By Omar Amador
The art of hip-hop/rap has been around for decades, starting off as an unknown type of music played by DJs in the outskirts of New York. The evolution of rap music began with a group known as the 2 Live Crew whose lyrics sparked controversy on whether rap was music or not. This music would later be recognized as party rap which was to be played at dance club, parties etc. Rap artists such as M.C. Hammer, Will Smith, Young MC, and Puff Daddy created music that appealed to a mainstream America, while selling a decent amount of albums. However, rap didn’t limit itself to fun funky beats and party based lyrics. In 1982 a rap group by the name of Flash and the Furious Five released the first sociopolitical rap song, “The Message.” This revolution lead through music has inspired many popular artists to follow suit such as Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, Ice Cube, and Mos Def. Most of the rap music we hear today leads us to believe it consists of money, misogynistic lyrics, and drug abuse. While a good amount of artists lyrics do consist of these traits, there are still plenty of artists who release conscious rap which digs deeper than materialistic concepts. Kendrick Lamar, a hip-hop artist, is one of the best to do so while still catching the interest of mainstream America. Many believe him to be the saviour of rap and one of the greatest to do it. Through his accolades and different avenues of success, Kendrick Lamar is recognized as one of the most popular artists in the music industry but it is his poetry and artistry that allows him to be labeled as the greatest of all time.
Before getting into the specifics, the question who is Kendrick Lamar must be asked. His anecdote begins in Compton, California, on June 17, 1987, the birth of Kendrick Lamar Duckworth. Lamar’s parents moved to Compton prior to his birth in hopes of escaping Chicago’s gang culture. Despite their efforts, Lamar grew up around precarious street activity but he was more influence than harmed. He shined most in school where he spent most of his time writing, first stories and poems. Lamar took his talent and began performing as a rapper under the moniker, K. Dot. At age 16, in 2003, he released his first mixtape, which was enough to get him a record deal with Top Dawg Entertainment. He went on to release two other mixtapes, Training Day(2005) and C4(2009), working with other up-and-coming west coast artists. In 2010, Lamar began using his real name after releasing his fourth mixtape, “Overly Dedicated.” That same year he released his first full-length independent album titled “ Section.80.” Lamar continued writing music and associated himself with more popular recording artists. Among them was Dr. Dre, hip-hop’s most respected and influential producers, who became Lamar’s mentor both in music and business. Dr. Dre signed him to his record label, Aftermath Entertainment, alongside more well-known rappers Eminem and 50 Cent. Since then Lamar has quickly risen to fame and is considered one of the most influential artists to date with four more album releases between 2012 and 2017.
The rap scene is seen as one of the most competitive platforms leaving the hip-hop crown up for grabs. Kendrick Lamar has been throned and crowned as the king of rap due to his monumental success in a short period of time. Over the course of four years, Lamar has dropped three number one albums with his most recent album, “Damn.,” being his third. The other two were his debut album “ Good Kid, M.A.A.D City(2012) and his sophomore album “ To Pimp A Butterfly(2015). Not only have they broken multiple Billboard records, they are also considered as classics. A classic being something of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind. However, statistics are only based on numbers and only scratch the surface when judging the quality and substance of music. Lamar’s versatility sets him apart from most rappers as he takes on multiple sounds and personalities on his new projects. He is able to tell a story within twelve tracks or raise awareness on concerning issues such as police brutality, morality, equality, etc. over a span of sixteen tracks. Lamar, through his music, shares his views on government institutions and spiritual beliefs so that we may recognize these issues and not be so ignorant towards them. His music brings people from all ethnicities, religions, and cultures together allowing us to stand as one and spread the messages conveyed in his artistry. He does all this while still maintaining his spot at the on a mainstream scale. We live in a day and age where it is difficult to cope and understand what is happening around us but Kendrick Lamar’s music keeps in tune with what matters most.
Lamar’s debut album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was labeled as an instant classic upon its release back in 2012. It was then that we were introduced to Lamar’s unique storytelling ability. Upon a first listen one may think of the project as just another typical rap album with tracks like “Swimming Pools” and m.A.A.d City. What most failed to understand was the story slowly being revealed after each track. We were introduced to names like K. Dot, O-Boog, L Boogs, Yan Yan, and YG Lucky serving as characters with depth and motivations labeling it as a “ short film by Kendrick Lamar.” The story is about a day in the life Kendrick and his homeboys. He wanted it to have “ almost like a Pulp Fiction feel- you have to listen to it more times to live with it and breathe with it.” A Quentin Tarantino movie accurately describes this album as each song acts as the beginning of a new chapter. The story begins with the track “ Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” in which Lamar describes his dissatisfaction with hip-hop music and its cliché status. The song also contains a skit pushing the story forward: “Ay K. Dot, get in the car, ni**a. Come on we finna roll out. Ni**a I got a pack of blacks and a beat CD. Get yo freestyles ready.” In the next track “Backseat Freestyle,” Lamar explains the symbolism behind the song and how it’s just about him and his friends starting their day in the backseat freestyling. “The Art of Peer Pressure,” acts as a major turning point as K. Dot is talked into smoking and drinking with his friends. They later end up rubbing someone and further their criminal exploits by committing a house robbery. The song “ Money Trees,” serves as a recap for the robbery and rendezvous with Sherane, a girl Lamar has taken a liking to. It is one of the highlights of the short film as it shines light on one of the main themes: martyrdom. In “Poetic Justice,” he is later confronted by the same men in the album’s opener, and they end up jumping for nothing more than where he’s from. He becomes morally conflicted in “good kid,” as he must choose between red or blue wondering how he can make it out alive whilst being exposed to Compton’s gang culture. To cope with his new found problems with the men who jumped him, K. Dot and his friends engage in a baptism by alcohol in “ Swimming Pools.” Lamar and his friends seek retribution resulting in the death of his friend’s brother, Dave. He then proceeds to lecture on three tragedies from the point view of the victims. Finally, the song “ Real,” reveals to him that everything he thought was meaningful in his life like money, power, and respect were the tenets of an immature and juvenile mindstate. In just a matter of twelve tracks we get a vivid recreation of a day in the life of Kendrick Lamar. Good Kid, m.A.A.d is widely regarded as one of the most creative and well-put albums of this generation. After its release, Kendrick Lamar set the bar higher and kept him in the spotlight for over three years until the release of his highly anticipated album To Pimp A Butterfly.
After displaying his ability his unique ability to tell a story, Kendrick Lamar taps into his more poetic side with “To Pimp A Butterfly.” In this album we are introduced to a grown up K. Dot who isn’t afraid of shedding light on the issues that have plagued our communities over the past few years. Lamar goes from raps savior to America’s next great social activist by pushing the black lives matter movement further. In his sophomore album, he displays his raw poetic skills alongside with his influential lyrics and instrumentation, eloquently complementing the subject matter spoken throughout the project. As the album progresses, we are read excerpts from a poem written by Kendrick Lamar, a poem that is read in the final “Mortal Man.” These excerpts are read at the end of each track, tying them specifically to the song of its concurring recital. The poem reads:
“ I remember you was conflicted misusing your influence sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in the hotel room
I didn’t wanna self destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
Until I came home
But that didn’t stop survivor’s guilt
Going back trying to convince myself the stripes I earned or maybe how A-1 my foundation was
But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war in the city, I was entering a new one
A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination
Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned
The word was respect
Just you wore a different gang color than mine
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another ni**a”
Lamar condenses each track into the form of a poem that accurately describes the concept of each song and reflects the same message as heard on those same tracks. As we read this poem, it gives is a glimpse of the multiple personalities Kendrick Lamar has to offer among the many in his arsenal. This level of poetry hasn’t been seen by a rap artist since the era of 90’s hip-hop. Lamar breaks boundaries and sets new ones with his groundbreaking album that attacks America both politically and morally.
Similar to his debut album, “ To Pimp A Butterfly,” contains a filmic presence but it is not to be compared to Good Kid, m.A.A.d City in terms of storytelling. Rather than talking about his struggles as a black male in Compton, Lamar goes deeper by explaining the oppressive nature of white America on African-Americans. In this masterpiece of an album Kendrick Lamar touches on the subjects of depression, racism, oppression, and hypocrisy just to name a few. It isn’t often that an artist demonstrates both the poetry and artistry given to us on Lamar’s 2015 album.
The evolution of rap has much to do with history itself. The different types of rap directly correlated with time and the surrounding affairs impacting America in either positive or negative way. As we grow up in a struggling society, music can be our glimmering light at the end of a seemingly endless dark tunnel. Kendrick Lamar’s music is our glimpse of light whether he’s telling a story about a day in the life of a black male confronted by morally challenging decisions or exposing the unjust immoral actions against African-Americans. Living in this era and seeing the punishment endured by his people for years makes him into one of the best artists he can be. Society and its institutions shape and mold people into who they are but not by harm rather the influences they project. In Kendrick Lamar’s case, it made him into one of the greatest rappers of all time through motivation and inspiration.
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