Music education always & always looking forward.

An Absolute Aeolian Anthem: Aeolian Mode in Kendrick Lamar & The Weeknd's "Pray for Me"

A character anthem from the biggest superhero movie of all time provides an easy way to teach Aeolian mode (aka natural minor).


2018 has been a long year. I’ve already completely forgotten the Winter Olympics, the World Cup, and much of what common culture usually decides is important in a year.

2018 just may have been the best year ever, however, for Kendrick Lamar. He scored and was at the helm of the soundtrack to Black Panther, which has become this year’s biggest cultural phenomenon as well as 2018’s highest domestic grossing movie from the United States. (And is it just me, or has Black Panther had such an impact that it feels like it’s already been in existence for several years?)

But Lamar would not leave well enough alone. After taking home several Grammys but missing out on the Album of the Year prize, in April, it was announced that his album DAMN., released the year prior, had won the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

In case you were not aware, the Pulitzer Prize for Music has never, ever, ever in its history been awarded to a popular music artist. Ever. Not Bob Dylan (although he was cited by the Pulitzer committee in 2008). Not the Beatles. Not James Brown. Not Prince. Not Nirvana. Think of whomever you believe to be the most skilled, most influential, most culturally resonant popular musician of all time. Or think of someone like David Bowie, who has worked in direct collaboration with a previous Pulitzer winner, like Philip Glass.

Nope. Not him. Not them. Not whomever you’re thinking of. No one. Ever. In all of popular music history, outside of the classical and formal jazz world. And Kendrick Lamar did just that, in 2018, breaking through a ceiling made of bricks like his own superhero. The Pulitzer Prize for music began as the domain of composers such as William Schuman, Aaron Copland, and Charles Ives. In 1954, the year that rock & roll genuinely broke through commercially (some arguing that it officially began with Ike Turner’s album Rocket 88), the Pulitzer Prize was won by Quincy Porter, a Yale-educated composer who won for Concerto Concertante for two pianos and orchestra. It would take until 1997 for the Pulitzer to be awarded to a jazz composer — Wynton Marsalis, for the oratorio Blood on the Fields.

In the classical music world, Lamar winning has been a huge deal, and something that (necessarily) rocked the foundation for other composers. However, it seems as though in the popular music world, little notice has been taken of this absolute game changer of an accomplishment. As he instructs others to do, Lamar remains humble and continues to make great art. I’d say that if anyone had great 2018, it was Kendrick Lamar.

Intro: “Pray for Me” was written & produced for the Black Panther soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar and features vocals from R&B sensation The Weeknd. The soundtrack album debuted at no. 1 on the American Billboard 200 Albums charts in February of 2018. As the third single from the album, it became a top ten single on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and topped the chart in The Weeknd’s native Canada. It was one of 2018’s top 50 singles. Black Panther was the highest grossing domestic film of 2018, and has claimed the spot of the highest domestic grossing (US) superhero film ever made. The Weeknd has scored three other number one songs as a solo artist and three Grammy awards. In addition to many other accolades for his previous work, Kendrick Lamar’s album prior to Black Panther, 2017’s DAMN., scored Lamar his first solo number one song (“Humble.”), a spot as the year-end number one album, four of his 12 Grammys, and the first ever Pulitzer Prize for Music awarded to a popular music artist.

Analysis: This song is written entirely in Aeolian Mode — otherwise known as natural minor. The first chord of the song is E minor, which continues through the bridge, and then moves to Emin - D - C - D in the verses and Emin - D - Amin - C in the chorus & bridge sections. This makes for a i-VII-VI-VII and i-VII-iv-VI progressions, respectively. These chord progressions can be easily taught using chord progressions from the G major scale and just changing position; because it is modally Aeolian, the notes of these chords do not differ from those of a G major scale.

Considerations for Teaching: This song contains no major profanity (Lamar raps the word “hell”), but there is some discussion of death and killing. In the context of the movie Black Panther, for which it was written, it makes sense, as there are several deaths featured in the film. The lyrics seem to be analogous to the backstory of the film’s main villain, Kilmonger. Because of the cultural pervasiveness of the film, it seems unlikely that any student would take offense to the song unless they were upset by superhero stories.

EVEN MORE TEACHING TOOLS: my people at Little Kids Rock have put together some amazing lesson plans, modern band charts, and instructional videos to use while learning this song. Seriously, they’ve got a whole unit on this song involving music technology, specifically tailored for use on both Garage Band and Soundtrap. Do not sleep on this!!

All “Pray for Me” LKR content.

Trust me on this. Please. The Jam Zone on the Little Kids Rock site is an incredible tool, AND IT’S TOTALLY FREE. My school has been awarded a Little Kids Rock grant, but I am hyping this tool as a fan of this resource, not as a paid reviewer.

Edited for errors & minimal content change on January 7th, 2019.

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