Today, there is a sea of white children in America rapping to the bold lyrics of Kendrick Lamar’s racially-charged music. In ‘Blacker the Berry’, ‘I’m African-American, I’m African / I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village’ is followed by the pre-hook of ‘The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice / The blacker the berry, the bigger I shoot’. Another hit track ‘Alright’ from the 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly, has become a popular anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. Over a summer of raging student protests and political rhetoric, young African-American activists were heard chanting ‘We gon’ be alright!’ on streets. This duality of what Kendrick Lamar represents – the dynamic multitude of black stories in a rapidly changing, white, Republican America – has made him relevant and loved within and beyond the world of music.
Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer win for his most recent album DAMN has brought more discourse to the award than ever before. More than a definition of his infinite talent, the decision to honour the first non-classical and non-jazz musician, and the first rapper, since the award started in 1943, indicates the value of hip-hop as an art form and the irresistibility of Lamar’s creative genius. DAMN is a dark exploration of human emotions. Described in the prize-listing as a ‘virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity […] that offers affecting vignettes […] of modern African-American life’, Lamar’s songs contemplate love and loyalty, blood and fear. The album has had record-breaking success, becoming Lamar’s third million-selling release and toping the Billboard charts as No. 1 for four nonconsecutive weeks. It received an Album of the Year nomination and the Best Rap Album award at the 60th Grammy Awards.
Lamar’s mastery of the word makes him an extraordinary storyteller. The rapper, singer and songwriter weaves a rich narrative through his songs. Lamar’s writing is brave, innovative and experimental, combining a variety of material – spoken word, answer-machine messages, voiceovers – with his music. Lamar has sustained the art of album music in a time of streaming songs, making his body of work a relic in the modern age. Each of Lamar’s major-label albums presents a cohesive statement around a theme. In good kid, m.a.a.d city, Lamar narrates a coming-of-age story deeply tied to his own life experiences, while To Pimp A Butterfly brings together influences of funk, soul, hip-hop and jazz to address self-doubts.
In addition, Lamar is a dexterous wordsmith, regarded critically as the poet laureate of hip-hop. He packs layers of words and syllables into a single bar of music creating meaning through juxtapositions and wordplay. In an interview with the Vanity Fair – where Lamar features on the cover dressed in grey, his eyes perspicacious – he shares that most of his writing begins in the head in a process of jotting down ideas. This may take as long as an year. ‘I spend 80 percent of my time thinking about how I’m going to execute […] What is this word that means this, how did it get here and why did it go there and how can I bring it back there? Then, the lyrics are easy’, he says.
The 31-year-old MC comes from Compton, California, infamous for its poverty and gang violence. Lamar grew up in a culture where police brutality, murders and drug abuse were everyday realities. His parents left Chicago when they were young with clothes packed in two garbage bags and arrived at a hotel in Compton with $500. His mother found work at a McDonald’s while his father reached out to his friends, eventually finding employment at a local KFC. Lamar is the oldest of four siblings, three brothers and a sister. In an interview with the Rolling Stone, walking through the neighbourhood, he points to the Rite Aid where he bought milk for his brothers, the Louisiana Fried Chicken store where he often bought meals, the spot where he saw his first murder at five, the bus stop where a policeman slammed him against the hood of a car. Lamar’s music is grounded in these anecdotes and brings to life these experiences for the masses who have lived through them. NBA stars like LeBron James relate, ‘I know exactly what he means—because I was that kid’.
Lamar wrote some of his earliest songs sitting on his mom’s stool in their little blue apartment in Compton’s Section 8 housing. He recalls living on welfare and walking to the County building with his parents each time they ran out of food stamps. Lamar grew up listening to the American band, The Temptations, after whose lead singer, Eddie Kendrick, he was named.
Lamar began free styling at 8, when he rapped mostly about drugs. In seventh grade, when his English teacher introduced him to poetry, he fell in love – writing pages and pages of rap non-stop. He vividly remembers sitting perched on his father’s shoulders outside Compton Swap Meet to watch legends like Dr. Dre and 2Pac film a video for ‘California Love’ – an experience that changed his life.
At 16, Kendrick released his first mixtape Youngest Head Nigga in Charge garnering local attention. At this point he was producing music from his current manager, Dave Free’s garage, under the stage name K-dot. He was later recruited by Anthony Top Dawg for his company Top Dog Entertainment where he spent years workshopping and producing a list of mixtapes. In 2012, Lamar signed a deal with Interscope Records and Aftermath and released his first major-label album, good kid, m.a.a.d city. It debuted as the number two hit on the Billboard 200 chart and soon went platinum. Lamar’s second album To Pimp A Butterfly remains a musical paragon discussed and celebrated till date. He released a compilation titled untitled unmastered in 2016 and his fourth album DAMN in 2017. Lamar has also produced and inspired music for the award-winning Marvel film, Black Panther. He consistently works with collaborators in a hands-on setting to produce his music from start to finish.
In an interview with Variety, Lamar shared he feels his strength lies in ‘taking cohesive ideas and putting them on wax’. He enjoys challenging himself and is attracted to provocative and dissonant beats that are hard to rap over. ‘I probably wouldn’t be doing music if I couldn’t find things to challenge me,’ he adds. On his right forearm Lamar has a tattoo that says ‘Hustle Like You Broke $’ – a reminder that keeps him from turning lax. He candidly told the Vanity Fair – ‘a lot of artists have a fear of success, they can’t handle it […] I need the microphone – that’s how I release it’.
Lamar often calls himself the “greatest rapper alive”, a title he rightly deserves and continues to strive towards. He has been nominated for 29 Grammys and is the recipient of 12. With nominations in eleven categories at the 58th Grammy Awards, Lamar became the rapper with the most nominations in a single night, second only to Michael Jackson who received twelve in 1984. Lamar was declared one of 100 most influential people in the world by Time in 2016. He has also received two civic honours. In February of 2016, the Mayor of Compton presented him with a key to the city. Lamar actively gives back to his community and has not only offered employment to many who have done their time in prison, but also donated millions of dollars to the Compton Unified School District’s music, sports, and after-school programs.
Kendrick Lamar has an incredible capacity to lock himself in his studio for days on end, without his phone, working with his songs. In his career, he has collaborated with the greats of the industry – including Jay Z, Eminem, Rihana, Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams and Maroon 5. His success is exemplary as a man of colour who comes from one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden corners of America and had a stutter as a child. Lamar’s music is informed by this survivor’s guilt and functions like a gospel that has brought many closer to his experiences and to their own. It has tied together millions of music-lovers in a singular feat of storytelling and given voice to the unnoticed narratives of young black citizens in twenty-first century America.
In the studio, Lamar thinks in colours all the time, sometimes trying to make his music sound ‘purple’ and at other times ‘light green’. A shade of his work will continue to be a part of the world – recorded in history through decades of omitted black and brown narratives retold in rap and unconventional, powerful and unforgettable lyric.
Author: Network Capital Associate Nikita Biswal