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Kendrick Lamar and the Future of Hip-Hop

Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly has graced the current hip-hop genre with the most potent political messages since the founding of the genre – particularly hearkening back to groups such as N.W.A. and Public Enemy. Lamar’s work is rooted in the African American narrative – adding his own flair and style, of course. This echoes the narrative from the time that N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton. First, I will provide a preliminary review of some of album’s track titles, to discuss the kinds of words Lamar uses for the names of each song, and try to ascertain the reasons and/or influences that helped create those track titles.

Some of the titles are stories in themselves: ‘Institutionalized’, ‘Hood Politics’, ‘How Much a Dollar Cost’, and ‘The Blacker the Berry’. Each title is emblematic of the elements that Lamar understands as essential to hip-hop. ‘Institutionalized’ paints a picture of Lamar grasping at the pain of being subjugated, suppressed, and experiencing discrimination. ‘Hood Politics’ evokes the images that hearken back to N.W.A.’s visceral images of ‘the streets’ and their impact on the African American experience, as Lamar also grew up in Compton. ‘How Much a Dollar Cost’ derives from the differences in wages for African Americans as compared to whites. ‘The Blacker the Berry’ portrays African Americans as a subjugated community that must form a new, positive narrative.

Three songs from this album – ‘Hood Politics’, ‘The Blacker the Berry’, and ‘Mortal Man’ – illustrate the strong connection of the African American narrative to politics that Kendrick seeks to address. Although other songs also exemplify this connection to politics in their own particular way, these songs serve as case studies for the album as a whole.

The first two lines of the first verse in ‘Hood Politics’ speaks to the internal struggle that Lamar has as a well-known rapper from Compton: how to handle the varying issues from his community as well as the strain of trying to produce music that is contingent upon his stardom and is critically appealing. “I don’t give a fuck about no politics in rap, my nigga / My lil homie Stunna Deuce ain’t never comin’ back, my nigga”. The African American narrative is plagued by the reality of friends and family getting killed – whether it has to do with institutional violence or gang violence:

Kendrick’s political vision is deeply shaped by his upbringing in Compton, and by a deep skepticism about leaders and power. He is filled with righteous passion, but he refused to glorify violence and mistrusts all leaders – even himself … He has seen the human costs of violence in Compton and doesn’t want any more dead bodies on his conscience. As he raps in the key track “Hood Politics,” “I don’t give a f— about no politics in rap, my n— / my lil homie Stunna Deuce ain’t never comin’ back.”[1]

As Kendrick’s political view is formed and shaped – through his upbringing, and rise to stardom – this album allows him to explore these thoughts broadly, and for a mass audience — a particularly important objective of Kendrick’s music.

As noted above, violence is a consistent subject matter throughout the hip-hop narrative, as is illustrated by the strong connection with ‘Fuck Tha Police’ almost 30 years earlier. The political context of violence plays a pivotal role in the narrative that embodies the genre. Rappers and musicians point out various flaws in the government – whether it be laws, police brutality, institutional racism, or anything in between. These issues, while prevalent in some other genres, are the essential elements within hip-hop that define the genre.

Later in the song, Kendrick confronts the hypocrisy of the government – creating parallels between diplomatic parties and gangs: “They tell me it’s a new gang in town / From Compton to Congress / Set trippin’ all around / Ain’t nothin’ but a new flu of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans / Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?” Lamar’s lyrics are a calling to account of those who have power – noting their complicity in injustice and his disdain for their authority.

‘The Blacker the Berry’ track is more of a harsh, aggressive-sounding song – perhaps reflecting some of the original ‘gangsta rap’ that came out of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton:

“The Blacker the Berry” was the confrontational opposite of a palate cleanser, invigorating and raw, but its reference to black-on-black crime came in for political scrutiny, along with earlier comments Mr. Lamar made to Billboard about the killing of Michael Brown. That shooting of an unarmed teenager by a police officer “never should’ve happened,” he said. “When we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?”[2]

While this statement sheds light on how Lamar views violence – specifically black-on-black violence – it also points to Lamar’s internal controversy over how to get a message across that is both positive for black youth, as well as illustrating the significant issues and turmoil that surround his community in Compton, as well as the African American community more generally.

It’s a shocking line … it at first comes across like an attempt to invalidate complaints about police aggression in Ferguson and elsewhere by raising the issue of “black-on-black crime.” … Today, Stereo Williams writes at The Daily Beast that it’s a ‘great song” that’s “derailed by a misguided intention … If there is a hypocrisy, doesn’t it fall on those who would use gang violence to silence public outrage against oppression while ignoring the fact that the gang violence is also a product of that same racist oppression?” … Complex’s Justin Charity hears Lamar as “wondering whether police brutality and gang violence aren’t overlapping tragedies.” And at Genius.com, Michael Chabon … suggests that the final couplet makes listeners “consider the possibility that ‘hypocrisy’ is, in certain situations, a much more complicated moral position than is generally allowed, and perhaps an inevitable one.”[3]

Kendrick’s words at the end of this song stirred quite a controversy, especially because of current events during the time of the album’s release (Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, OKC frat, etc.). These views reflect Kendrick’s upbringing in Compton, and his struggles with maintaining a celebrity status while knowing that there are systemic societal problems at play that he feels are necessary to rap about and expose. The narrative that Lamar describes in this song is his, and his alone – contrasting the dualities of his own narrative with the African American experience as a whole. This duality is illustrated in the first verse of this heavy-sounding song:

I’m African-American, I’m African

I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village

Pardon my residence

Came from the bottom of mankind

My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide

You hate me don’t you?

You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture

You’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey

You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me

Lamar wants to highlight the ways in which societal norms portray African Americans – and the discursive nature of said portrayal. For decades, African Americans have suffered racial discrimination, prejudice, subjugation and suppression, and it has continued to this day. Kendrick’s description “Came from the bottom of mankind” describes the hard-fought journey that African Americans have taken in pursuit of equality — a fight that continues even in 2015, more than 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Finally, ‘Mortal Man’ was developed after Lamar’s trip to South Africa, where he visited the cell Nelson Mandela’s occupied during his more than 30 years in prison, for fighting against apartheid. A number of different leaders are referenced in this song, including Moses, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. Kendrick discusses his hopes of becoming a Mandela-like leader, striving for positive sociopolitical change. Towards the end of the song, Lamar has a posthumous interview with Tupac Shakur, and they discuss still prevalent issues such as black culture and racism, as well as fame and image.

Kendrick chooses this extended “conversation” with Tupac as a way of resurrecting his dead predecessor and calling upon his memory to change the narrative. Tupac’s influence on the genre extended well beyond the African American community as Hughes notes:

[Republic Senator Marco] Rubio said that he was not condoning the violence in Tupac’s music and gangsta rap, but that he views the music as a mirror of American society. “I think Tupac’s lyrics were more insightful … in some ways, rappers are like reporters. In particular, at that time, from the West Coast, it was a lot of reporting what life was like … so the ‘90s was a time when this was really pronounced. You had gang wars, racial tension, and they were reporting on that,” he said … Jay-Z has also come under criticism for his lyrics … [but] Jay-Z says that … he is not advocating a certain lifestyle, but providing a window into a part of America that many don’t see … President Obama has often said that he and Jay-Z … have led “parallel lives,” achieving success in America despite early struggles with absentee fathers and poverty.[4]

‘Mortal Man’ is the last song on the album, and Lamar’s way of illustrating the importance of his fame as an African American leader, who seeks to positively influence his audience in a way that will stir social and political change. He notes how he is able to ‘Pimp’ himself in a positive light for a mass audience while illustrating and uncovering the various issues that need changing with the African American community.

 

[Kendrick Lamar:]

Would you consider yourself a fighter at heart or somebody that only reacts when they back is against the wall?

[2Pac:]

I like to think that at every opportunity I’ve ever been threatened with resistance it’s been met with resistance. And not only me but it goes down my family tree. You know what I’m saying, it’s in my veins to fight back

[Kendrick Lamar:]

Aight well, how long you think it take before niggas be like, we fighting a war, I’m fighting a war I can’t win and I wanna lay it all down

[2Pac:]

In this country a black man only have like 5 years we can exhibit maximum strength, and that’s right now while you a teenager, while you still strong or while you still wanna lift weights, while you still wanna shoot back. Cause once you turn 30 it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man, out of a black man in this country. And you don’t wanna fight no more. And if you don’t believe me you can look around, you don’t see no loud mouth 30-year old muthafuckas

[Kendrick Lamar:]

That’s crazy, because me being one of your offspring of the legacy you left behind I can truly tell you that there’s nothing but turmoil goin’ on so I wanted to ask you what you think is the future for me and my generation today?

[2Pac:]

Shit, I think that niggas is tired-a grabbin’ shit out the stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be bloodshed for real. I don’t think America can know that. I think American think we was just playing and it’s gonna be some more playing but it ain’t gonna be no playing. It’s gonna be murder, you know what I’m saying, it’s gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831, up in this muthafucka. You know what I’m saying, it’s gonna happen

[Kendrick Lamar:]

That’s crazy man. In my opinion, only hope that we kinda have left is music and vibrations, lotta people don’t understand how important it is. Sometimes I be like, get behind a mic and I don’t know what type of energy I’mma push out, or where it comes from. Trip me out sometimes

[2Pac:]

Because the spirits, we ain’t really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us

I will unpack this dialogue between Tupac and Kendrick question by question. Kendrick asks about how Tupac feels (whether he’s a fighter or only reacts when against a wall), to which Tupac responds “every opportunity I’ve ever been threatened with resistance, it’s been met with resistance”. This demonstrates the reaction Tupac considers to be a constant – perhaps an explanation of the way in which some African Americans perceive resistance – that they should always fight back with their own resistance. When Kendrick asks about his future and that of his generation, Tupac’s response (coming from a recorded interview in 1994) is an exact reproduction of the current events going on in Baltimore, Maryland after Freddie Gray was killed by police officers: “next time there’s a riot there’s gonna be bloodshed for real”. This, along with the rest of the posthumous interview Kendrick conducts with Tupac, is the epitome of the African American experience – back when Tupac was talking about it, and even now – as the prejudice, discrimination, and subjugation has yet to positively change.

Tupac’s words in these lyrics serve as a ‘mirror of American society’ and ‘reporting what like what like’ – is an emblematic element of hip-hop that has remained over the years. Kendrick gives voice to the established narrative and pushes further, seeking solace in the music and seeking to avoid the cycle of violence that surrounds the African American narrative. In validating the old and seeking new approaches, Lamar revitalizes hip-hop as a form of sociopolitically conscious rap.

The current events that surround To Pimp a Butterfly cannot be understated, as events such as the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray reflect the tragic reality of the African American community and the persistent stain on our society. When this project began, I was aware of the origins of the genre and somewhat cognizant of the trajectory of hip-hop from a narrative of suffering and injustice to a narrative that was struggling with the self-indulgence of some of its stars, preoccupied with consumerism. Recent events have served to sharpen my interest in whether and how the genre can escape from its moorings of subjugation and despair, and somehow begin to embrace a narrative of hope. Lamar’s album, and his reflections on his music and his role, provide a new model for hip-hop, one that I hope will encourage others to embrace hope while never abandoning the realities and the needs of the African American community.

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If you would like to re-read or explore the other sections again, here are the different links: Introduction; A Look Back; and Extending the Message.

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[1] Lynch, “The political theory of Kendrick Lamar.”

[2] Coscarelli, “Kendrick Lamar on His New Album and the Weight of Clarity.”

[3] Kornhaber, “Kendrick Lamar Is Not a Hypocrite.”

[4] Hughes, “Hip-Hop in Politics: What a Difference a Generation Makes.”

(For a full reference list, see the Bibliography)