and everything around you, if not because of the cold, then because you’re searching for a path that leads to survival. After failing to fight through gallons of water while attempting to reach the surface, you finally accept your fate and are left only with the feeling of emptiness and isolation. These are the emotions I believe the singer feels and whether it was his goal to make me feel the same thing, or to just be understood, I can wholeheartedly say that he achieved both. There are very few songs that make me feel this surge of emotions but that isn’t to say that that’s a bad thing because in many cases, like cold water, it’s refreshing. – 10th Grade Student, Julie

Of course, this isn’t to say that analysis is not important. In fact, after I use “Feel” to invest them in the process of experiencing art, we’ll spend a good deal of time analyzing Kendrick Lamar’s “Black Panther” for how the specific sound devices play a role in building a heightened sense of emotion — the same emotion that Julie experienced on her first listen. We’ll comb through the text with different color highlighters and explore the way that Kendrick uses sound devices to play on our emotions. Through our discussions, we’ll explore how rapid repetition evokes a feeling of urgency, alliteration parallels the listener’s disorientation, and how slant rhyme can feel unsettling. 

Most importantly though, we’ll discuss how all of these emotions that we feel when we listen, Kendrick felt when he wrote. We’ve discovered one of the beauties of art — it gives a voice to feelings. Art conceptualizes something abstract and profound, and it lets others understand, even if for only a glimpse, what we feel 

Andrew DeBella is a creative writing teacher in Oklahoma, contributing journalist for his local paper, and recently published poet. Andrew writes so he can remember and so others can share in that experience. He believes that our identities aren’t only shaped by our most memorable life events, but by all of the billions of small memories we have, too. Andrew wants to hold on to as many of those as he can, so he writes. You can read Andrew’s journalism in Tulsa World and The Oklahoman, as well as his poetry in Oddville Press Literary Magazine and forthcoming in Metaworker Literary Magazine.