On Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar is inescapable, to put it lightly. This past Sunday, I spent the morning and half the afternoon listening back through his discography, To Pimp A Butterfly in my headphones and DAMN. on at the coffee shop; Section.80 on the stereo and good kid, m.A.A.d city on the playlist at the breakfast spot with the $12 burrito. DAMN. again from a passing Subaru. I hadn’t given it much thought since it came out last year, when it soundtracked a long drive up I-95 and back for a wedding (with an overnight stop in Brooklyn, where, on the evening of its release, it was playing in full at a craft beer bar).
Kendrick has earned this omnipresence. His music - pretty good, pretty accessible, its praises sung to high heaven - is quite nearly enough, but the man himself has become a symbol: of being down, of being on the right side of the present (if not of history). Of being aware of the right things, informed by who we have decided is the right messenger.
As a white bartender at a favorite haunt of mine is fond of singing along: if I gotta slap a pussy-ass n***a, I’ma make it look sexy.
Knowing what other people think about music you love is a bitch, huh? I’m not usually one to miss the artist for their fanbase, but with Kendrick it seems significant. The very terms on which he is celebrated - an essential, radical force in a moment in which white supremacy is both celebrated and combatted as openly as ever, the first (and by implication, the only) rapper worth a Pulitzer - are self-contradictory. No one with any sense has ever believed that an institution is capable of, let alone willing to practice, self-policing, and yet we are all too eager to accept institutional (the New Yorker, NPR, Pitchfork) recommendations regarding "important, subversive" work.
That’s fine (the oft-made case is that Kendrick’s strength is the re-packaging of reality for audiences unwilling or unable to stomach it un-edited), but it’s hard not to notice the extent to which these publications pick and choose what is worthy of elevation into the echelons of high art, rather than entertainment (where, by comparison, stakes is low). It’s not so much unexpected as it is sad: the formula to appeal to the shut-in music nerds of the world has never been hard to crack, and it’s a whole lot closer to King Crimson samples than anything with particular resonance for the subjects at hand. To be up on Kendrick is noble because the work itself is a plain signal; it hinges on overwrought, writerly concepts built specifically for those otherwise uninterested in thinking of rap as having some greater capacity for nuance. Why, when I’m listening to a Kendrick Lamar album, is every other song punctuated by an excerpt from some kind of screenplay? I'm gonna give Kenny the benefit of the doubt with regards to his ability to communicate in rapped, rhyming form - this is a reflection of the audience’s prejudices about what forms the thematic content of art can and cannot take. In light of Kendrick’s celebration as essentially a canon unto himself, what are we to think of his discography’s ability to drive home its purported themes?
"Cartoons and Cereal" was a loosie. Consider that "Alright," Kendrick’s singular musical achievement, became just that largely because it can stand alone - it can be removed from, and thrive outside of, the album, the concept, and the outside interpretation. Its importance, for lack of a better word, is self-evident (2).
Kendrick, again, is a fine rapper. But man, do I hear a lot about him despite how obviously absurd it is to think of an artist who is greeted with such immediate, institutional acclaim as a revolutionary - to celebrate a universally-lauded work on the grounds of its radical politics. It's hard not to think of the Kendrick worship as a concession of convenience; how much is truly at stake when Kendrick’s elevation comes at the explicit cost of having to give a second thought to any other rapper at all? That Kendrick can be, and is, understood as the end-all, be-all of what it means to be Black is a massive failure - of critical homogeneity, of white solipsism, and, as the above continues to go unaddressed, of the music itself. The more things change - the more that we are allowed to frame rap as jazz, rap as political act, rap as unifying force as "change" - the more things stay the same.