From K Dot, to King Kunta, to Kung fu Kenny, Kendrick Lamar has persistently proven that he is a rhetorical master of rap, utilizing his lyrical arsenal to provide social commentary on an array of topics, especially black sociopolitical grievances. His experimental yet methodical style has bestowed 123 international award nominations, of which 43 were garnered in the short span of 5 years. Focusing on studio releases, our story begins at good kid, m.A.A.d city with young K Dot, vividly narrating his ride through Compton in mom’s minivan. Rebuffing the pervasive notions of anti-blackness in America and its implications, K Dot, now Kendrick travels to Africa, illuminating a sense of pride in identity. With this newfound ideology, King Kunta is born. This brings us to our next taste of Kendrick’s lyrical prowess seen in To Pimp a Butterfly. Shifting from the personal to a more holistic observation of the anti-black dilemma, King Kunta explores the avant-garde, utilizing aspects of funk, jazz, soul, and spoken word in a fluid poetic form. Investigating the themes of African diasporic culture, depression, and institutional racism, the highly acclaimed project brings us closer to Kendrick, showing us that even atop the rap game, anxiety and wariness can arise. Subtly hinting at this uncertainty of the human condition in TPAB, Kendrick then offers us with an interim persona, Cornrow Kenny in Untitled, Unmastered where he effortlessly plays double dutch with the styles of prose and poetry, all over the radically unconventional melodies we’ve grown to love. Cornrow Kenny ripens to Kung-fu Kenny, a grand master of musical expressionism who we meet in Kendrick Lamar’s newest (2017) album, DAMN. In this project, Kenny further nuances his observation of the dilemma, exploiting his masterful understanding of the sonic to produce a type of philosophical storytelling, one that perhaps reveals an angsty side to the rhetorical genius. As any rags to riches tale goes, we begin the journey at genesis with a boy named K Dot.
Released in October 2012, good kid, m.A.A.d city, introduces us to a 17 year old K Dot, a young black man caught in the crossfires of a conscious persona battling the gangsta. As we ride through Compton with his gang, K Dot’s striking narration brings us to understand his familial upbringings, teenage desires, and skepticism of a gang banging life. During the ride, we meet the love interest Sherane, K Dot’s worrisome mother, and his comical father who has a fixation for Domino’s. Seemingly on top of the world, K Dot’s high is blown after being laced with angel dust (The Art of Peer Pressure), jumped by random men on the way to see Sherane (a.k.a Master Splinter’s Daughter), and especially following the death of his homie Dave upon retaliation of the jumping (Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst). Following this traumatic encounter, the gangsta persona is denounced and Kendrick concludes that he is simply a good kid stuck in a mad city. If done in chronological order, this project assembles into a tale offered in the form of a tape, a contemporary narration of life in Compton as an individual aware of, but not necessarily knowledgeable of the implications of institutional discrimination.
Following the critical success of good kid m.A.Ad city and affirmation of his tactful skill in musical prose, Kendrick’s 3 year hiatus brought him to South Africa, where his keen sense for experimentalism brought new musical styles, tones, and approach to presenting the message. The final product, released in March 2015 titled To Pimp a Butterfly had Kendrick once again tackling the problem of black subjugation and its implications, focusing on the metaphorical butterfly to paint a picture of his (and holistically black folk’s) struggles finding inner beauty and identity in a world of anti-blackness.
King Kunta then is presented as a harbinger of pride in one’s culture and rejection of the otherwise. However, for Kendrick, facing the devil comes before empowerment. Here, Lucy & Uncle Sam provide the roles of desire, greed, and lust, tempting the displacement of his principles. When pitted in his deepest sorrow in the melancholy “u”, we fathom the idea that Kendrick has self doubts, uncertainty, and depression lurking. While our fears are dispelled in the righteous “i”, this recognition of Kendrick’s anguish from the inability to eradicate the self-destructive hood narrative and the vulnerability of being manipulated by the music industry. To Pimp a Butterfly ends with “Mortal Man”, assuring listeners of determination to stay true to character, educating his community towards agency.
A year later, Kendrick dropped a B-side album of songs either omitted from TPAB or produced afterwards, titled Untitled, Unmastered where we meet Cornrow Kenny, a humbled, thoughtful artisan of social commentary. In the 8 track project, even leftovers ooze with politically charged sentiments against an anti black narrative, from the pervasive and addictive lean culture in “untitled 2” to the systematic financial discrimination observed in “untitled 8”. By this point, Kendrick required no demonstration of his prowess. Instead, Opting for a simpler approach, he employed control of intonation and pitch to further thrust emotions into the forefront of music, subtly designing a sense of relation between artist and listener. This marks the point where we are no longer regarded as passive audience members, but rather active listeners of a longstanding dialogue centered on the dilemma of autonomous identity. As stated in the final track of TPAB “Mortal Man”, Kendrick perceives himself as the next shepherd of liberation, a catalyst of social change in a contemporary world. However this task comes with its own conflictions, of which include doubt in the self and anxiety over the world’s hegemonic predispositions.
This finally brings us to our most recent lyrical journey, DAMN which dropped on Good Friday, signifying a type of penance Kendrick experiences facing uncertainty. Leading up to its release, The Heart Pt. IV dropped, continuing the tradition of delivering a profound track on the personal sentiments experienced between major projects. In this rendition, Kenny seamlessly flows over four distinct melodies, signifying the changing lifestyle brought upon by international stardom. As Kenny “travel[s] round the atlas in [his] spaceship”, he parallels the oppressive power dynamics observed around the world to his originary, challenging the notion of complacency within the violent anti-black narrative. He admits himself of not being sanctified in regard to this dilemma, succumbing to anger from the observation of systematic discrimination followed by pride felt being considered the greatest contemporary rapper. This mode of self reflection becomes the focus of Kenny’s storytelling throughout DAMN, introducing a type of metanarrative to describe the socioeconomic implications of hegemony both within the personal and collective senses of marginalized identity. The new narration style thus begat a new persona, Kung-fu Kenny.
Within the metaphysical dojo of DAMN, Kenny spars with some ethical conflictions, attempting to find atonement from moral transgressions against and perpetrated by him. This leaves a sense of confliction throughout the album, coupled with undertones of contradictions purposefully done by Kendrick to symbolize life’s inconsistencies; this becomes the main theme of the work. The story begins with a frustrated blind woman approaching Kenny needing help. Believing that she has lost something only for him to lose his own life with a gunshot in “Blood”, the track samples Fox anchor Geraldo Rivera’s fallacious comments on Kendrick’s performance of “Alright” at the 2015 BET awards to which Kenny lyrically responds to with “DNA”. This heavy track has an unapologetic and aggressive Lamar proclaiming the traits that comprise his character. The mood slows in “Yah” although the tone is just as politically charged with shots being fired at Fox News once again. It’s here Kenny first mentions a rather profound yet provocative statement conflating the minorities of the world into descendants of the biblical Israelites, insinuating that racial oppression is perhaps a punishment from God. This leads us to the album’s first disparity when juxtaposing “Element” and “Feel”. “Element” asserts Kendrick’s position at the top of the rap game and the self confidence that he can not only “slap pussy ass niggas, go hard on a bitch, and air it out” when necessary, he can make it all look sexy with not a soul able to stop him. However, in “feel” we’re exposed to some insecurities about life. While Kenny professes “I am legend, [and] I feel like all y’all is peasants”, he also feels like “it ain’t no tomorrow, fuck the world”. It’s apparent that while Kendrick may possess a strong sense of character, he’s weary and jaded from an inconsistent world around him filled with cynics. The following track “loyalty” features bad girl Riri joining Kenny in exploring the intricacies of material vs loyalty for others in varying degrees. This brings us to our next discrepancy, seen in “Pride” and “Humble”. In a sort of sonic paradox, “pride” has a very humbling melody and tone while “humble” has a boastful Kenny shouting for people to not only get off his stage atop the game, but to get off his dick entirely.
The second half of the album has two other meta-juxtapositions proposed by Kenny with a seamless intermission featuring U2. “Lust” explores the detrimental routine life of desire lived by people, perpetuating a life of abrasive meaninglessness. Lust’s sanctified twin “Love” follows after, featuring Zacari echoing a Kendrick asking to just be loved. The booming and charged “XXX” appears after, shifting gears back to an abrasive flow similar to “Lust” which leaves “Love” almost feeling out of place. If the booming bass of “Lust” and “XXX” didn’t undermine the mousy “Love” sandwiched in between enough, then U2’s feature definitely topped it off. Although avant garde, the track sticks true to Kendrick’s character by grappling issues of violence in marginalized communities, bringing it to conversation over dreadfully hard 808s and distinct melody shifts. One last wistful juxtaposition closes the album with “Fear”,”God”, and “Duckworth”, offering a nuanced taste of Kendrick’s staple mastery of lyrical anecdotes. In “Fear”, we’re visited by a 7, 17, and 27 year old Kendrick, fearful of his mother, dying in the streets, and regressing back to a life of hardship. However, these fears are qualmed in “God”, where a boastful Kendrick likening himself to God in influence and success. Finally, we reach “Duckworth”, a vivid anecdote of a young Top Dawg almost inadvertently killing Kenny’s father working at the KFC.
“Duckworth”’s profound exhortation that “Life (or God) is one funny mothafucka, A true comedian, you gotta love him, you gotta trust him” holistically wraps up our metanarrative in a style of cohesion even new to Kendrick. As life is a cyclic roller coaster of physical, moral,and emotional highs and lows, the end of one thing triggers the beginning of another. The loop bring us back to Kendrick taking a walk down the street, presumably before being shot by the blind woman. So, each track can be interpreted as Kendrick’s life flashing in the rear view while death looms ever closer, wishing he find purpose in life amid its disparities.