On Missing Kendrick Lamar
The “un-pimped butterfly” created songs that ultimately mediated the eternal universal struggle between good and evil.
As Black Lives haven’t mattered and cities that were one-time citadels of Black excellence — like my hometown of Washington, DC — have been roiled by manic, racist antagonism, I’ve kept an ear open and eye out for one note of salvation.
King Kendrick. The Negus. The good kid in a m.A.A.d city. The un-pimped butterfly.
And I’ve heard nothing.
He’s been silent, save my dear friend Marcus J. Moore’s excellent Lamar biography-of-sorts, The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America. I read that, and all it did was stoke an already boiling rage I felt about the fact that it felt like the spirits that Lamar roused with his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly had not been heeded.
On some level — as a fellow Black creative that many deem to be moons ahead of the curve — I felt what I perceived to be his palpable annoyance that he’d struggled with elevating the art of Black expression to meet the calling of the modern era. Maybe, the age in pop-aimed rap itself was so choked with snap-trappers, marble-mouthed mumblers, and turnt-out turn-ups that we were officially too devoid of our soul to be able to receive the power of his cultural statement in the mainstream.
So, thirsting for Kendrick, I’ve dived into his catalog and found, as expected, all of the words and thoughts I ever needed to salve the physical, mental, and emotional wounds of my currently quite tenuous Black existence.
“Loyalty” — his Rihanna collaboration from 2017’s DAMN sounds more like a call to stay true to my school, meaning the old school way we as Black folk handled white antagonism on black-and-white newsreels, before Judas betrayed the Black Messiah, and at all points between the moment James Earl Ray’s bullet pierced the Memphis sky and when Jesse Jackson proclaimed “I Am Somebody” to tens of thousands of Black revelers at Wattstax.
Even deeper, “King Kunta” hits different now that DMX and Black Rob are dead. I’ve had the basslines from “Ruff Ryders Anthem” and “Whoa” playing on repeat in my head for three weeks. Hearing the James Brown and Fred Wesley and the JBs notes in Lamar’s 2015 production smacks of “The Hardest Working Man In Show Business” laughing at me exhausted in bed and shrieking at me that he knows that I’m more likely to die on my feet than live on my knees.
And then, as a journalist (well, moreso a storyteller), when I hear “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst,” in its 12 transformative minutes, I close my eyes and see what I think is Langston Hughes’ eyes staring at me from Kendrick Lamar’s face. The weight of a world where, because I didn’t tell the tale of someone’s dream, it became a dream deferred consumes my bones. I feel the spirits of the artists whose brilliance occupies the silence of the antiquities. “When the lights shut off / And it’s my turn to settle down / My main concern / Promise that you will sing about me…” The poet laureates’ voices and spirits ignite a flame that burns the passion that develops the thoughts that emerge as the phrases that I hope spin the world in the direction of justice for creative voices that change the universe.
And then, there are moments where I think back, a decade ago, to April 2011, when I sat backstage at Washington, DC’s Mellon Auditorium, and I interviewed Lamar at the time of his Section 80 mixtape’s release. Before he was a good kid, he had mad promise. I now cherish these words because they were spoken to me, and at the time, what felt like only me. I attempted to meet their poetry with an alchemy of my own.
In retrospect, I feel like I did. That heartens me, as in reflecting on King Kendrick’s incredible body of work, he never quite gave us answers. Rather, he provided the connective ties to bind us to the thought that the solutions have always existed.
Ultimately, because he already said everything that needed to be said, Kendrick Lamar needn’t say anything else. Even if he’s as annoyed as I am, he likely rests well knowing he did the essential work to inspire our most necessary future — and it’s up to us to finish the journey upon which his words should have previously set our passions.
“I’m a storyteller who actually hasn’t read that many books. But, I’d definitely say that my favorite ever is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. As for my favorite author? I don’t have one. But, my grandfather tells amazing stories and offers a lot of great advice.”
Kendrick Lamar is a self-described straight-A student who is not a proponent of drug use. Moreover, by the second grade, he frequently used multisyllabic words he discovered in SAT study preparation books. Like many Compton natives, he was a fanatical fan of a rapping “street gang called Niggaz With Attitudes.” Thus, the fact that Dr. Dre is currently producing him excites the fast-rising rap artist behind the just-released Section 80 mixtape.
The multitudes of dichotomies that lie in Lamar inspire a compelling rap style that has allowed him to be named one of XXL Magazine’s Freshman 11 for 2011. Moreover, his artistic voice is so clear, honest, and crisp — listen to the previously-mentioned new mixtape’s tracks “A.D.H.D.” and “HiiiiPower” — that he’s a sure bet to be the pop leader of the left coast’s resurrection as a hip hop stronghold.
As the headliner for the DC stop of the Gentleman Jack: Art, Beats, and Lyrics tour at the Nation’s Capital’s Mellon Auditorium, he’s reached a point where unpacking his apparent brilliance is necessary.
"I rap from feelings. I am a complex person, and I won’t let myself be confined,” he offers. To wit, his voice sounds ragged and aged with a lyricism that shows someone obsessed with thoughtful, economical rhyming, quick wit, and poignant storytelling. Tracks like wild party starter "Pussy and Patron," intellectually brilliant "Barbed Wire," and the braggadocios "Michael Jordan" highlight these abilities.
He’s not alone in his work, as his method of success has many influences. Foremost, he is surrounded by his "Black Hippy" crew of bohemian-minded artists, a crew of equally talented, blog-respected emcees including Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, and Ab-Soul. "When I hear their music, it motivates me to improve and become a better rapper. We’re really trying to do our own thing, and just concentrate on making great music," he says.
Lamar’s success has recently led him to Dr. Dre, who has been working almost exclusively with the emcee as of late, with the young rhymer rumored to be heavily featured on Dre’s highly anticipated Detox release. Regarding Detox, Lamar claims that the album will be a "classic," and anticipates hip hop fans worldwide hearing the album.
Kendrick Lamar is a hip-hop anomaly. When asked about his pending pop success, Lamar stated, "I never want to make pop records. I just want to my records. As soon as you try to make a pop song, you’re already in trouble. If you start following trends and not staying true to yourself, you lose yourself, and you lose your fanbase.”
Kendrick Lamar will be a winner. His level of confidence and self-assurance, plus wisdom beyond his years borne of "[growing up] watching people getting shot," and "not wanting any part of that," allows him to create songs that ultimately mediate the eternal universal struggle between good and evil.