I’m always curious about how artists can use similar topics or tools and make two different pieces or even how artists can influence one another. To exist is to consume, and the art we create is often influenced by the things we consume. Music is very much art, as it can move, inspire and transport the listener just as paintings and movies can.
Today, I’d like to compare two songs: Bang Yongguk’s “Hikikomori” and Kendrick Lamar’s “U.”
I’m not comparing these songs to determine which is better but to see how these two artists uses similar tools to create two outstanding pieces of art.
Bang Yongguk released his eponymous album on March 15, 2019. Bang Yongguk and his former B.A.P members were open about numerous social issues such as mental health, corporate greed and hierarchical abuse in their music, an incredible feat for the young group. Yongguk himself also took a brief hiatus in his B.A.P promotions for “Noir” due to his anxiety disorder. He returned for their “Rose” comeback and the video for their lead single, “Wake Me Up.” The song touched on multiple mental health issues such as schizophrenia, body dysmorphia and depression.
As for Lamar, on March 15, 2015, he released his third album, “To Pimp A Butterfly.” Lamar, likewise, has been open about his past, growing up impoverished in Compton as well as social issues like police brutality, mental illness, gang turf wars and drug abuse. On the same album, the song “I” is a song about achieving self-love after persevering through trials. The funk beat keeps the mood light and energetic, compelling the listener to dance as Lamar proclaims “I love myself.”
That being said, the song I want to focus on is, “U,” an unofficial companion track that starts with a violent scream followed by haunting vocals and a dark jazz instrumental. Whereas “I” has the chorus of “I love myself,” Lamar and a background vocal chant “Loving you is complicated” throughout the first half of the song and a fractured sample during the second. Lyrically, it’s tricky to know if the speaker in “U” is someone close to Lamar or Lamar’s own insecurities and doubts personified. Nonetheless, Lamar pulls no punches in his words and delivery.
The song’s speaker bitterly criticizes Kendrick for neglecting loved ones and accuses him of being fake, spouting out songs like “I” when he’s actually plagued with depression. Lamar’s flow is quickfire and accusatory, only stopping when he reaches the second part. There, the song’s speaker is on the verge of tears and his words are punctured with the cracking emotions in his voice and the sound of glasses clinking, followed by him gulping down his drink.
“Hikikomori” starts much lighter, the sounds of footsteps walking away from people talking and closing a door. The light snare drums and keyboard are soothing until you reach the dark ambient chorus and the lyrics “If you love me, why can’t you leave me alone?” This slow escalation continues as the second verse leads a haunting piano and an animalistic breathing and screaming. There, Yongguk seemingly spits out his words and sounds out of breath.
Lyrically, “Hikikomori” is just as haunting and solemn. Vulnerable lines like “Don’t wanna be bothered in my own world, so I keep avoiding it” or “Do you know what it feels like, when no matter how much you eat and drink, you become overcome by sadness?” speak to the pain that not only Yongguk but those with depression, myself included, can feel in those dark moments.
When you listen to the two songs, you can hear some similarities: the frustrated delivery of each artist’s words, the saxophone being a key instrument in the composition, the cathartic screams. Bang has posted about Lamar’s music on social media in the past, so his inspiration is hardly surprising. What interests me most is how these two artists used similar pieces to tell their own unique struggles.
The titles themselves give a hint about their different themes. “Hikikomori” is a Japanese term for those who have completely isolated themselves from the outside world and stay primarily in their houses for over six months. On the other hand, “U” is ambiguously simple, not telling you anything until you finally play the song.
The videos add another layer. While both feature the rappers in solitude, they play with the setting differently. Yongguk alternates between different action and emotions, trashing the room in anger and frustration in one scene, then hiding underneath a table in the next. The scene of him laughing in between screams is an incredibly powerful image. Depression is never one feeling or symptom.
Lamar’s performance is simple but just as effective. The video starts with him rapping off-screen to someone until the camera pans to the mirror, revealing he’s alone. The song gets interrupted by hotel housekeeping knocking on the door, and Lamar turns and raps directly to us, the audience. It’s as jarring as it is haunting, seeing him in the throes of a breakdown.
Another contrast is that while the message in “U” (“Loving you is complicated”) is constant and nagging, the message of “Hikikomori” (“Loving myself is complicated”) has a quiet sadness that seeps into your soul.
The albums “To Pimp A Butterfly” and “Bang Yongguk” are on streaming services.
If you feel you need help with any mental health problems, here’s a link to get you the help you need.