critical appraisal of selected songs connected to issues in current-day American society by Bjorn van Brunschot
Kendrick Lamar Duckworth (1987), best known as Kendrick Lamar, is one of the most admired artists in contemporary hip hop. Since the launch of his debut album, Section .80, the rapper has gained lots of recognition, both in the US and overseas. He has produced three more studio albums since, namely good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012), To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) and DAMN. (2017).
Especially the two latest albums have achieved great critical recognition. A large part of Kendrick’s oeuvre consists, as one may argue, of explicit rap talk and bragging and boasting (e.g. in HUMBLE.). However, Kendrick Lamar does manage to touch the tender spots on American society in other parts of his work. Nevertheless, I personally do not credit Kendrick to be merely a protest rapper. Sillyman (2017, p6) corroborates this idea and claims “To Pimp a Butterfly is not only a political album, and perhaps not even primarily a political album.” I would say Kendrick Lamar touches upon many subjects, which go as far as drugs, women and gangs to gun violence, slavery, divinity and American values. He raps about the place where he grew up in, Compton, near Los Angeles, and also discusses the relationship with his inner persona extensively. Moreover, it should be noted that Kendrick Lamar does not always rap from his own persona, but makes use of fictional characters. However, this has yet led to misconceptions and much criticism, for instance from Fox News anchor Giraldo Rivera, who said that “hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years. This is exactly the wrong message” (O’Connor, 2017).
In this essay, I would like to elaborate on parts of his work, which I find to convey true meaning, and in which Lamar not only wants to make a good or popular song, but attempts to criticise typical American flaws. This paper attempts to appraise the following themes: police brutality and racial profiling, institutionalised racism, black heritage, slavery and American values. I will tend to connect Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics considering these themes to other hip hop artists or authors of black literature, and to evaluate secondary literature on the topics.
Without going into the history of hip hop too deeply, it is evident that Kendrick Lamar is not the first rapper who addresses prominent issues in American society. Probably the first artists who come to my mind, rapping about police brutality and racial profiling are N.W.A. The first verse on one of their most famous songs, Fuck tha Police, refers clearly to these issues in American society and reads: “Fuck the police! Comin’ straight from the underground/A young nigga got it bad ‘cause I’m brown/And not the other color, so police think/They have the authority to kill a minority”. These words unequivocally represent the power police officers have over minorities, simply because of the colour of their skin. Kendrick Lamar, too, discusses police brutality extensively. In Alright (featured on To Pimp a Butterfly) he states: “and we hate po-po/Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho'[…]and my gun might blow”, a line that triggered critical remarks from Fox News (O’Connor, 2017). Funnily enough, Kendrick Lamar decided to embed this critique as a sample in various music videos and fully sample it on BLOOD., the first track of DAMN. Worth mentioning is also the music video behind Alright, an unmistakable objection to this police brutality reigning in the United States. The music video both starts and ends with a police officer shooting a black person, albeit with a movie extra being shot with a real gun in the beginning and Kendrick Lamar, himself, being shot by a police officer, and although the shooting occurs merely with a hand gesture, blood does however spatter out of Kendrick’s body. Throughout the video, people are dancing on police cars. Later, Alright became the unofficial anthem of the #BlackLivesMatter movement (Morawetz, 2017). The chorus reads “Nigga, we’re gon’ be alright”, a line that was used by protesters to condemn police brutality on people of black colour.
Kendrick Lamar not merely describes police brutality and racial profiling, he describes its origin as well. On Institutionalized (featured on To Pimp a Butterlfy) he illustrates the way of thinking is to be ascribed unequivocally to his black background: “I said I’m trapped inside the ghetto/and I ain’t proud to admit it/Institutionalized/I could still kill me a nigga, so what?” From that same perspective, on XXX. (featured on DAMN.) Kendrick raps: “I’ll chip a nigga, then throw the blower in his lap/Walk myself to the court like/”Bitch, I did that!””. It should be noted that Kendrick does not express his own person here, but simply speaks in name of a character. In an interview concerning institutionalism and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Kendrick Lamar later states: “When we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect [white people] to respect us? It starts from within” (Edwards, 2015). In other words, Kendrick is trying to point out that people who live in poverty and hoods, are, themselves, responsible for their own well-being, and cannot simply attribute dreadful situations to institutionalism or unnecessary police brutality. One could argue there is also no peace among black communities, as Kendrick raps: “Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward”. Mos Def (also known as Yasiin Bey) describes institutionalism from a different point of view, in Mathematics, a 1999 song: “A 5-minute sentence hearing and you’re no longer free”. In the rest of the song, Mos Def expresses his utter discontent concerning racial profiling: “And even if you get out of prison still living/Join the other 5 million under state supervision”.
Now, in the song DNA., Kendrick Lamar takes these views a bit further and both praises and criticises black heritage and states that he is shaped by a power play on American values. Kendrick is trying to explain how upbringing and black heritage have been carving his persona. He claims that a certain upbringing and heritage lead to a way of thinking and subsequent actions. People who do not understand this black heritage will probably get offended, he claims: “Shit I’ve been through prolly offend you, […]/I know murder, conviction/burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption/scholars, fathers dead with kids and/I wish I was fed forgiveness/Yeah […] soldier’s DNA.” He wishes forgiveness was part of his upbringing, but is also proud of being black: “I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA […] This is my heritage, all I’m inheritin’/Money and power, the maker of marriages.” Kendrick is not the only one connecting his black heritage to his actions. Public Enemy, for example, stated in Fight the Power, a 1989-song: “People, people we are the same/No we’re not the same/Cause we don’t know the game/What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless/”. People of black heritage need not only be educated to be understood; Public Enemy clearly states that all people are not the same and therefor have other frames of thought.
Kendrick’s black heritage is to be heard throughout his work and To Pimp a Butterfly was ‘black on purpose’, as many critics noticed (Graham, 2017). One of the songs is King Kunta. This slave narrative is based on the protagonist Kunta Kinte, of Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a novel written by Alex Haley, in 1976. In the novel, Kunta Kinte had his foot cut off, so he would not be able to escape from his slave holder. In the song, Kendrick states that power is both a safeguard as well as a burden (Graham, 2017) and Kendrick declares King Kunta grew from a slave to a “motherfucking king”. But having that much power, also brings exposure to those who want power (Graham, 2017). Therefore, Kendrick asks his listeners: “Bitch, where were you when I was walking? Now I run the game/Got the whole world talking”. Note that the whole song is sung in the first person. The listener is not supposed to detach the character of King Kunta to that of Kendrick himself, which may have led to the misconceptions Fox News have uttered. Moreover, Kendrick Lamar’s references in his story are similar to those of Frederick Douglass’s (1845), where Douglass writes that “[the enslaved people] would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone”. This same idea is being conveyed in King Kunta, where a sort of sad story is sung in a rather easygoing harmony. This notion funnels the challenges black people go through living in project housing (Carter, 2016), who could be considered to be modern slaves of society.
XXX. wherein U2 feature on the album DAMN., is full of references to American values, politics, religion and gun violence (as already stated above). The intro reads: “America, God bless you if it’s good to you/America, please take my hand/Can you help me underst—“, cut off on ‘understand’. The song starts with clear conviction on the American Dream and values, which, in opinion of Kendrick Lamar, do not nearly apply to all Americans. One of the bridges consists of Bono commenting America is merely “a sound of drum and bass” and “not a country”. Kanye West is one of the first to come to my mind who also fiercely criticises the so-called American Dream. In Who Will Survive in America, we hear a sample of
Gil Scott-Heron, claiming America is nothing more than “a bastard/The illegitimate daughter of the mother country” and that America is “a rapist […, where] freedom, [or] free-DOOM/
Democracy, liberty, and justice were revolutionary code names”. The song concludes with the question “Who will survive in America?”. Kendrick states that America is filled with “Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters/Barricaded blocks and borders” and blames it, in the same line, on those revolutionary code names Scott-Heron mentioned earlier: “Look what you taught us!”
Both on To Pimp a Butterfly and DAMN. Kendrick Lamar drops overall messages in his songs and throughout the whole record. He also seems to tell a narrative, considering his own persona and issues within black communities (think of the constant sampling of the Fox News criticism, talking about his issues with ‘Lucifer’ and a reconstructed interview Kendrick seems to have with Tupac Shakur). When one listens to Kendrick Lamar, one gets the feeling that one understands what is happening in Afro-American communities. Understanding what Kendrick is saying, from his perspective and his own persona, you’re able to feel that Kendrick simply describes about things that happen in his world. Regarding the Pulitzer prize for music, which Kendrick was awarded mid-April, journalist Dotun Adebayo (2018) writes that “Kendrick Lamar [has] a greater impact and more relevance today than all the literary “greats” wandering lonely as a cloud on some dusty bookshelf in some crusty corner, waiting to be forced down the school curriculum gullets of young people.” This might be some food for thought, although Kendrick Lamar will probably remain to be humble!
Own words (without quotes and bibliography): 1432
Adebayo, D. (2018, 21 April). If we valued black art, Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer would have been for literature. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/21/black-art-kendrick-lamar- pulitzer-literature-rap?utm_term=Autofeed&CMP=fb_us#link_time=1524305906
Carter, J. R. L. (2016). Moments of Creativity, Consciousness, and Critique: A Tradition in Black Male Autobiographies (Doctoral dissertation, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville). Retrieved from https://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/1809793462.html?FMT=AI
Douglass, F., & Garrison, W. L. (1846). Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Retrieved from https://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Douglass/Narrative/Douglass_Narrative.pdf
Edwards, G. (2015, 1 September). Billboard Cover: Kendrick Lamar on Ferguson, Leaving Iggy Azalea Alone and Why ‘We’re in the Last Days’. Billboard. Retrieved from https://edit.billboard.com/articles/news/6436268/kendrick-lamar-billboard-cover-story- on-new-album-iggy-azalea-police-violence-the-rapture
Graham, N. (2017). What Slaves We Are. Transition, (122), 123-132.
Morawetz, I. M. (2017). The tragic hero as a guiding figure in the cultural discourse of the Black Lives Matter Movement; New representations of black male identity in 12 Years a Slave, The birth of a Nation and Kendrick’s Lamar album To Pimp a Butterfly (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/ycnr724o
O’Connor, R. (2017, 15 April). Geraldo Rivera responds to Kendrick Lamar diss, says young people are more hurt by hip hop lyrics than racism. The Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/kendrick-lamar-damn- geraldo-rivera-fox-news-diss-response-a7684951.html
Sillyman, Jacob (2017). Loving You Is Complicated: The Aesthetics of Personal and Political Tension in Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Senior thesis 124.
Retrieved from https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/senior_theses/124/