Kendrick and conscious rap: The rhythms and rhymes of Black realities

Last Friday marked the latest release of one of rap’s brightest stars, Kendrick Lamar. Titled untitled unmastered, this compilation is filled with leftover songs, many of which were deemed not good enough to appear on Kendrick’s most recent album, To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB). This assessment is absurd, but not because I don’t believe it. It is ridiculous because this eight-track set, after only one week of availability, has already received very positive reviews rivaling those of Kendrick’s other releases and is unequivocally better than any other rap album released in 2016. (I’m looking at you, Kanye.) In fact, I believe it to be the best rap album released since Kendrick’s last album, TPAB, dropped last year.

The reason Kendrick is getting such praise for his work is because he is incredibly innovative in two simple ways: beats and bars. Technically, Kendrick has made jazz rap extremely popular and accessible. This fusion form has been used before, most notably with the group A Tribe Called Quest in the 1990s, and Lamar has re-introduced it to mainstream listeners, especially on TPAB, and continued that theme on untitled unmastered. This part of Kendrick’s genius is really what hooks him to the widest audience, specifically young, White adults. His blending of unique styles creates his own distinct sound and also makes for upbeat, positive-sounding dance tunes like “King Kunta” and “i.”

However, not to take away from the production, because it is inventive and important, the beats are not the main reason Kendrick is hailed by some as rap’s Great Black Hope. That title has been tossed around, not loosely I might add, primarily because of his bars. Kendrick’s lyrics and lyricism are insightful and incisive, and he has brought socially conscious rap back from the fringes and made it central to his ethos as a rapper. Just about every song on TPAB deals with the struggles inherent in urban culture and with being Black. And, Kendrick has been widely praised for this style of rap that is so current and relevant. For instance, his song “Alright” has become the unofficial anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, as protestors often chant the chorus of the song, “We gon’ be alright,” as a form of solidarity, a promise that everything will be alright and that we will persevere. Another song with a powerful message is “i.” In the chorus of this song, Kendrick raps, “I love myself,” a phrase that has much more importance than its three words let on. The very act of Kendrick, as a young, Black male, saying that he loves himself is, in itself, a political act in a society that says Black men don’t matter. This concept is (and if it isn’t, it should be) very scary to White people in positions of social, political and economic power. As part of a group of people who have been oppressed for so long, a people who have been consistently told for centuries that they are not equal and are not mainstream, Kendrick’s affirmation of self-love shows that he is comfortable with who he is and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. He has transcended the White male system, and through his bully pulpit (the mic), he is inspiring other Black men of his generation to do the same, a concept that seems to be a harbinger for a major social revolution in years to come.

While some people understand and embrace the full meaning of Kendrick’s music, most do not, and this is where I take issue. Kendrick’s music speaks to and of the Black experience, yet many young, White, suburban teens and 20-somethings have embraced the music of Kendrick and others like him without fully understanding its significance. They sing the lyrics to “Alright,” “i,” “How Much a Dollar Cost,” “Hood Politics” and other songs like “Pop Goes the Weasel” without grasping the depth and purpose of their messages. This may seem like a controversial claim, but if the masses of White youth truly embraced the magnitude of Kendrick’s lyrics, they would be more concerned about the implications for the societal status quo and act accordingly. Without embracing the nuances and call to action of Kendrick’s music, many White youth unfortunately reduce his contribution to just being about music. In reality, Kendrick’s music is attempting to subvert the very system that gives White people the privilege to claim his music as their own. Embracing his music without becoming more conscious, more outraged and more engaged is not to really know or understand his music. So, listen with a closer ear and be aware of what Kendrick’s music really stands for, and then become an ally with the Black community on issues that Kendrick discusses in his songs. Of course, the counterargument to that is, shouldn’t Black people have to do those same things as well? My response to that is, we already do. We live Kendrick’s words every damn day of our lives.

Mandela Namaste ’19 is from Buffalo, N.Y. He lives in Williams Hall.

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