If rappers were modern day deities, Kendrick Lamar would be King amongst Gods. Not because he asked for the title, or because he occasionally claims lyrical superiority in songs, but because, we, the audience, have framed him as such.
In 2012, when he released his seminal sophomore album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, it was instantaneously held aloft as hip-hop’s answer to the scourge of mumble rap and vapid lyrics. In 2015, when Lamar released his third project, To Pimp a Butterfly, amidst growing political tension and increasingly visible dialogues about the terrifying realities of being black in America, one of the project’s lead singles, “Alright,” only cemented his place as woke rap’s newest bard. Its lyrics were chanted at marches and rallies, quoted in think pieces; some publications even likened it to a new, more hopeful National Anthem crafted specifically for people of color.
It goes without saying that Lamar has an innate capability with words, and an understanding of how to weave complex, painful realities into emotive narratives that settle on the heart and stay there. Such an ability does not, however, make Kendrick Lamar infallible, or any less prone to viewing the world through his own imperfect lens.
His latest release, DAMN, a meditation on life, love and duality of the human experience, exposes fissures in Lamar’s woke rhetoric, and, the double standards of his fans. When Lamar dropped the single “HUMBLE.” ahead of DAMN‘s release, the song and video were hailed as raw, visceral, and a declaration of Lamar’s uncompromising presence.
However, one particular verse soon caught the ire of admirers and critics alike: “I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop / Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor / Show me something natural like ass with some stretch marks / Still will take you down right on your mama’s couch in Polo.”
Many were quick to cry misogynoir, further accusing Lamar’s lyrics of policing the bodies of black women. Others argued that Lamar was shaming women for acting in response to merely existing in a patriarchal society that places traumatic levels of emphasis on very particular standards of female beauty and perfection.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling as though Lamar has fundamentally misunderstood the pressures of womanhood, or even black womanhood specifically. However, to feel that Lamar has somehow betrayed all women, or as though he owes the world an output that is constantly and consistently enlightened is unfair. Kendrick Lamar, for all of his wisdom, nuance and understanding of difficult histories, is still a person, and a man. The latter is particularly important to remember when considering his sometimes flawed rhetoric regarding women.
If anything, DAMN is a paramount example of how music and the genre of hip-hop allow for the personal dichotomies we all carry. In songs like “DNA.” Lamar ruminates on what exactly it means to be black in this world. He touches on topics ranging from royalty to incarceration, rebirth, sex, money and murder—it’s not exactly all positive—but it’s not necessarily negative either. Essentially, we journey with Lamar as he works through questions about his own identity and his place in this world. Within the same album he pivots to “ELEMENT.,” a hard-hitting anthem that establishes that while he is capable of incredibly intellectual storytelling, he can (and will) see you on wax with that straight-up ignorant shit if the moment calls for it.
The ability to embody two opposing ideas or systems of belief in one space is part of the wonder of music. It’s important that artists use their artistry to unpack complex issues in a universal manner, even if they don’t always hit the right note. Instead of deifying artists like Kendrick Lamar and then crucifying them when they misstep, we should take them up on what their music offers: a conversation. Doing so will only help them to course correct in the future.
Above all we should remember that artists like Kendrick Lamar, who have been deemed as members of the “woke” or “intellectual” hip-hop aristocracy, owe us no more than the musicians we have relegated to only being good for shallow club bangers about money, drugs and sex. After all, if we as listeners can indulge in and identify with both ends of the spectrum, why too can’t the very people making the music we love? Especially if they’ve never claimed to be anything more than a musician.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.