When Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Kendrick Lamar’s fifth studio album, was released on May 13, one of the album’s standout tracks quickly became “We Cry Together,” as much for its raw subject matter as its slightly irregular format. (The song sounds more like a radio play or rap battle than it does a traditional hip-hop offering.) Taylour Paige (Zola, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) assumes the role of Lamar’s star-crossed lover — his trigger and his muse — and today the hyperreal song has come to life further with the worldwide debut of a six-minute short film of the same name.
The short film based on the album’s eighth track, in which a quarreling couple communicates both everything and nothing, was produced by Lamar’s creative collective pgLang and shot with live audio and no cuts in a single take — a fitting approach for an album rendered in blues and Blackness, woven with elements of both trap and free jazz.
“We Cry Together” (the song) was recorded in February 2020, and the accompanying short film was shot weeks later in mid-March, just a day before quarantine was mandated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Directed by Jake Schreier, Dave Free and Kendrick Lamar, “We Cry Together” (the film) premiered in a limited, week-long run (one screening per day, with phones collected in advance) at the Laemmle Royal Theater in West Los Angeles in June. Since then, it has qualified for Oscar consideration in the best live-action short category.
Taylour Paige spoke to THR about the creative processes behind making the tandem song and short film, Los Angeles as a setting and how the artistic collaboration came about because, Paige says, “on a spiritual level, our souls are just from the same planet.”
What is it about “We Cry Together” that demanded a short film treatment in your opinion, as opposed to being a music video in the more traditional sense? What feels cinematic about this song?
I think beyond being a short film, it’s an experience; you’re like a voyeur in this couple’s life but it also reflects what the world sounds like. Whether it be arguing with your sibling or people on the internet … I don’t think there’s a container for it, it just is.
How many takes of this did you ultimately do? Were you moving through each reset rapidly to maintain the rawness, or was the process more calculated and drawn out?
I think we did like eight takes. I don’t think anything can feel drawn out when you’re with Kendrick, Jake, Dave. We were just so in the pocket. And we knew what we were doing.
Kendrick and I just have a really great understanding of each other. Like, he’s so committed to the truth, and so am I. I just feel like there’s so much freedom in that. We had recorded the song before [filming], in February 2020; there’s something really vulnerable and intimate and honest about being in a studio with the person who wrote it. So by the time we were together to shoot it, there was a level of comfortability and an energy that felt like we’re onto something here. There was just this knowing.
Music is a frequency, and the way you shift through various moods in the song — especially in one take — sounds like you’re alchemizing anger and trauma into sex and passion, and all these different things. That’s something that really struck me about the album in general, but especially this track and now this short film. As an actor and performer, what was it like for you to have to move through those myriad feelings in the span of six minutes?
So liberating. Again, the people that are for me are the mad ones, the ones committed to truth-telling and presence, and honesty. Honesty doesn’t always look pretty, and it doesn’t always look perfect.
I think I was drawing from personal experiences in relationships, but also my experience with the world and how frustrating it is. Like, what is going on here? What are we doing? What are we talking about? What are we prioritizing? We don’t relate to each other, we can’t really hear each other. It’s just hysteria. I feel like on the day [of the shoot] I was like, ‘Please God use me as a vessel to just let all of that come through because I feel like we’re all at capacity.’ This was over two years ago when we were all kind of scratching our heads about the world we’re living in. And now, even two years later, I think we’re at our breaking point even more.
Kendrick does a beautiful job at using his spirit and his personal experiences to maybe metabolize what’s been calcified in his life, but also your inner world and outer world.
The backdrop of the looming pandemic lockdown makes this all the more poignant because this short film is set in the architecture of a home. And that’s where we were quarantining, with all of these pressures and emotions bubbling up.
All of it coming to the surface. I was excited at the top of quarantine because I was like, ‘Cool. The entire world has to reflect at the same time. We can’t outrun ourselves; we’re not even allowed to. Maybe there’ll be some healing, maybe we’re getting a reset.’
But what’s funny is this all happened before the world was even shut down. For someone like Kendrick, who is an alchemist, a psychic, a vessel — he doesn’t breathe or think or share linearly. [So these themes] are then, now, in the future. It’s not even really for your brain to internalize, it’s to be felt. It’s the spirit of it.
Thinking back to your time in the studio, did these lyrics you were given feel like a script? What was it like stepping into the role of a “rapper?”
Our mutual friend who invited me to the project was very cryptic; I was just told I had a rehearsal, so I think I’m going to do a music video. When I got there we sat at a table and Kendrick said we’re going to record a song tonight, and then we’re going to shoot a video live in one take [soon after].
I’m looking at the lyrics and we kind of just start going bar for bar. Anything that felt a little weird out of my mouth, we kind of switched it up: adding ad-libs, chatting about human relationships, our existence, ego, spiritual healing. I think I got there at 6 p.m. and we were in the studio until four in the morning with his engineer, just bouncing off the walls because there was so much energy, and it was so exciting.
Are there any moments in particular that you and Kendrick talked about really playing up and emphasizing during rehearsals? Did you choose certain elements to punch up or depict in a certain way to send a message?
I don’t remember in particular but he’s such a feeler so allowed us to kind of find [those moments]. As much as we rehearsed on the day of the shoot, it was more about the blocking so we had the freedom to do whatever came up. I found that I was very emotional — very angry and then almost apathetic.
Do you feel like filming with the live audio on set helped you stay in the world of the song? How did that shift the experience for you?
Yeah, because it’s real and it’s life and I live to treat life like art. Since it was live, we got to remain flexible. I wasn’t trying to do what I did the last take, I really had the freedom to just see what happened.
You and Kendrick both seem like very intuitive artists and performers. That being said, did you trade any tangible lessons about acting and rapping with each other?
It felt like it was really natural only because — I keep saying this and it sounds so cheesy — but I believe that there’s so much freedom in being honest, so when you’re in your art, [it’s just real].
How is the release of this film pushing the narrative of the whole album and its rollout forward?
It’s performance art. I think for me personally, you hope the art you put out reflects the world we live in. In the same way that, to me, a good healer is someone that helps you remember the tools you already have within to heal yourself, I hope when you’re watching it, you’re thinking about your relationships, how you show up, how you talk to someone.
It’s been two and a half years [since we filmed] now. But even then I knew it was special and it would resonate for so many. I know the way that I felt while I was doing it like this is validating because all I have to do is show up as me and be real.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.