Stop taking the title-track for granted.
The act of achieving title often occurs during a thematically dense moment. For that reason, a title-track inherently feel like an anchor around which the bulk of an album’s message is built. Sometimes the album title is mirrored by a song, or possibly a singular lyrical fragment; in the latter case, the song in question becomes a defacto title-track. Remember, the process is not always conceived prior to the writing stages. Sometimes, a particular lyric may develop a sort of resonance after the fact, and come to articulate the artist’s vision. Even if an artist puts little to no thought into their title, should it arise at any point during the project’s runtime, that song will suddenly open itself up to all manner of interpretation.
Consider Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, mAAd city, in which title is achieved over the course of two companion pieces: “good kid,” and “m.A.A.D city.” Though many songs touch on the project’s dominant themes, the titular tracks provide brilliant analysis into the dueling natures of Kendrick’s personality: a desire to straddle the line between his integrity and the violent responses wrought by his home turf. “If I told you I killed a n***a at sixteen, would you believe me?” he raps, “or see me to be innocent Kendrick you seen in the street with a basketball and some Now and Laters to eat?” It’s no coincidence that the pair make up the album’s centerpiece, with “m.A.A.d City” feeling like a particularly climactic moment, both musically and thematically.
Kendrick’s studio debut is an interesting case, as it plays out in a distinctly literary fashion. Sometimes, an album title can derive from an artist’s energy, and thus scattered throughout a project. Mick Jenkins excellent mixtape The Waters is a fitting example; though it does have a title track, Mick’s recurring mantra of “drink more water” permeates from start to finish. Of course, “The Waters” encapsulates the importance of Mick’s message, in which natural elevation is placed beyond material wealth. “Water more important than the gold, people for the gold,” sings Mick. “Everybody do it for the gold, People save your souls.” With this in mind, we can beginning look at the entire album under a particular lens, and start analyzing the aquatic imagery beyond a literal sense.
Of course, not every artist is going to approach the titling process with the same degree of thought. For some, it may be more important to decide on something equal parts simple and memorable. Does Nellyville really speak to a greater underlying message? Likely not, though Nelly’s depiction of his titular “ville” certainly sounds utopian. T.I’s King features a similarly general title, and while it does serve as a proclamation of Tip’s confidence, it’s highly likely that it was conceived with little other purpose than to assert dominance. In these cases, it feels pointless to insert unnecessarily analysis. It does, however, provide an interesting insight into an artist’s visionary scope, even if this variety of title tracks aren’t exactly ripe with thematic relevance.
Sometimes, an artist will opt to make you work for it. Look at Eminem’s The Eminem Show, a deviation from his preconceived pattern of autobiographical “LPs.” Though the project is bookended by recurring instances of the“show” motif, the album actually achieves title on the emotional “Cleanin’ Out My Closet.” "What I did was stupid, no doubt it was dumb, but the smartest shit I did was take the bullets out of that gun,” raps Eminem, alluding to the time he assaulted a man for kissing his wife Kim, “cause I'da killed him, shit, I woulda shot Kim and him both, it's my life, I'd like to welcome y'all to The Eminem Show.” Largely seen as the most personal album in Em’s discography, “Cleaning Out My Closet” became a pivotal catalyst in developing the man behind the music. Though the prior narrative surrounding Eminem was hardly glowing, “Closet” allowed listeners to humanize, even sympathize, with the king of controversy.
Styles P’s A Gangster And A Gentleman is held in high regard within certain circles, and for good reason. Like Kendrick’s aforementioned good kid, Styles’ studio debut once again centers around themes of duality. Those familiar with The Lox’ early come-up can likely attest to being intimidated by Styles P at least once; formidable to say the least, especially to young listeners unfamiliar with street-culture. Prior to A Gangster And A Gentleman, Styles seemed content with playing the muscle, an imposing figure liable to put the gun to your head. Yet the book opened up on the project’s titular track, in which Styles reflects on his childhood with a refreshing sense of honesty. “I'm leavin out a lotta shit, n***a it's too real, my alcoholic background, the welfare motels,” he confesses. “Abuse that I had to take, struggles that my moms went through, how the fuck I'm gon bond wit you?”
In truth, attributing deeper thematic relevance to album titles and titular tracks is hardly an exact science. It is, however, an interesting conversation to have, especially for those enamored with an artist's creative process. We’ve constantly seen rappers convey myriad meanings into a single verse, asserting mastery over the English language with oft-underappreciated brilliance. Given the amount of work that goes into crafting an album, why wouldn’t their chosen title hold special relevance to them? And by that logic, the same goes double for the title-track. Like the chicken-and-egg paradox, it’s not always easy to figure out which one came first. Yet there’s always an added sense of electricity surrounding a titular song, even if a greater sense of thematic relevance isn’t always obvious.