America’s Great Black Hope

by Sten Spinella

Kendrick Lamar at Øyafestivalen 2013. (Jørund Føreland Pedersen/Wikipedia | Creative Commons)
Kendrick Lamar at Øyafestivalen 2013. (Jørund Føreland Pedersen/Wikipedia | Creative Commons)

I’ve been doing some thinking on Kendrick Lamar lately.

His new album, untitled unmastered is great, but that is to be expected. I don’t have any more to say on it than your average music reviewer does. I want to get into something different. I want to address the fact that currently, the leading public intellectual in this country is a rapper.

Such an idea may be repugnant to some, with reasons ranging from racial to confused. Professors toil in the realm of academia and, if lucky, get marginal public recognition in return. Writers of any sort don’t make waves beyond their small circles of influence. Somehow, a rap artist took up the mantle of this generation’s great thinker—not a politician, nor your usual suspects—a musician.

Music is a good place to start. Many don’t consider rap to be music. This is an idiotic trope that is advocated by those who hear someone talking over an electronic beat. There is no recognition of cadences and tonal shifts or what it takes to make a beat, be it live instruments or sampling. Rap music is often dismissed outright, in part because its most visible players are its worst. This is true for any type of music—pop music in particular. But Kendrick Lamar has filled the void. He is one in a long line of rappers who have treated their art as public reckoning and a societal bullhorn. Most recently, these have been Lupe Fiasco, J. Cole, The Roots, Chance the Rapper, and any number of underground rappers such as Blu, Mick Jenkins, and Chill Bump, but none have done so with the level of poignancy, confliction, and public acknowledgement that Lamar has.

Lamar’s most recent album is indicative of his struggle against becoming “mainstream.” He released the project without warning, and each song is untitled, with only the date of when the song was presumably recorded or written next to the “title.” The eight songs are incredible in scope and content, with jazz and funk remaining heavy influences.

At his most popular, Lamar put out an album as if he didn’t necessarily care if anyone heard it. His thoughts on race, money, violence, love, individuality, and culture permeate each song. His sense of his own importance is prevalent—he does not shy from the “voice of this generation” role—but he does seem unsure about who he is speaking for and the accolades his last album, To Pimp a Butterfly, received. There is an ironic introduction to two songs on the album, with Lamar calling out “Pimp Pimp” and a crowd responding “Hooray!”

With Lamar’s focus on blackness in his last album and the manner in which he has performed publicly—wearing chains and a jail suit at the Grammys and playing songs no one has heard before—it seems he only wants those who care to listen to him. But the attention he is grabbing nationally is palpable.

In an effort to stay underground, Lamar just keeps getting more famous. In an effort to assert his blackness, millions of white people buy his music and attend his shows (some even write thinkpieces about him). The art he is putting out is undeniable in its power, but I think Lamar is concerned about who is listening to him and what they actually hear. Do we listen to him for his meditations on racism, religion, cultural expectations, and personal strife, or for his infectious flow and invigorating instrumentation? For many, I’d argue it’s the latter. But, as evidenced by the release of untitled, he is going to keep doing his thing and speaking on what he finds important in his typically incisive way.

The crisis at hand is whether or not America is willing to take a black rapper as seriously as Lamar and his fans take him to be. If so, there is a lot to look at: albums upon albums of material that could conceivably change the country, Black Lives Matter activists chanting his lyrics, President Obama inviting him by for an Oval Office visit.

Lamar is well aware of the incongruities of his presence, which he addresses in songs like “The Blacker the Berry” and in this quote from “Untitled 03:”

“(What the white man say?)

A piece of mine’s

That’s what the white man want when I rhyme

Telling me that he selling me just for $10.99

If I go platinum from rapping, I do the company fine

What if I compromise? He said it don’t even matter

You make a million or more, you living better than average

You losing your core following, gaining it all

He put a price on my talent, I hit the bank and withdraw.”

To my mind, nobody has mastered the art of infusing politics with art as successfully as Lamar has in decades. That is why it is imperative he stay relevant. Keep listening.

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