Every once in a while, musicians try to make songs that will cause listeners to recoil. Whether it’s Lou Reed crafting a whole record of abrasive feedback (Metal Machine Music) or U2 ending their 1993 album Zooropa with roughly 30 seconds of a grating siren noise, artists occasionally want to see how much their fans can tolerate. But few recent tracks have proven as assaultive as “We Cry Together,” the eighth song off Kendrick Lamar’s superb new album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. There aren’t ear-piercing sound effects or droning noises in the song — it’s just a couple having a blistering argument, sparing no insult or cruel putdown. It’s really hard to listen to, and even the album’s champions are avoiding it in droves. But it may end up being among the record’s most incisive moments.
Earlier this week, XXL noted that “We Cry Together” had achieved a bizarre distinction, becoming the song with the biggest single-week drop ever on the Billboard 100, falling from No. 16 (where it debuted) all the way down to No. 97. Variety looked into that claim and clarified it, pointing out that, yes, no song has ever plummeted 81 spots in one week, although seasonal songs such as Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” vanish from the Billboard 100 completely once the holidays are over. Still, this record-setting oddity only helped highlight what’s so corrosive about “We Cry Together.” Clearly, lots of people were streaming/downloading/listening to Mr. Morale initially, checking out every track, but pretty quickly they realized that “We Cry Together” wasn’t something they wanted to revisit. It’s not difficult to understand why.
If you’re unfamiliar with the song, it’s a duet between Lamar and Zola actress Taylour Paige, who play a couple who are in the midst of a screaming match. There’s no context for what’s happening — and other than a brief sample of Florence and the Machine’s “June” at the start, no hint of a melody. Essentially, the two characters just tear into each other — the closest the song comes to a chorus is them yelling “Fuck you” back and forth to one another, over and over again. It’s ugly and raw and weirdly intimate, like something we shouldn’t be hearing. There’s no resolution and no further insight into what prompted all this — it’s just one loud, awful fight.
Mr. Morale has largely gotten glowing reviews, even if they don’t entirely know what to make of “We Cry Together.” Writing in Variety, critic Andrew Barker called the song “a stunning work — an out-of-nowhere five-minute hailstorm of pure rage that leaves you staring at your speakers in disbelief. It’s also hard to imagine why anyone would voluntarily listen to it twice.” Like others, Barker compares the track to “Kim,” the harrowing, too-real 2000 song by Eminem in which he graphically fantasizes about killing his ex-wife after an equally vicious argument. But where “Kim” overtly explored (and, arguably, sensationalized) domestic violence, “We Cry Together” never crosses that line. The song’s characters scream at one another, but there’s no physical violence — not even the mention of it. Nonetheless, the shouting is so upsetting that it conjures up the possibility that this fight could escalate into something worse. Part of what makes “We Cry Together” so riveting is that you keep listening out of fear of what might transpire but never does.
It’s not unusual in popular music to hear one side of an argument in a song. Normally, it’s the wronged party making her/his case, addressing the other person directly. (Taylor Swift has made a career out of this.) But every once in a while, you’ll get a duet such as “We Cry Together,” where you get to witness the whole squabble — or like in the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Another,” consisting of he and Lil’ Kim trading insults, although there’s something a little lighter and funnier about their exchange, aided by the song’s breezy R&B melody. And then there’s “Without a Fight,” a 2016 track in which Brad Paisley and Demi Lovato play lovers who argue all the time — partly because it leads to great sex. There’s nothing toxic or dark about that song, which mostly is a cheeky riff on the old saw about couples who fight a lot and screw a lot.
If on one end of the spectrum you’ve got lighthearted fare like “Another” and “Without a Fight” — and, on the other, the murderous, stomach-churning provocation of “Kim” — then “We Cry Together” stands daringly in the middle, hinting at the potential of ugliness without going all the way. But the song gets close enough — especially in light of the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard verdict and the reports of survivors who have now reluctantly decided to drop their legal cases — to feel like it’s swimming in the same waters, flirting with domestic violence without explicitly featuring it.
Throughout his career, Lamar has been unafraid to speak honestly — even if, on the new album’s “Auntie Diaries,” he sings compassionately about two transgender relatives while regretably engaging in deadnaming and misgendering. No surprise, then, that “We Cry Together” is equally unfiltered, with some commentary slipping through the vitriol. It may all depend on one’s perspective, of course, but during the song’s raging fight, it seems like Paige’s character may have the moral upper hand, condemning her partner’s screw-ups as indicative of his gender’s failings:
Find it funny you just can’t apologize
Egotistic, narcissistic, love your own lies
See, you the reason why strong women fucked up
Why they say it’s a man’s world
See, you the reason for Trump
You the reason we overlooked, underpaid, under-booked, under shame
And then later:
You the reason Harvey Weinstein had to see his conclusion
You the reason R. Kelly can’t recognize that he’s abusive
Lamar’s character gets his shots in, too — he accuses her of still loving Kelly’s music — but for a rapper who’s often been self-critical, quick to point out his shortcomings, “We Cry Together” hardly paints the fictional male in the best light. For Paige’s character, it’s about more than just this fight — there’s something fundamentally unenlightened about the guy — and she pointedly connects him to every prominent problematic man she can name. Lamar’s character tries to wave her complaints away, but the accusations sting — there’s an unmistakable grain of truth to them. It feels like Paige is indicting more than just her shitty boyfriend but, rather, men as a whole.
Not that those insights make “We Cry Together” any easier to listen to. The unrelenting tantrum on both sides is hard to take, as well as a reminder that we’re just not used to hearing such scenarios in music. Funny enough, it’s a common trope in drama, where plenty of films, plays and television shows involve the occasional cathartic screaming match. (It may have become an amusing meme, but Marriage Story’s anguished royal rumble demonstrated how we’re more likely to accept such a verbally brutal encounter in the confines of a movie, where it’s considered impressive acting.)
But in “We Cry Together,” without being able to see Lamar and Paige, only hearing their raised voices, there’s something deeply upsetting. It’s like we’re hearing them through a thin apartment wall, intruding on something private. Should we intervene? The song thrusts us into the middle of this uncomfortable situation, prompting us to wonder about stepping in, except we can’t because it’s a song. But what would we do if this was happening in real life? Or if we were one of the two participants? There’s no clear-cut answer to these questions, which is just one reason why people are probably skipping right by the song. We’d prefer not to think about it.
All of this makes it even more surprising that, supposedly, “We Cry Together” is going to be the album’s next video. Granted, the sonically ambitious Mr. Morale doesn’t offer a lot of readymade singles — it’s a more insular, experimental work that refuses easy sonic entry points — but expect the “We Cry Together” video to be polarizing, especially as we all wrestle with the implications of Depp and Heard’s trial, which further diminished society’s willingness to believe women living with abusive men.
Lamar has often challenged his audience, and “We Cry Together” forces us to inhabit its tense environment, daring us to take sides in the argument while we ponder the kind of anger that bad love generates. There are better, more tuneful songs on Mr. Morale, but I find myself choosing not to flip past that track when it pops up. It’s meant to be hard to listen to, focusing on two people at their darkest moment. Maybe you’ve been there yourself. “We Cry Together” isn’t about domestic violence, but it sets the stage for where such violence can occur. Any of us with the luxury of switching off the song would do well to remember all those who can’t turn away in real life.