Kendrick Lamar: What’s a King to a God?
With an acrobatic flow that floats like a butterfly, and Pulitzer Prize-winning rhymes that sting like bees, Kendrick Lamar is the god MC of his generation. But, to hear him tell it, rap’s good kid from Compton prefers the title “greatest rapper alive” — and at this stage of his critically acclaimed career, can you blame him?
The stat sheet for Paula’s oldest son reads like a finalist bio for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: ten-plus Grammys, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, a spot on Time‘s 100 Most Influential People list, archived works in the Harvard Library, and the honor of “Generational Icon” by the State of California. Add a Pulitzer Prize for his genius opus DAMN. — the first for a rapper — and the story writes itself.
Still, Lamar’s legend isn’t just defined by accolades. Like a question he poignantly asked on 2016’s “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” the winning recipe to being “the greatest” comes down to one thing: “What do you got to offer?” For Lamar, the secret to his sustained excellence is fearlessness — to share his truth and evolve.
In the decade since the release of The Kendrick Lamar EP, Kendrick has reimagined the landscape of popular music with some of the most urgent, galvanic and innovative work by any artist in his era. Against a post-Obama backdrop, when the nation stands at its most divided, Lamar lifts the voice of a forgotten people when he sings. His cultural treatise — in all its clarity, complexity and honesty — unapologetically captures the zeitgeist of the black community through palpable exploration.
His major label debut, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, turned a sonic binocular to the black experience as it uncovered the daily woes brought on by systematic oppression in the inner-city — claustrophobic communities, gang violence, poverty. The Grammy Award-winning follow-up, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, was a cerebral and visceral meditation on race in America that saw its author poeticize his personal “i” into the listener’s “u.” His third album, 2017’s DAMN., baptized him “Pulitzer Kenny.” It lyrically captured the essence of James Baldwin’s famous quote: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
Traces of Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, JAY-Z, Eminem and Lil Wayne — all building blocks of his foundation — are evident in everything from Kendrick’s multisyllabic rhyme structure to the searing socio-political ruminations and jaw-dropping wordplay. Also looming in his lauded canon are the spirits of black culture godbodies like James Brown, George Clinton, Duke Ellington and Gil Scott Heron, just to name a few. Just listen to a song like 2015’s “King Kunta” or 2016’s “Untitled 8 (Blue Faces)” or “DNA.”
Bearing the burden of a generation on his shoulders, Kendrick’s voice is a compass in the complex landscape of our cultural epoch. With lyrics steeped in cyclical black conscious, and blended with the sounds of blues, jazz and soul, he makes use of every breath for searing analysis and introspection. He doesn’t offer answers but raises hard questions that task listeners to take them on. We hear this in an unapologetic record like 2015’s “The Blacker the Berry,” or in the brutally honest chagrins spilled over tracks like “The Art of Peer Pressure” and “FEAR.”
These socially resonant soundtracks provide Black America with a mouthpiece, especially in a time like Trump’s America, where race and economic relations are at its most tense. It’s no surprise that Black Lives Matter adopted 2015’s “Alright” as a chant of hope and anthem for change.
“You might not have heard it on the radio all day, but you’re seeing it in the streets,” Lamar explained to Variety about the captivating record in a 2017 cover story. “People felt it.” It’s for these same reasons that on a song like DAMN.’s “GOD.,” he makes it a point to rap, “For the cause, I done put blood on sword.” In swallowing the systematic chaos that trails the black experience and digesting it for his own cultural analysis, K Dot offers an empowering voice in a world gone mad.
Kendrick’s work has also inspired several artists who were either just coming up during his rise or those who were already established. His influence has touched artists like Chance the Rapper, Anderson .Paak, Logic and Vince Staples, who publicly lauded Lamar as the best rapper alive. As a testament to his far-reaching impact, Lamar was also said to have inspired the creative direction of David Bowie’s 25th studio album, Blackstar.
“So that means no more playing the backseats, my spot is solidified,” Lamar continued after claiming “greatest” on 2017’s “The Heart IV.” He would go later add, “My name is identified as ‘that king.’” Almost two years after rapping that bar, Pulitzer Kenny’s boast rings even more true.
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