Compton-born Kendrick Lamar is currently the talk of the town right now, having just released his fifth studio album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, following a four year hiatus and a five year gap from his last album, making it one of his most anticipated projects till date. Many have heard his name from his lead single “HUMBLE.” or “All The Stars” from Black Panther, but what differentiates him from the rest of the rap and hip-hop industry is his incessant passion, captivating voice and the intertwining of different genres like jazz and rap. Lamar possesses an immediately-recognizable flow and technique, which has led to an ever growing fanbase over the past decade.
Regarded as one of the greatest and most influential rappers of all time, Kendrick Lamar is one of the few from his field whose works are both critically acclaimed and mainstream. Lamar, on numerous occasions, has been hailed as the voice of Black America through his dense and bruising lyricism. He has influenced hip-hop and Black culture indefinitely by encapsulating the Black experience in the United States. Like Jay-Z, Nas, Tupac, and other pioneers of rap, Kendrick grew up in a high-crime and poverty-stricken environment. Having been blessed with an aptitude for writing rhymes and poems at a young age, he turned to rap as a way to cope with the issues surrounding him. At 16, Lamar signed his first contract with record label Top Dawg Entertainment.
Rap music is typically associated with profanity, violent themes, substance abuse, and objectification of women. However, the history of hip-hop and its popularity has also positioned itself as a platform for political commentary and resistance — the prime reason as to why the genre came about in the first place. The songwriter, despite facing extensive criticism over his commentary on social issues, does not take his influence for granted and has embedded deep political overtones in some of his songs, while being outright politically charged in others — including, but not limited to, racial and socio-economic discrimination, stereotypes, gun violence, and oppressive conditions. Lamar has used his platform to spread his story, his message— the Black rhetoric— to the Black community in ways they never knew they needed, which has also impacted others’ perspectives on their struggles.
Kendrick’s first critically acclaimed album,Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, tells the autobiographical story of “K.Dot,” a teen in Compton battling the harsh reality of living in the ghetto. Although the story is not chronological, the project has been praised as a cohesive body of work that narrates Lamar’s childhood surrounded by police brutality, gang violence, and drug addiction. Kendrick targets racial stereotypes and structural oppression and injustice through his own personal experiences. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City marked the first time the rapper was able to balance a heavy narrative with commercial appeal. He manages to do this by evoking empathy and sheer excitement through his lyricism, versatility, catchiness and focus while ensuring that music production is of top-quality. The album has been analyzed countless times to the point where it has even warranted a collegiate course at Georgia Regents University.
To Pimp a Butterfly is said to be more lyrically sophisticated and layered than Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. It is not a narrative of the struggling Compton boy anymore, rather, it is of an older K.Dot — one that reflects on racial institutionalism, materialism and self-love among others. The album name nods to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and has been interpreted as a metaphor for the literal pimping of something or someone as beautiful and free as a butterfly. Despite being said to be sonically inferior to Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, To Pimp a Butterfly boasts the highest score on Metacritic’s list of top rap albums – claiming that the album masterfully targets chosen demographics. The album, released during a time of renewed Black activism, has become symbolic of the Black Lives Matter movement, with “Alright,” a joyous protest song celebrating black pride, serving as an unofficial anthem.
Lamar shows his growth in maturity, self-worth and lyricism in DAMN. and unpacks the same issues discussed in To Pimp a Butterfly in greater depth, interweaving more prominent themes of religion through its many theological references. For instance, in ‘YAH.’ Kendrick says:
“I'm a Israelite, don't call me black no mo'
That word is only a color, it ain't facts no mo'
“My cousin called, my cousin Carl Duckworth
Said know my worth
And Deuteronomy say that we all been cursed”
Above is a reference to the Book of Deuteronomy, specifically Deuteronomy 28:45, which states “All these curses will come on you. They will pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed, because you did not obey the Lord and your God and observe the commands and decrees he gave you.” The album is as, if not more layered than his previous albums, with each verse of each track holding significant implications and interpretations, crafted with clear intent. For example, in the aforementioned verse, Kendrick identifies himself with the Hebrew Israelites— people of color who believe they are descendants of Jacob and the lost tribes of Israel. He believes he will be cursed for his Israelite heritage and cites his call with Carl Duckworth, his cousin, in another track “FEAR.,” where he states that he will be punished for his iniquities. In addition, he conflates “called” with his cousin’s name “Carl—” to better flow with his cadence.
DAMN. was the biggest-selling hip-hop album of 2017. It is also the first album outside of jazz or classical to win the prestigious 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music. According to Pulitzer, the album is “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” Personally, although I have never experienced the reality of the African-American life, I have come to understand the struggles of the modern Black American with an enormous level of respect and appreciation, all the while jamming to the series of hits in the tracklist.
Recently, the multi-platinum, Grammy-winning artist produced the soundtrack for Black Panther in 2018. Considering the blockbuster film focused on a number of social and political issues dominating the United States, Lamar and other notable hip hop artists who came from similar backgrounds were able to call attention to current political issues through their music. Although the political issues in the film are fictional, they parallel many of the real-world problems, particularly in the States. For instance, in the title song “Black Panther,” the second verse states the following:
“Ashes I'm dumpin' out, 'bout to spread all 'cross seas
Sisters and brothers in unison, not because of me
Because we don't glue with the opposition, we glue with peace”
Here, Lamar voices his feelings around the highly divided political climate and promotes unity and peace instead of violence and oppression. He voices his struggles, having lost his uncle and close friend to gang violence and grandpa to drinking, and makes similarities with T’Challa (Black Panther), who loses his father and a lot of his homeland in the movie.
A few days ago, Kendrick released the fifth installment in his “The Heart” song series as a promotional single to promote his upcoming album. In the song’s music video, Lamar experiments with deepfake technology, morphing his face onto famous Black individuals, namely that of Kanye West, Jussue Smollet, Will Smith, Nipsey Hussle, Kobe Bryant, and O. J. Simpson. The superimposed faces commentate on the Black experience. In parts of the song, Lamar embodies each of the men he morphs into and raps from their perspectives.
When embodying Kanye West, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2016, he says “Friends bipolar, grab you by your pockets,” taking a shot at Kanye’s so-called friends by voicing his feelings on how Kanye is surrounded by opportunists waiting to take advantage of his mental state. Similarly, when Kendrick’s face gets swapped to Nipsey Hussle, a rapper murdered in 2019, he says “To my brother, to my kids, I'm in Heaven,” “To my mother, to my sis, I'm in Heaven,” “To my father, to my wife, I am serious, this is Heaven” – conveying Nipsey’s wishes to his loved ones. He proves through the music video that deepfake technology can be used as artistic expression rather than a tool to misconstrue information.
May 13th marks the day when the rapper released Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, his fifth studio album. I expect to see an evolved perspective of life and deeper meanings and interpretations behind his lyrics, and hear back-to-back chart-toppers throughout the 18-song tracklist.
Throughout it all, Kendrick Lamar has brought a novel take on hip-hop by gracing the genre with strong political messages, rarely seen since its foundation. Showcasing the African-American narrative with his own style has made the world reflect on current global issues and respect the needs of different demographics and communities. It is, without a doubt, clear that the lyrical genius has had a substantial impact in the music industry as well as on Black culture, acting as a role model for listeners and aspirants entering hip-hop.
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