On Pulitzer Prizes, And How “Hearing Kendrick” Is The New “Hearing Jimi”
Context defines songs. If current era mega-producer Mike WILL Made It produced Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” the mastery of the Funk Brothers would not have been able to elevate the depth and scope of understanding of America’s civil and social rights movements in the song’s lyrics to mainstream ears. However, since 1970 when “What’s Going On” was released, Mike WILL did produce the salacious, hook-driven trap masterpiece that is Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance” in 2012. That year is coincidentally the same year that Trayvon Martin was shot. That has everything to do with why and how it’s quite likely that DAMN., Lamar’s 2017-released and simplified take on his magnificent 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly, as a Pulitzer Prize-worthy genius.
Or, it could also be that it’s taken Marvel Comics embracing Afrofuturism, and the sisters Knowles to almost continuously churn out art-pop masterpieces for the world at-large to finally be ready to properly contextualize the brilliant African-American jazz/funk fusion that inspired Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 rap magnum opus. Moreover, it’s entirely possible that, because modern white folks’ and the world at-large’s ears have been withered by black folks and black culture’s musical excellence via trap and bass-heavy electro-pop, they “don’t hear” anything that’s truly worth hearing in black music right now.
It’s somewhat frustrating that the modern era doesn’t “hear” jazz and funk in the pop idiom. This line is an allusion to a scene in 1989 film White Men Can’t Jump, wherein white guy street basketballer Jimmy Hoyle (as played by Woody Harrelson), is attempting to have a moment of cross-cultural connectivity with black guy street basketballer Sidney Deane, as played by Wesley Snipes. Upon being told that Jimmy likes “hearing” Jimi Hendrix’s music, Sidney says, “[l]ook man, you can listen to Jimi, but you can’t hear him. There’s a difference man. Just because you’re listening to him doesn’t mean you’re hearing him.” Yes, as I officially learned yesterday, MANY of my non-black friends “listen” to Kendrick Lamar. But, in choosing DAMN. as Pulitzer Prize-winning material and somehow even further short shrifting To Pimp A Butterfly in doing so, they don’t “hear” Kendrick Lamar.
Similar to “hearing” Jimi Hendrix’s music, “hearing” Kendrick Lamar’s music requires a significant level of contextual understanding. In a 2014 CNN story entitled “How Jimi Hendrix stopped being black,” it’s written that “[Jimi] was a creatively frustrated musician, like many black musicians, who wanted to learn how to read music, wished he sang better and complained about not being able to play sounds he heard in his head on his guitar.” Given that Jimi was a virtuoso musician who was inspired by a milieu of artists that included Little Richard, The Isley Brothers, James Brown, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, and B.B. King, that’s quite the voice, style, and sound that he’s attempting to synergize in song.
Comparatively, Kendrick Lamar was a creatively frustrated musician who, like many black musicians including Hendrix, wanted to be better at composing music, rapping well, and making the sounds that are in his head come to life. To wit, on To Pimp A Butterfly, the Isley Brothers actually play live on “i,” and “King Kunta” is inspired by James Brown’s 1973 hit “The Payback.” As well, regarding the influences of jazz, rock, soul, funk, and the blues, Kendrick is joined on To Pimp A Butterfly by The West Coast Get Down. This Los Angeles-based crew of jazz-influenced players include Cameron Graves, Kamasi Washington, Miles Mosley, Ronald Bruner, Jr., Ryan Porter, and Thundercat, who impressively enough, are the backing artists for so many of our favorite pop/R&B performers. However, independent of mainstream music, this collection of artists are at the vanguard of the bubbling to a boiling desire for “underground” and “critically beloved” music to once again proclaim the importance and excellence of black jazz and funk as critical artistic forms.
To Pimp A Butterfly was a sonorous hour and 20-minute long crash course in the angst, joy, and overall beauty of black history released after the tragic murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice. Still, due to a likely lack of correct understanding of Lamar’s original context, most black, brown, red, and yellow folks indeed “listened” to TPAB, but they did not “hear” all of it. The song they did hear, though? “Alright,” a trap-inspired soul-rap swinger that ultimately became an anthem and rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement. While the album contains countless moments of black cultural brilliance, what Lamar himself found to be an honest, fearful and unapologetic work was instead called by Stereogum an “ambitious avant-jazz-rap statement,” while The Source called it “an experimental hip-hop release.” How does an album that is meant to encompass the entirety of black history as a wedge to open the door to ensure the progression of black freedom gets whittled down to one song of considerable impact being “heard?” It’s quite obvious.
There’s a schism somewhere around disco where jazz and funk were subsumed into pop, something in the wizardry of Quincy Jones and the likes of George Benson, The Brothers Johnson, and yes, Michael Jackson, whittling away at the iconic success of the likes of Miles Davis and James Brown. By 1991, Miles is dead, JB is a drug-addled punchline, and we’re in the midst of the urban pop assault of Teddy Riley’s New Jack Swing and Puff Daddy’s New Jack Soul. Thus, this pop legacy to teenaged white kids wearing Malcolm X caps and empathizing with Rodney King while doing the cool walk is all recontextualized beats, breaks, kicks, and loops.
By the mid-2000s fierce, fun, and super-heroic talk over laconic, bass-laden beats had surged to rap’s forefront. T.I. has rapped “Rubberband Man,” while Three Six Mafia hit with “Stay Fly.” At this moment crunk and trap music — while yes, having historical precedent in the Stax music repertoires of the likes of Rufus Thomas and Issac Hayes — reign supreme. Rick Ross’ Lex Luger-produced 2010 Teflon Don back-to-back sonic air raid that is “MC Hammer” and “BMF (Blowin’ Money Fast)” was the final straw. By at least five years before the album’ release, the mellifluous, impacting, and melodious polyrhythms which Kendrick Lamar rapped over on To Pimp A Butterfly were absent in the urban-to-crossover musical soundscape. It’s no wonder that the album was critically acclaimed, but not receiving the highest of massive acclaim.
Rectifying this matter is DAMN., which, upon listening sounds much more like an aggressive and more modern-influenced pop-rap record than black American historical reclamation for global consumption. For example, “Alright” includes Kendrick rapping “And we hate Popo, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, n***a I’m at the preacher’s door…My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow, but we gon’ be alright,” over a track that includes the influence of marching band rhythms and jazz intonations. By comparison, “Humble” was originally a fully synthesized beat made for trap rap legend Gucci Mane. On the track, Kendrick states, “My left stroke just went viral,
right stroke put lil’ baby in a spiral, Soprano C, we like to keep it on a high note. Its levels to it, you and I know, bitch, be humble.” “Humble” is featured on DAMN., which is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece recording. Songs, as always, are best defined by their context.
“Why are you playing Kendrick?”
“Because I like to listen to him.”
“That’s what the fucking problem is, y’all like to ‘listen.’”
“What am I supposed to do, eat it?”
“No. You’re supposed to ‘hear’ it.”
“Hey! I just said I like to ‘listen’ to it.”
“No, there’s a difference between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening.’ See, y’all can’t ‘hear’ Kendrick, you ‘listen.’”
Songs, as always, are best defined by their context.