I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t like Kendrick Lamar. Not just people that don’t hate him—I mean I could broadly categorize the people I know into sections of those who like Kendrick and those who just haven’t heard of him. There are people who, when pressed on the subject, mention that they just don’t like rap music in general, which is a real shame because Kendrick transcends a lot of familiar tropes to make his music entertaining and enlightening.
His style is most reminiscent of Tupac, a comparison he gladly invites. Other ’90s rappers like Nas and Biggie have a clear influence on him, as well, but their image of being gangsters first and foremost tends to be off-putting for some (i.e.: white people). Kendrick, by contrast, is an intellectual. There’s no pomposity to his style, no flourishes that seem unnecessary or frivolous. He speaks curtly and means it. When he tells you a flower blooms in a dark room, your instinct is to trust him.
His two most famous albums, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” and “To Pimp a Butterfly,” deal heavily with the instincts of someone in a situation where he’s not sure he belongs. M.A.A.D. City creates an atmosphere of dread around being in a community that simultaneously supports and hinders him, combining family members who want to keep him safe with friends urging him to engage in reckless behavior. It would be easy for an artist who treats himself as a poet to turn his platform into a soapbox speech on how much better he is than everyone, but that’s not what Kendrick does. Instead, he relates to common human fears of loss, death and being forgotten in the cluster of violence and decay that’s left his city a purgatory from which he can’t escape.
That is, until he does. “To Pimp a Butterfly” largely focuses on the identity crisis Kendrick suffers from being put on a pedestal he doesn’t feel he deserves. His unique success and perspective gives him the chance to enforce change, but that doesn’t mean he stopped being human, capable of flaws and regretful past actions that plague him to this day. Chance the Rapper can sing all day about the glory of God, but it will never reach the same peak as a man struggling to accept the duality of himself, his culture and everything else he feels the responsibility to represent accurately.
I’ve never experienced gang-related violence. I’ve never had to sell drugs or kill someone. I haven’t been scrutinized as a public figure. The point isn’t that you need to be entirely familiar with any of these concepts to appreciate Kendrick’s body of work. He appeals to a mass audience, I think, because of how ubiquitous the sentiments he portrays within specific situations are, which is the mark of a great storyteller.
Listening to his music makes you feel understood, no matter what you’re going through, and there’s an air of optimism nestled within his songs, as well. Namely, the idea that in order to be happy, you must accept things as they come and roll with the punches. I hope his new album, DAMN., continues his tremendous streak.
Photo: Getty Images/Bryan Bedder