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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

On "Love Rears Its Ugly Head," its opening sample, and the reading they provide together

A standout track of the early 90s is even more intriguing when one applies the context of its introduction to the rest of the track.

The art of sampling fascinates me. I've already touched on multiple facets of the practice on this blog: I briefly mentioned Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" being a popular hip-hop sample source in my inaugural post; I discussed sampling in house music when breaking down Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande's "Rain On Me," which features a replaying of its own; and I wrote about the track-long samples that defined the sound of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" and Alessia Cara's "Here."

When I looked back at those articles this morning, I found it difficult to come up with other ways to talk about sampling. Then in the evening, I listened again to the song I'd selected for today's post — Living Colour's "Love Rears Its Ugly Head" — and another portal in the sampling multiverse opened up.

I had chosen "Love Rears Its Ugly Head," from Living Colour's 1991 album Time's Up, as my Senior Year Soundtrack entry in the mid-afternoon, when it came into my head as I was walking through campus. I first heard the song a number of years ago, and I was instantly drawn to its funky coolness — to me, it was and still is peak funk-rock. Vernon Reid's slightly biting guitar chords and Muzz Skillings' slinky bass introduce an infectious, slow yet intense groove, and Will Calhoun lays down a rock-solid drum pattern to tie the rhythm section together. Corey Glover's blues-tinged vocals relay his narrator's complete captivation by their partner, which are interrupted by a Skillings drum fill and a shift to an unmistakably heavy metal chorus that laments this falling head-over-heels: "Oh no, please not that again / Love rears up its ugly head." Glover's remark in the bridge that "you never know where love is gonna go" only strengthens the despair of which he sings in the chorus.

Up until today, I'd always found the song's shift in outlook on love as odd, especially with the narrator describing a dream about marrying their current partner as a "nightmare" and waking from it "in a pool of sweat." I first thought I'd leave that question unanswered in today's post until I took another listen and finally considered the effect of its opening sample. Now, I can't hear the song the same way again. Go back and listen to the opening again before reading on.

You've done that?

Awesome. Let's keep going.

"Love Rears Its Ugly Head" opens with a sweeping string sample, tinted by bongos that add a mysterious air in their fading in and out. I'd always thought the opening had sounded familiar, but for some reason I hadn't looked up its source until a few years ago. When I finally did look it up on the amazing resource that is, my suspicions were confirmed: I had most definitely heard it before as the introduction to Nat King Cole's take on Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." (Living Colour moved the opening down a full step to match the key of their own song).

A captivating jazz standard with adventurous chord changes, "Lush Life" presents its narrator reminiscing on the sadder way they view their world and night life after a romantic failure... which Strayhorn somehow wrote about so beautifully and maturely at just age sixteen. While the narrator previously enjoyed spending time in "[t]hose come-what-may places / Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life" — what a flowing description of bars and nightclubs; take a bow, Billy — they find those places lonely in the wake of heartbreak. Shunning romance as "mush / Stifling those who strive," they vow to live life alone, but their outlook remains discolored by what they've lost.

The "Lush Life" sample is never heard again throughout "Love Rears Its Ugly Head," but its impact can be felt on the rest of the track. The former is a tale of attempting to come to terms with heartbreak and misunderstanding; the latter presents how that heartbreak could come about. It almost feels like, by utilizing the sample, Living Colour created an immediate prequel to "Lush Life," presenting a profoundly deep love gone wrong. The first two verses of "Love Rears Its Ugly Head" present the intensification of said infatuation, to the point that the narrator doesn't go out at all despite their love not objecting to them doing so. It seems that Glover's protagonist, who "always played the fool," has become so blinded by their feelings of love that they've dug themselves in too deep; to me, it sounds like the narrator has always been more in love with their partner than the other way around. When viewed in conjunction with "Lush Life," it raises the question of whether love was truly reciprocated at all, as Cole sings in its bridge:

I thought for a while that your poignant smile
Was tinged with the sadness
Of a great love for me
Ah yes, I was wrong
Again I was wrong

Easily the most painful part of that bridge is the last line, implying that Strayhorn's protagonist had been burned in such a way before, but was unable to learn from their past errors.

Back in "Love Rears Its Ugly Head," we note that Glover's lyrics in the first verse suggested a shift in the relationship: "Now something's different, I don't know the reason why / Whenever we separate, I almost want to cry." That shift seems to be the beginning of the end; through the wedding "nightmare" in the third verse, he realizes that he isn't receiving the genuine, deep love he's been giving to his partner. The whiplash from that dream is intense, and it only solidifies the narrator's downtrodden feelings about love.

As he thinks back on the signs he clearly missed, he laments that love's "ugly head" blinded him. He now pines for a time when he was more innocent and not preoccupied with a doomed relationship, when, as Strayhorn wrote, "all the very gay places / Those come-what-may places" felt so much more inviting. In the aftermath of the romantic falling-out, "[l]ife is lonely again / And only last year / Everything seemed so sure." At least he takes solace in not being alone in this feeling and fate, knowing that where he drowns his sorrows, he'll "rot / With the rest of those whose lives are lonely too."

With just a thirteen-second opening sample, "Love Rears Its Ugly Head" becomes inseparable from "Lush Life." The particular use of the "Lush Life" introduction as the sample invites my above reading, which demonstrates that the two tracks together demonstrate the progression of falling out of love and coping with the aftermath. My reading is a venturesome one, but it's an interpretation in which I'm very much invested as I demonstrate the effect that a sample can have in connecting pieces across boundaries of time and genre.


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