Rolling Stone Magazine named him ‘The Greatest Rapper Alive’ after his latest studio album DAMN. Whether that is a justified title for Kendrick Lamar may be a matter of taste, but he’s without a doubt the rapper with a huge amount of impact and influence. The messages he delivers through his music make that very clear.
Are you going to his performance in the Ziggo Dome tomorrow and do you want to know more about his story? Or do you secretly have no idea what makes him so special? We got to the bottom of it!
This is Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar was born in 1987 in Compton, one of the most violent suburbs of Los Angeles. He grew up in the breeding ground of Westcoast gangstarap. In the early nineties, rappers like Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube (who are also ‘Straight Outta Compton’) put this new subgenre on the map internationally after creating the collective N.W.A. With raw, honest lyrics they described life in the ghetto and their narrations brought awareness both to their circumstances and the general emancipation of the African-American minority in the United States.
N.W.A., Tupac, Eminem and Jay-Z were great sources of inspiration for Lamar and after getting straight A’s for his poems in high school, he had all he needed to begin rapping. As of today, Lamar has four studio albums and the soundtrack of Black Panther to his name.
He has also received no less than 29 Grammy nominations, 9 of which were in the most prestigious and cross-over ‘Big five categories’, winning 11 in total. Lamar has worked with artists like Beyoncé, Dr. Dre and U2, has sold millions of albums worldwide and his music is streamed even more frequently than that. He is a popular headliner at festivals like Coachella and this summer he will also be performing at Lowlands.
Those are still only his musical achievements. What’s more is that his lyrics are used as battle slogans and his music can easily be called the anthem of the Black Lives Matter protests. In 2016, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the year. In the words of Pharrell Williams, Kendrick has become the “Bob Dylan of our time”.
Kenny vs. the rest
Avoiding drugs, and rarely drinking, ‘Kong Fu Kenny’ is quite uncontroversial compared to his fellow rappers. He is not as aggressive as Tupac and has no past as a drug dealer like Notorious B.I.G.. While Barack Obama described Kanye West as a ‘jackass’, he and Lamar share a warm friendship. In a time when hip-hop is often dominated by vibe, swag and personality and mainly describes money, women and violence, Lamar’s lyrics are deep and meaningful. His intellectual weight even appeals to academically trained music critics. Female rapper Azealia Banks once characterised his broad accessibility as ‘playing that non-threatening black man sh*t’.
Kendrick Lamar is unique because he makes music that is not commercial, but is still widely embraced. But what is it exactly that is so powerful about his music and.. his personality? Get to know Kendrick Lamar through five of his iconic songs:
5. Money Trees (Good Kid M.A.A.d City, 2012)
In 2012, Lamar signed with Aftermath, the label of Westcoast Rap master Dr. Dre. From there, he was able to begin his mission: he wanted to make a difference with his music. In his lyrics he describes the concrete jungle, Compton, and the conflicts between the gangs through the eyes of different characters in a way that’s different from the rappers who influenced him.
Everybody gon’ respect the shooter
But the one in front of the gun lives forever
(The one in front of the gun, forever)
Money Trees – Kendrick Lamar feat. Jay Rock
In an interview with The Guardian he says:
“You know Compton, you don’t hear no artists from Compton showing vulnerability. You always hear about the person pulling the trigger. You never hear about the one in front of it.”
In this song, he dives into the psychology of the victim, fascinated by what is going on in the head of the threatened victim.
“At first, I was scared to show fear because you can never be sure how people will perceive you. But I dared myself to do that, to stand out. Now I’ll talk about being beaten up or robbed or making a stupid decision because of a girl or whatever.”
Lamar looks at the world around him in a different way, which makes him special. He praises his hood, without glorifying crime. He breaks the gangster mentality rather than welcoming it.
“The true story behind this album [Good Kid M.A.A.d City, red.] is showing how the world looks at my friends as delinquents when they are good kids at heart. They have great hearts. But from the time they were born in the 80s, when crack was everywhere, they had no figure to guide them.”
4. How Much A Dollar Cost (To Pimp A Butterfly, 2015)
In 2015, How Much A Dollar Cost was the favourite song of none other than Barack Obama. It’s easy to imagine that Lamar’s political messages appeal to Obama, so it’s unsurprising that this particular song is his favourite. The lyrics are all about… change! (Do you remember the 2008 election campaign?; ‘Change is something I believe in. Yes we can!’)
In the song Lamar meets a homeless man who asks him for money.
He said, “My son, temptation is one thing that I’ve defeated
Listen to me, I want a single bill from you
Nothin’ less, nothin’ more”
But Lamar refuses to give him any and tells himself that he is not responsible for the fact that this man is homeless, is he?
Then the man tests him: ‘Have you ever opened Exodus 14?’ He’s referring to the story of Moses in which he positions himself as a leader, splitting open the red sea for the Israelites to pass through. This stirs Lamar. Shouldn’t he also act as a leader and guide this man to a better world?
Guilt trippin’ and feelin’ resentment
I never met a transient that demanded attention
They got me frustrated, indecisive and power trippin’
Sour emotions got me lookin’ at the universe different
Despite Lamar’s doubt, the man does not manage to convince him.
I should distance myself, I should keep it relentless
My selfishness is what got me here, who the f*ck I’m kiddin’?
And then the homeless person shows who he really is. He turns out to be none other than God:
He looked at me and said, “Your potential is bittersweet”
I looked at him and said, “Every nickel is mines to keep”
He looked at me and said, “Know the truth, it’ll set you free
You’re lookin’ at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power
The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit
The nerve of Nazareth, and I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost
The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss. I am God”
How Much A Dollar Cost – Kendrick Lamar
The cost of this dollar was Kendrick Lamar’s place in heaven. A tough lesson!
In an interview, Lamar speaks about the relationship he has with the former president. Obama taught him that change is not possible overnight:
“…to think further than this year or last year. You’ve got to prep yourself for the next decade of what you’re gonna do. That’s going to change the result, to change an idea or thoughts that we have consumed for so many years.”
That particular song has been listened to by a huge number of people for years; it is a step in the right direction!
3. Alright (To Pimp A Butterfly, 2015)
To Pimp A Butterfly is compared with Picasso’s Guernica painting during the Spanish Civil War. Why? It sketches an image of America at the time of the Black Lives Matter movement. If you ask me, the song Alright is the best example of this.
Black Lives Matter was founded after neighbourhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, was acquitted in 2013. The agent had shot the unarmed and allegedly completely innocent, Afro-American, Trayvon Martin a year earlier when he was walking on the street. Ever since, the movement has been fighting all forms of violence against Afro Americans.
In 2015, a group of activists took the streets in Cleveland and chanted Lamar’s Alright as a battle song:
Ni**a, and we hate po-po
Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’
Ni**a, I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees getting’ weak and my gun might blow
But we gon’ be alright
Alright – Kendrick Lamar
This was just the beginning. Alright was frequently used outside of America as well, subsequently making it the international anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.
But the message of Alright is not understood by everyone. In Lamar’s performance during the 2015 BET Awards he was criticized for standing on a graffiti sprayed police car with a large American flag in the background.
On Fox News, Presenter Kimberly Guilfoyle responded by saying ‘Oh please, ugh, I don’t like it’.
Her colleague, Geraldo Rivera even suggested that it would incite violence: “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.”
Kendrick gave a sobering response: “How can you take a song that’s about hope and turn it into hatred? (…) Hiphop is not the problem, our reality is the problem of the situation.”
Lamar sampled the Fox presenters’ quotes in the opening track on his next album DAMN. In the song, BLOOD the presenters’ statements sound even more absurd than they did on TV.
2. FEAR. (DAMN., 2017)
In April 2017, Kendrick Lamar released the album DAMN. Not long after this, he was named The Greatest Rapper Alive by Rolling Stone Magazine.
After the turbulent times when Trump was elected president, Lamar didn’t want his voice to be added to the sea of critics. Instead, he took this as an opportunity to be constructive. He says in an interview with Billboard:
“It’s like beating a dead horse. We already know what it is. Are we gonna keep talking about it or are we gonna take action? (…) Speak on self; reflection of self first. That’s where the initial change will start from.”
DAMN is an introspective album. It is a reflection on his place in this world; as an artist, as an African-American man and as an American in 2017. Where How To Pimp A Butterfly was a ‘state of times’, DAMN. is a state of mind.
One of the songs that sticks out the most is FEAR. In this track we see Lamar struggling on the age of 7, 14 and 27.
At the age of 7 his mother tries to protect him from the dangers in Compton by frightening him:
I beat yo ass if you tell them social workers he live here
I beat yo ass if I beat yo ass twice and you still here
Seven years old, think you run this house by yourself?
N****, you gon’ fear me if you don’t fear no one else
The social workers were, most likely, not allowed to know that Lamar’s father also lived at home because then they would no longer be able to claim financial government support.
The lyrics list the fears of 17-year-old Kendrick Lamar:
I’ll prolly die anonymous
I’ll prolly die with promises
I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house
I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin’ out
He is afraid he will never have the chance to make his dreams come true. The ‘candy house line’ is likely to refer to the death of Trayvon Martin. Martin was also 17 when he was shot dead by the police on his way home after buying ice tea and Skittles.
At 27, Lamar’s life looks very different and he is afraid to lose the success he fought hard for:
At 27, my biggest fear was losin’ it all
Scared to spend money, had me sleepin’ from hall to hall
Scared to go back to Section 8 with my mama stressin’
30 shows a month and I still won’t buy me no Lexus
Section 8 is a subsidy scheme for people living below the poverty line. Due to his fear of falling back into this scheme, he has trouble spending money. In 2014 he did not buy a mansion costing millions (after Drake’s example of $9 million or Dr. Dre’s $40 million mansion), but a 4-room apartment of about $500,000. You can get the boy out of Compton, but apparently, you won’t get Compton out of the boy.
The last verse seems to be about the present. Seven track titles of DAMN. Can be found in this verse and this might show how close this album is to Lamar’s heart.
I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ creativity
I’m talkin’ fear, fear of missin’ out on you and me
I’m talkin’ fear, fear of losin’ loyalty from pride
‘Cause my DNA won’t let me involve in the light of God
I’m talkin’ fear, fear that my humbleness is gone
I’m talkin’ fear, fear that love ain’t livin’ here no more
I’m talkin’ fear, fear that it’s wickedness or weakness
Fear, whatever it is, both is distinctive
Fear, what happens on Earth stays on Earth
And I can’t take these feelings with me, so hopefully they disperse
FEAR. – Kendrick Lamar
Self-reflection can also be very frightening!
1. ELEMENT. (DAMN., 2017)
The number one track in this list, ELEMENT., shows why Kendrick Lamar actually does what he does. And if you ask me, it’s impressive.
In an interview with Zane Lowe he says that in the hood people listen to the song every day because this is one of the few things people can identify with and recognize their (hard) life in. “They live and breathe it.”
I think that this is where Kendrick Lamar’s drive comes from. In the lyrics of ELEMENT. He says:
I don’t do it for the ‘Gram, I do it for Compton
He doesn’t get motivation from the fame which Instagram can bring him, his storytelling is for the people in cities like Compton. In an interview, he talks about the success of To Pimp A Butterfly:
“The success of that record didn’t come from the accolades and the awards. For me, it came from people going out there and singing ‘Alright’ in the middle of these streets and taking pride and dignity into where they come from and to where they want to go. (… )
So, to see them actually express themselves through a song, through lyrics that I wrote, is confirmation for me (…) that the passion and the insights, the thoughts that I put into these records is far beyond me.”
And he goes to great lengths to achieve his mission:
I’m willin’ to die for this shit, n****
I’ll take your fuckin’ life for this shit, n****
We ain’t goin’ back to broke, family sellin’ dope
That’s why you maney-ass rap n****s better know
Years in the makin’, and don’t y’all mistake it
I got ‘em by a landslide, we talkin’ about races
Earlier in the interview Lamar says that he doesn’t just want to write history with this album, but to set an example:
“This album has to teach. Not only in these times, but for the future. To understand our history, what we were going through in 2010 and 2012, 2014, 2015. We can go back and you can apply that knowledge on whatever is going on in the future.”
He also wants to change things:
“That right there is going to help the next individual, the next Kendrick Lamar, the next kid on the corner to make whatever situation they’re in a better situation. Not only for themselves but also for those around them.”
You know this’ll never be a tie, just look at their laces
This sentence is literary genius because it has so many symbolic references. It could be understood very literally; a good street style outfit includes loose laces and it is unlikely that they will be worn in combination with a tie. Given the business context in the next sentence, a tie can also be a symbol for an office job.
On the other hand, you could also interpret ‘tie’ as an abbreviation of ‘tiebreak’. He would make a reference to the racial issue. But he believes in the opportunities of the black community;
You know careers take off, just gotta be patient
Mr. One through Five, that’s the only logic
ELEMENT. – Kendick Lamar
Rappers often claim to be among the Top 5 best rappers and Lamar says he is number 1 to 5. This self-confidence is the only way to get there, he says in an interview:
“When I hear these artists saying they’re the best coming up, I’m not doing it to have a good song, or one good rap, hook, or bridge. I wanna keep doing it every time. Period. And to do it every time, you have to challenge yourself and (…) confirm that you’re the best.”
Why is it so important to be the best?
“I wanna hold myself high on that same pedestal 10-15 years from now. (…) This is what we’re doing it for. This is culture. (…) People live their lives to this music.
You can’t play with this and you have to take in consideration what you write down on that paper. And if you’re not saying it to do the most impactful sh*t or doing it to be the best you can be, for the listener to live their daily lives, then what are we doing here?”
Are you there tomorrow in the Ziggo Dome? ENJOY! Based on the above one thing should be clear; you’re in for a powerful concert!
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Disclaimer: Once you dive into the story of Kendrick Lamar, you can completely lose yourself. Before I started this article, I knew almost nothing about him. Now I am so impressed that I would nearly write a book about his perfect rhymes, witty word plays and especially the complex and many layered lyrics and the meaning they have for the world.
Since the show in the Ziggo Dome will take place tomorrow, we had to stick to this (first) introduction. I borrowed analyses from leading American journalists. Did we miss something or do you interpret it differently? Let us know in a comment!