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A short bit on the mythos of Kendrick Lamar.
Hi folks. So this might be a bit of a surprise, seeing as how I just published a deep dive full of data recently. But I realized I had a little something in my drafts that, when I first wrote, I was not sure if I wanted to publish. Kendrick Lamar released an album this year. And while I loved it and I think it’s one of the best albums of the past 5 years and everything else that comes with being a Kendrick joint, it’s given me a lot of food for thought that might also be critical of him.
So I think it’s a good time to talk about what he’s done in the last 10 or so years. Mostly this year. And what that means for his (insane) legacy. Ever since 2017, he’s been a part of my life I can never forgo. The piece will not accompany his latest album, but instead: a curated playlist from me that contains my favorite tracks by him. This is also an INCREDIBLY short piece by my standards, and frankly, an excellent exercise on structuring and crisp writing for me. Happy reading :)
I have a confession. I used to have a WordPress back in high school.
I am not sure if you can find it, but I’m certainly not going to shoot myself in the foot by handing it to you on a platter. I don’t even remember what I named the blog. Every high-schooler’s WordPress blog is a very fancy name that they think only they get. Musings of a Musketeer, Momentous Oblivion, Hallowed Portal. You get the gist. It was a very corny time to live life in.
Anyway, as part of my WordPress blog, I wrote, sigh, poems. I prefer never going back to those writings, because they’re terrible. When I was 17, I used to think that my poems were a cut above the “standard crowd” because of how I made them rhyme, and inserted the occasional double entendre. And where do you think that hubris came from?
17 was, in general, a very coming-of-age age for me. I discovered this dude called Kendrick Lamar. Two first names, huh? The fuck is up with that? He released some album called DAMN, all caps. I thought that was pretty cool, but this was effectively going to be my introduction to his repertoire. In general, it was going to be the start of a journey called being a hip-hop head.
And then my entire life changed when I played DNA.
Since then, I have devoured his music. My attention span for listening to albums in whole is pretty bad, but Kendrick was a huge exception to that. If there was so much as a single where he was a feature artist, I grabbed the nearest pair of headphones. He became an important lens into American politics and society for me — thoughts, opinions and ideals that also eventually helped me process my opinions about India. He had an enviable way or thinking and writing that helped keep a random Indian high-schooler’s WordPress afloat. I doubt I would have written as much as I did back then if it weren’t for listening to him. I owe much of my writing to him.
And now that I’ve had time to think about it and remove any potential of recency bias — his latest, Mr Morale and The Big Steppers, came 1885 days after DAMN. As I listened to his album, one thing was clear. It was the deepest recess of his CoVID-era diary entry. A lot of people say that the political is personal — a statement that I believe in. Listening to Kendrick’s work in the last 10 years is like looking at a shift from talking about the flaws of society, to talking about the flaws of the self. And how those two are interlinked. And what it takes to not shirk away from being responsible for your own mistakes.
You know how college kids enter college all feisty, having lofty ideals about the world and what’s right and wrong about it? At least at the start of that phase, they never know how to balance it with individual empathy. For most of us, it was just another way to display intellectual superiority, instead of genuine feeling for your fellow human being. But as they grow into seniors, they grow mellower, more introspective, more self-aware of the idea that for quite a while, their opinions were only ever used in debates and not self-debates. They realize that many of their mistakes — small, big, honest, dishonest, conscious, subconscious — were not in line with their own ideals. Only later they realize that political words are meant to as behavioral as they are verbal. Something I guess I’ve been through (and still am in many ways), and I’m sure many others I know also are.
One of my favorite shows of all time is Mr Robot. The show (which at one point was on Amazon Prime) was widely advertised with the tagline “Fuck society”. The first season of the show was all about one man trying to reset order by taking down a fictional behemoth tech giant, while also battling some very personal demons. Most of us might remember the first season because of this very popular monologue known by a two-word phrase:
"Oh I don't know, is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children? Or maybe it's that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit; the world itself's just one big hoax. Spamming each other with our burning commentary of bullshit masquerading as insight, our social media faking as intimacy. Or is it that we voted for this? Not with our rigged elections, but with our things, our property, our money.
I'm not saying anything new. We all know why we do this, not because Hunger Games books makes us happy but because we wanna be sedated. Because it's painful not to pretend, because we're cowards."
By the third season, though, you find out that these personal demons are not very benevolent when it comes to how that one man thinks. To the point where he realizes that by virtue of what he pulled off because of his "fuck society” vision, he probably worsened society itself. This is a spoiler-free zone, and in my opinion, a better monologue than the one above:
“I didn’t start a revolution. I just made us docile enough for our slaughtering. I can stand here and blame Evil Corp and every conglomerate out there for taking advantage of us, and I can blame the FBI, NSA and CIA for letting them get away with it, blame all the world leaders for aiding and abetting them, and blame Adam Smith for inventing modern day capitalism in the first fucking place, and blame money for dividing us, and blame us for letting it — but none of that’s true. The truth is, I’m the one to blame. I’m the problem. This was my fault. All of it. I did this. Fuck me.”
The evolution of Kendrick’s discography feels eerily similar. He started by rapping about his neighborhood, and all the factors that influence the constant cycle of death around him. He criticizes the American state machinery that flooded his streets with guns and cocaine. He talks about feeling the need to take up violence against the state as someone who’s oppressed, evoking emotions similar to that from greats like NWA and 2Pac — his spiritual (or real, in case of Dr Dre) mentors. He expertly deconstructed how every level of American society has suppressed Afro-Americans. All the while telling us stories from the hood of how he’s been driven for most of his life by grief and revenge.
But he has also not been extremely vocal about his personal life. Fans have to dig through the tiniest snippets of tabloids just to see a spotting of him. In all seriousness, though, that’s generally a good thing. Kendrick came to hip-hop with a unique way of being honest. He never sugarcoated anything, and he had songs that hoodwinked you by the end and it would take you more than a few listens to realize how he did it so subtly. His bluntness was one that other rappers of his age reciprocated: Tyler The Creator, Vince Staples, Earl Sweatshirt, to name a few. But Kendrick carried the torch passed on by the grand old men of West Coast rap.
Section 80 was about telling stories of his friends who were sucked into the hard life of living in Compton. Good Kid/M.A.A.D City was about how Compton shaped Kendrick’s most important years in life, and his relation to his home after everything that has transpired. To Pimp A Butterfly was a radical look at the need to organize his race as one, and take over America — sometimes by force, if need be. In DAMN, he spoke about death, love, loyalty, pride, and faith. He seemed in control of his feelings about those abstract concepts. However, it always felt like there was more he wanted to tell us, but he wasn’t ready yet.
Not in Mr Morale and The Big Steppers. It’s very clear after listening to this album why he took 5 years to make it. It was evident what he didn’t tell us in DAMN. He struggled with being a hypocrite, issues by virtue of his lineage, his supposed falling out (and possible infidelity) with his fiance, materialism as a cure for all else, a feeling of general emptiness, and acceptance that he might need therapy. It’s as if he decided to look at himself in the mirror and confront himself about all his flaws. CoVID probably didn’t make it any easier for him to do this either. Not while he is raising a child, anyway. Certainly not while he’s expecting a second.
Because how can he expect himself to be a good father when he still hasn’t gotten over the problems his own dad passed on to him? He ties this back all the way to the fact that black men were always forced to suffer. He knows it’s no excuse, because he still has no right to cause hurt to others because of his own. While this is a message that has featured heavily in his other albums, they always seemed to focus on the finality of life. That this trauma causes death. Hurt is different. You have to force yourself to live through it, or cope with it.
“I come from a generation of home invasions and I got daddy issues, that's on me
Everything them four walls had taught me, made habits bury deep
That man knew a lot, but not enough to keep me past them streets
My life is a plot, twisted from directions that I can't see”
(TW: mentions of sexual assault follow)
Which makes it imperative for him to escape that generational trauma, by hook or by crook. He’s fighting with himself on whether he needs therapy, and makes sure us listeners hear that internal battle. He questions if he was once touched inappropriately as a kid. He recalls when his mother was sexually assaulted. He’s telling the grown men he knows to stop asking to be mommy-ed by the important women in their lives. He wonders why he’s been flexing his masculinity all his life, when he could have just been open.
And because he wants to stretch how far he can go with this line of thinking, he wonders if R Kelly would have been such a monster if he himself didn’t have a history of sexual assault. In the lead up to the album — The Heart Part 5 —he ponders about Will Smith’s slap, Kanye West’s bipolar disorder, OJ Simpson’s entire legacy. He’s doing all of this without letting them off the hook for their actions. All people that he, as a black man in America, once looked up to for becoming successful in a world that’s unfairly designed to be hard for his people. He’s done it before:
But not as deeply inward as he’s done in this album. He asks, “Why us?” But where he used to ask this of external oppressors in his earlier work, he is now asking this in a moment of self-reflection. In the track “Savior”, he says:
He’s not. He can’t be one, either. The voice of God isn’t God himself, and even if it were, God has been for long floating in his own head in his own hubris. He’s telling you that he thinks cancel culture has gone too far. Back in 2018, he threatened to remove his music from Spotify if they took out music from abusers like R Kelly and XXXTentacion. His argument for that might have been more to do with censorship than anything else. But more extremely, he believes that it’s okay to give Kodak Black — a rapper with a history from some years ago of serving time for sexual assault, battery, gun charges — a chance at reformation by featuring him in the album. And I (and a lot of other people) can’t agree with a contradiction like this, but Kendrick doesn’t want to make that peace for you.
Kendrick is right and wrong. All black people can’t (and shouldn’t) have the same thoughts, so the moment there’s a non-progressive black person, the solidarity goes out of the window. But using Kodak Black as a vehicle to convey the same is….not a great idea. Does Kendrick acknowledge Kodak’s history of sexual assault in other tracks in the album? Yes.
Does he do them adequately? No.
Does this self-awareness make this album better? Not in the least, but Kendrick seems more than okay calling this a situation of “agree to disagree”. And it’s because he genuinely thinks forgiveness is the best way to allow society to transform into a better version of itself — to the point where he’s okay with forgiving whoever his killer might be. While that’s not how reparations work for everyone, Kendrick is genuinely (mis)guided by this belief. And it’s not the best (or fair) because there are people who’ve been victims of assault who are also fans of Kendrick’s material. In a way, the message for them is also to accept that he does believe in this sort of reformation.
The album has left nothing spared in terms of painting Kendrick Lamar as a man of vulnerabilities and weaknesses, forcing him to look inward. It’s a journey from fearing dying, to fearing killing, to being unafraid of dying because his work will be immortal. It’s about setting an example for future generations to not repeat the same mistakes their fore-people did, while continuing to being all banger. I’ve felt like I’ve always grown with his music, and it’s no different with this album either. It’s a different kind of growth this time around, because it’s less about the mind and more about the soul.
And I’m 100% sure he’s going to send a lot of dudes to therapy because of this magical album. But now that we have met the Kendrick Lamar who has made questionable decisions, both personally and artistically, it’s a call for us to go above and beyond. To balance vulnerability with a firmness for ideals.
To truly define what we understand as growth.
Edit: I made a typo while saying that Kendrick threatened to remove his music from Spotify if the platform did not de-platform XXXTentacion and R Kelly. It’s really the other way round — if they did de-platform such artists, Kendrick would have pulled his discography.