D I S S E C T
i n t e r v i e w
Dissect is a serialized music podcast that examines a single album per season, one song per episode. The podcast has performed season-long dissections of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Tyler, the Creator’s Flower Boy, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and other groundbreaking albums. Dissect’s eighth season—available now on Spotify—is devoted to Kanye West’s Yeezus.
We interviewed creator Cole Cuchna and Femi Olutade, co-writer of Season 5 (dissecting Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.), about accessibility, typography, reception, and spiritual storytelling.
COMP: Do you see yourself as an educator? How does Dissect balance entertainment and accessibility with critical exploration and musical analysis?
COLE: With some hesitance, I do see myself as an educator, though it’s inextricably tied to being forever a student. That is, Dissect is simply me sharing my experience learning from these great albums. Really, it’s the art that’s educational—I’m more of a translator, attempting to use my music education and experience to help explain what I believe the artist is trying to communicate through their music.
In terms of balancing entertainment and critical analysis, that’s something I’m constantly thinking about. There are a number of established and wonderful resources that offer in-depth critical analysis of music, but I do always wonder how many people are actually paying attention to them, since they are presented in a way that feels increasingly archaic. On both the episode and season level, I very consciously structure Dissect in a way that I hope can compete in the frenetic way we consume media these days. I mean, by the end of a typical season, you’ve essentially listened to a 100,000-word analysis of a single album, but it’s broken up in a way that hopefully keeps your attention. It’s also the reason why I select recent albums from the biggest genre of our day (hip hop). You have to meet people halfway. It’s the spoonful of sugar with medicine idea.
COMP: In season 5, you discuss Kendrick Lamar’s interest in poetry. How do you think the visual elements of written poetry—specifically lineation and the use of all-caps—factor (or not factor) into the rhythmic and thematic organization of Lamar’s lyrics, or even rap lyrics generally?
FEMI: I think that the use of all-caps and a period at the end of each title were clearly intended to convey the tone and feel of Kendrick’s words, similar to how many poets use capitalization and punctuation to convey additional information.
When one particular interviewer asked Kendrick to explain why he chose DAMN. as the title for the album, Kendrick said that the “loudness” of the record “just screamed ‘DAMN.’ in my face.” The use of all-caps and periods for the track titles in addition to the album title thus seems to be one way that Kendrick communicates the loud, brash persona that is the main voice of the album.
COMP: What’s your take on the way that hip hop, rap, and R&B are treated by the media and by the culture at large? Are unjust dominant ideologies afraid of the cultural and political force of artists like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West?
COLE: Historically, these genres haven’t been taken too seriously by academia and were met with enormous pushback from mainstream media. I do think that’s changing, but that change is very recent, and was only made possible because the People made it impossible to ignore. Statistically speaking, hip hop is the most popular genre today, and hip hop artists are telling some of the most relevant and important stories, giving a voice to communities who historically haven’t had a voice. It’s taken a certain kind of evolution of the genre (your Kendrick Lamars) for hip hop to finally get the acclaim it’s always been deserving of, but it’s been important ever since its conception in the streets of the South Bronx in the 70s.
This is the reason I very consciously make side by side comparisons of Beethoven and Kanye West, or Wagner and Beyoncé. I want people to put these modern artists in the same conversation as these historical figures that often receive the majority of our academic attention. I think it’s time we destroyed these invisible yet very real barriers we’ve used to separate and elevate certain genres over others. As if great art is only accomplished through technical achievement (which often requires training not available to all). To me, great art is a powerfully and accurately told story, experience, or feeling. And that can be achieved through an orchestra just as much as it can over some 808s.
COMP: How does Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. communicate with contemporary and/or historical spiritual art?
FEMI: First and foremost, one has to look at the Bible as the central piece of literary art that DAMN. is in dialogue with. As we detailed in season 5, DAMN. can be seen as a retelling of the Book of Jonah, which is a work that makes heavy use of satire, ironic reversals, and social critique in a way that is strikingly similar to DAMN. DAMN. also seems to use a mirrored structure known as chiasm, which is often used to tell Biblical stories such as the story of Noah and the Flood. We also discussed how “FEEL.” and “FEAR.” use a repetitive structure that resembles a litany—a liturgical form of communal prayer that developed in the first few centuries after Jesus.
Additionally, DAMN. in many ways resembles a morality play, which is a type of allegorical form of theatre that developed in Roman Catholic Western Europe during the 15th century. In the most classic morality plays such as Everyman, Mankind and The Castle of Perseverance, the narrative follows a protagonist, representing all of humanity, who interacts with personified virtues and vices as he chooses between good and evil. There are similar narrative moments in “BLOOD” which instructs us to choose between wickedness or weakness, in “DNA.” where Kendrick stated sex, money and murder are in “our DNA,” and in “XXX.” where Kendrick claimed that America is a reflection of him.
Finally, within the realm of contemporary spiritual art, DAMN. is in conversation with the Christian hip hop subgenre that was carved out by artists like Lecrae and NF. Much like Christian hip hop, DAMN. has a consistent focus on spiritual concepts. The main differences are that Kendrick uses explicit language and is much more willing to depict himself making bad choices.