How Rap’s thinking man struggles to avoid the trappings of fame
In early 2011, music blog Pitchfork launched an online interview special, “Over/Under,” a series in which musicians and celebrities are asked to rate a host of random subjects as either overrated or underrated. In late 2015, Atlanta’s Waka Flocka Flame was asked to rate a number of topics from the ocean to Kurt Cobain. Tucked within the interview, he was asked something more flammable, “Kendrick Lamar: Overrated or Underrated?” Flocka responded:
“I like Kendrick Lamar as an artist… I feel like we need Kendrick Lamar though. Not just the music. People want to hear this, this intelligent kid behind the microphone. He got everything, but he need to get behind that camera and talk. Who is Kendrick Lamar? ‘Yo, do you like chicken? Yo, do you like lasagna? Yo, you watch f*cking Boondocks? Who are you?”
It’s often hard for artists to speak on one another, especially those who represent disparate ends of a shared trade. Flocka’s interview came just a few months after Kendrick Lamar’s subversive record, To Pimp a Butterfly, was released to great fanfare and critical acclaim, with award talks surfacing soon after. Time would prove that Kendrick would not become one of the few black artists to win an Album of the Year Grammy, but his consideration as a legitimate contender certainly moved the genre forward. However, despite his status as a headliner and mainstream icon, Kendrick still ducks the limelight far more often than his colleagues.
Kendrick’s public appearances rank about neutral– his tweets aren’t priceless like Kanye’s, but he still pubs new merchandise, promotes the rest of Top Dawg, and pays respect to deceased greats. He announced his engagement earlier this year to long-time girlfriend Whitney Alford, a 10-year long relationship that has remained behind the music. It’s unclear where his home base is. He may have purchased a home for his parents in the quiet Los Angeles suburb, Eastvale, while receiving Compton’s key to the city not long after. The L.A. area hosts most of his fanbase, and he’s no stranger to giving love back to the city in his free time. With a tight grip on his private life, and a commitment to remaining a household name, it seems Kendrick rides the waves of popularity to keep focus on what is most important to him: the music.
Of all the problems that have accompanied his success, Lamar’s greatest personal struggle may be fame itself. In an intimate interview with MTV, Lamar claims, “one of my biggest assets is not knowing how famous I am… I know people treat me different because of it.” In promotion of his seminal album, To Pimp a Butterfly, he released the Grammy-winning, optimistic single, “i”, to mixed reviews. With the warm Isley-sampled track featuring the hook “I love myself,” many feared the rapper’s experimentation with free jazz and funk would move him too far away from his bestselling debut Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he addressed the shift by stating, “I know people might think that means I’m conceited or something,” Lamar says. “No. It means I’m depressed.” By the time TPAB itself arrived, his followers would learn of the downward spiral far more caustic than even good kid’s darkest episodes.
Rap music is endlessly entertaining because of the genre’s balance of opposites, and the best are fluid enough in their style to avoid being pigeonholed by the listening public. “Conscious rap” often becomes synonymous with inaccessibility, and conflict can emerge between stylistically different rappers. Recall when Hov clapped back, “if skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli. Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense, but I did 5 mil’—I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.” While conscious and mainstream rap don’t always overlap, it is crucial in a musician’s quest to cast a wide enough net to attract attention, and when resources are provided, work on complexity.
TPAB arrived as a thematically dense concept album, anchored mostly by the fame-guilt complex. Persistence and hard work may have brought him magazine covers and TV spots, but the brushes with mortality that inspired Kendrick’s fascination with martyrdom have rooted themselves further. Compton’s self-proclaimed human sacrifice has been Def Jam’s prodigy, an XXL Freshman, and was crowned Snoop Dogg’s next King of West Coast Rap, but he’d rather be known as “the biggest hypocrite of 2015.”
The name itself, To Pimp a Butterfly, reflects the gauntlet entertainers must run throughout their careers. This is particularly true for black men, pressured into creating a presence designed for consumption without much regard for the artist’s well-being. Lamar’s mentor, Dre, reminds him, “anybody can get it, the hard part is keepin’ it,” on “Wesley’s Theory”, followed by Thundercat’s crooning of the white-dominated corporate lament, “we should’ve never gave n*ggas money, go back home.”
Musically, the sound aligns closely with free jazz and funk rock, and long-time collaborator/producer Sounwave noted, “Every producer I’ve ever met was sending me stuff — but there was a one-in-a-million chance you could send us a beat that actually fit what we were doing.” The laundry list of musicians and engineers who crafted the album’s cinematic sound produced radio-friendly tracks “Alright” and “King Kunta,” but numerous segues reflect the album’s focus as a set piece, with the many interludes holding up in live performance as well.
The greatest skeptic of the album’s credibility is Kendrick Lamar himself—nowhere is that more apparent than on “u” and “The Blacker The Berry.” Declaring himself an outright hypocrite, he addresses his greatest shortcomings that fame has unearthed. His oldest friendships have been supplanted with transactional love from record companies—he is only worth his profitability. In one haunting verse, an inner dialogue delivered to mimic a drunken voicemail, he hears, “where was your presence? Where was the support that you pretend? You ain’t no brother, you ain’t no disciple, you ain’t no friend. A friend never leave Compton for profit… You even Facetimed instead of a hospital visit.” As a black man, his escape from poverty has made him hyperaware of his influence on the community he left behind, he laments, “gangbanging made me kill a n*gga blacker than me… hypocrite.”
In spite of the insecurities that lead him to ask his fans to “leave room for mistakes and depression,” when Kendrick is on camera, he often hides a grin. Mostly, he just seems happy for his opportunities and publicity when given. Lamar shows no signs of slowing down after sharing unmastered tracks from the cutting room floor as well as turning to late night TV as a medium for distribution. Content flooding makes it difficult for musicians to create universally recognizable moments for their audience, like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan or Hendrix’s national anthem, yet Lamar’s “Untitled” performances stand out among the year’s best.
When Flocka says, “we need Kendrick Lamar though… not just the music,” he feeds the public desires that entice tabloid journalists to skip rocks on celebrity windowsills fishing for headlines. It’s the same obsession that leads nameless millions of fans to feel as if they know an artist personally, enough to feel entitled to answer morally invasive questions. The more we listen to Kendrick’s music, the more we uncover the collateral damage of fame.