Kendrick Lamar, the messiah of America’s mean streets
Before we begin, you’re advised to take serious note of the parental advisory label for explicit content — the statutory warning placed prominently on the cover of Kendrick Lamar’s new album, Damn. It is, admittedly, a mark that is as common as bar codes when it comes to rap and hip-hop albums.
However, where most other disclaimers would ask you to consider leaving, pending confirmation of age, we aren’t about to suggest that this is not for you. On the contrary, if you’re not into rap, or couldn’t care much about the likes of Lamar — this story is rightly for your benefit.
If this was about any other 29-year-old extolling the cathartic properties of putting pen to paper, of purging one’s sins in rhyme, and conquering pain, loneliness and shame through song writing, we might not have blinked too hard.
But this is Kendrick Lamar Duckworth — the rapper from Compton, California, who grew up in the 1980s in a community steeped in gang culture and crack abuse; who witnessed his first murder at the age of five; and who is now taking America, and the world of popular music, by storm.
Colour me bad
To clarify, the discussion isn’t about rap as a form of music — that’s an old quibble. We reckon, if you’re inured to hip-hop influences in Indian film scores, and down with guest rap cameos by aging Bollywood actors for dance hits, the concerns about form, lyricality and songfulness can be deemed redundant.
Don’t get us wrong — we can tell our ragas apart from reverb, and we’re open to new sounds, be it drum ‘n’ bass, trip hop, breakbeat, dubstep or downtempo. So we’re not about to debate the musical merits of rap — be it in styles of melodic, freestyle, gangsta, bounce, nerdcore, hardcore, crunkcore, industrial, alternative or contemporary. There are many other sub-genres, including a thriving “trap” scene, essentially of a hard-nosed, combative version that speaks of much the same themes — drugs, violence, tough childhoods, rough neighbourhoods and the hard city life.
Also, for the record, there are no oversexed, orgiastic episodes to speak of here. Although, Lamar — imaginably, like most rappers — always had a thing for colourful language. Back in middle school, an English teacher turned him on to poetry, and Lamar soon began filling up notebooks. His mother once found “his little rap lyrics... and it was all ‘Eff you’, ‘D-*-*-k’. I’m like, ‘Oh, my God! Kendrick’s a cusser!’” All these years later, that cusser of a kid has turned into the world’s biggest music sensation.
To make sense of Lamar’s success, it helps to wise up to the whole rap phenomenon, and its growing influence on popular culture and expression, not merely for the attendant lifestyle generally depicted, but also as a legit and potent tool for political protest.
Then again, if you can tell the difference between each sub-genre named above, you’d be the coolest cat at the wildest parties around. (Either way, you can only try and get the youngsters to hike their trousers over their jockstraps.)
Damn., Lamar’s fourth album, was released on Good Friday earlier this year in April. (The period, or dot, runs as a stylistic element in album’s name and every song in it — BLOOD., DNA., YAH., ELEMENT., FEEL., LOYALTY., PRIDE., etc., possibly as a nod to Lamar's first stage name, “K-Dot”.)
Barely a couple of weeks after, Lamar was being hailed as the best hip-hop artiste of all time, the most important rapper in America, and the greatest artiste ever in modern popular music. By the second week of May, Damn. held the No.1 position for the third straight week on the Billboard 200, with all 14 tracks of the album making it to the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
Lamar has already picked up seven Grammy Award statuettes, and his previous albums, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly, each sold over a million albums, while he made it to the Time 100 list of most influential people in 2016. But there’s reason above all of that for why you really ought to know of Lamar.
For all the expletive-laden spewing of venom, and the gun-toting, drug-addled, hyper-aggressive, misogynistic posturing, not to forget the tune-less, staccato, confessional-mode yabbering that we’ve come to expect, it’s surprising to learn about the supposed healing powers of rap and hip-hop music.
It left us dumbfounded to know that rap music, especially Lamar’s, has become a subject of vital interest for a growing brood of behaviourists, psycholinguists and psychologists. As it turns out, the most shocking thing about Lamar’s music is that it is being employed in clinical practices to help treat cases of depression, mental illness and suicidal behaviour.
Rap as anti-depressant
The anecdotes about the positive effect of Lamar’s music are aplenty — at one concert, a woman fan professed that the rapper’s music helped her through a suicidal phase, and very likely saved her life. To a generation of youngsters, Lamar is a deliverer of hope and courage, a voice against oppression, the raiser of a clarion call for racial tolerance, and a moral barometer distinguishing the right from the wrong. All of that also comes with academic validation.
Sample this, from “Kendrick Lamar, street poet of mental health”, a paper written by Akeem Sule and Becky Inkster, published in the journal, The Lancet Psychiatry (2015): “Listening to Kendrick Lamar might help mental-health practitioners to understand the day-to-day internal and external struggles of their patients. Hip-hop might also be a way for young people to understand and consider their own vulnerability, resilience, and life choices in a culturally relevant and easily accessible manner.”
Sule and Inkster, both passionate hip-hop fans who work with the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, co-founded the initiative HIP HOP PSYCH, forming an unlikely bridge between the worlds of hip-hop and psychiatry. The research finds that “Lamar’s lyrics have underlined several psychiatric themes around addiction, depression vulnerability, and resilience against stress and depression.”
“Hip-hop lyrics go far beyond the swearing, the rapping about money and exploitation of women,” explains a note from HIP HOP PSYCH. “Conscious lyricism contains raw, unfiltered narration describing the harsh realities and coping mechanisms used to combat these detrimental circumstances — this is a recurrent theme in hip-hop music,” it says.
The note adds, “Hip-hop music is rich with mental health references related to addiction, psychosis, conduct disorder, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and so on, as well as multiple environmental risk factors (eg, urbanicity, poor nutrition, destructive parental influences resulting in childhood maltreatment in the absence of positive role models) and predisposing genetic and epigenetic risk factors.”
The positive messages tend to get overlooked given the mode of communication between experts and those speaking out, explains the group. Therein, hip-hop culture gains importance, as “it embraces self-expression and recognises the daily trials and tribulations that many people face — the pressures that challenge their state of mind”.
The duo is now taking HIP HOP PSYCH sessions into prisons, schools and hostels to promote positive self-esteem, raise awareness about issues of social stigma, and dissuade youth from embracing a criminal lifestyle, all through engagement with hip-hop artistes.
“It has been about forty years since hip-hop began in the ghettos of New York City,” says Sule, in her research. “Much of hip-hop comes from areas of socio-economic deprivation, so it’s inevitable that its lyrics will reflect issues faced by people in these areas, including poverty, marginalisation, crime and drugs,” she explains. “Hip-hop artistes use their talents to describe the world they see, and also as a means of breaking free. There’s often a message of hope.”
‘This era’s Bob Dylan’
Sure, it can get tricky trying to spot virtue in songs with choruses that go, “Hol’ up, b***h! Be humble, sit down” or “Gimme some g*nja, real n*gga in my DNA, ain’t no h* inside my DNA”. Lamar’s music might well leave the uninitiated listener in a spasmodic state, quite like the experience enacted by the actor Don Cheadle in the video of the track DNA.
For a protege of Dr Dre, the good kid image sits well on Lamar — he avoids drugs and rarely drinks. He carries a strong Christian conviction, fondly quotes scriptures in conversation, and performed at the White House on the 4th of July last year.
Lamar is careful not to lionise gun culture, or glorify gangster mentality, and he even throws in an elder-brotherly speech on gun control, in the album. His music remains rooted in the American present, raising a finger over issues of African-American sociopolitical struggles, institutionalised racism, black stereotypes, empowerment, oppression of coloured people, police brutality, societal power struggles, discrimination, white supremacists, hedonism and gang violence.
Tackling tough subjects has made Lamar an unlikely political figure. In 2015, Alright practically became the new We Shall Overcome, as the chosen anthem of street protesters across Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland and New York, while To Pimp a Butterfly became emblematic of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. At the same time, his tunes were also re-purposed into an ad commercial encouraging people to be more forthcoming about discussing mental illness.
Elsewhere, Lamar, or “King Kunta” was hailed live onstage by Snoop as “the new leader of the West Coast”, while Pharrell Williams showered high praise by calling him “this era’s Bob Dylan. Masterful story-telling. Listen to it, it will elevate you. And just like that music has changed”.
Lamar was even approved by basketball star LeBron James, who played the track Alright in an Instagram video last November, in response to Donald Trump’s election as the 45th US President. “As an African-American kid growing up in the inner city, they don’t believe that you can get out and become something,” said LeBron at a press interaction. “That’s why I’m able to relate to his (Lamar’s) lyrics and stories.”
Politics for the people
Lamar has often spoken about the joys of writing, just as the dedication and gut-wrenching honesty that he brings to his craft is stunning, and demands rapt attention. “You could put all your feelings down on a sheet of paper, and they’d make sense to you,” he said, in interviews earlier in his career. “I liked that.”
Not surprisingly, his songs pick up from incidents that he’d become familiar with by his teen years — of unexplained deaths and blatant killing of friends, domestic violence, run-ins with the police, “homeys getting smoked”, and being shot at directly.
In a rare interview with a radio station recently, Lamar repeats, “I just love words. I love how to bend them, I love how to break them, I love how to twist them, turn them, make them couplets… That shows the true craft in your sportsmanship.” He adds, “It’s all acrobatics.”
Lamar fully realises the “thin line between having your sanity and losing it,” as he emphasises, “My release therapy is music.” But more than an emotional salve, rap in the hands of Lamar takes on the onus of delivering social change, reflecting on the hard truths of urban life, and striking a purposeful political stance as well.
Addressing Trump’s presidency in the interview, Lamar retains his blunt manner — “What’s going on now, we’re not focusing on him. What’s going on — we’re focusing on (the) self,” says the rapper. “You see different nationalities and cultures coming together and actually standing up for themselves. Now we can start coming together and figuring out our own problems and home solutions,” he suggests, adding that the spirit of reclamation is what his new album reflects.
“This is culture, this isn’t something you just play with,” says Lamar. “Get a few dollars and get out. People live their lives to this music, period. You can’t play this, you have to take consideration into what you write down on that paper, and if you’re not doing it to say the most impactful sh*t, then what are we doing here?”
That forthright approach also led him to become friends with former US President Barack Obama. Here’s Obama’s advice in Lamar’s words: “Change don’t start when I’m here. It starts once we leave the space we are in.”
Kendrick Lamar’s Damn. is out on all digital services exclusively on Universal Music Group.
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BAND ALERT: OTHER ACTS TO TUNE INTO
The fifth studio album by British virtual band Gorillaz, Humanz was announced on the band’s Instagram page earlier this March. As their first studio album since 2010’s The Fall, Humanz features collaborations from artistes such as Vince Staples, Popcaan, D.R.A.M., Grace Jones, Anthony Hamilton, De La Soul, Danny Brown, Kelela, Mavis Staples, Pusha T and Benjamin Clementine. Gorillaz co-creator Damon Albarn has said that with Humanz, he set out to create something not overtly political, but “an emotional response to politics”. The overarching theme of the album is the emotional aftermath of an unexpected world-changing event. Albarn added that he removed all references to Donald Trump, although, the album does include a bonus track called The Apprentice, referencing Trump's former reality show. A Gorillaz-themed augmented reality app was also released on April 10, allowing users to interact with Murdoc, 2D, Noodle, and Russel, tour the band’s new studios and listen to playlists. The app was used to host the “Humanz House Party”, a listening event touted as the “largest ever geo-specific listening experience”, on April 21-23. Plans have also been announced for a 10-episode Gorillaz TV show.
A Tribe Called Quest
The American hip-hop act A Tribe Called Quest is an old horse on the circuit, regarded as a pioneer of alternative hip-hop. Formed in 1985, originally with MC and producer Q-Tip, MC Phife Dawg and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the band broke up in 1998 after their fifth album, and then reunited in 2006, touring across the US. In 2016, they released their sixth album, We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, featuring guest appearances from André 3000, Kendrick Lamar, Jack White, Elton John, Kanye West, Anderson .Paak, Talib Kweli, and their most frequent collaborators, Consequence and Busta Rhymes. The album’s title was chosen by Phife Dawg, who faced an untimely death in March 2016. Conveying a message of conscious black humanism, the album received widespread critical acclaim, and debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, reinstating the band’s relevance and mastery of their sound, over two decades after their last number one album, Beats, Rhymes and Life (1996).
Run the Jewels
American hip-hop supergroup Run the Jewels, also known as RTJ, was formed in 2013 by rapper/producer El-P and rapper Killer Mike. Their third album, Run the Jewels 3, follows up on their acclaimed self-titled debut of 2013, and Run the Jewels 2 in 2014. As a part of the promotion for the second album, they hosted a “Tag the Jewels” movement, encouraging graffiti artists around the world to tag their rendition of the duo’s signature “fist and gun” hand gesture. The super-duo premiered Legend Has It, their first video from Run The Jewels 3, towards the end of March. Directed by Brian Beletic (who previously helmed El-P’s classic Deep Space 9mm video), the clip portrays the duo in a police lineup, which they suspect to be a setup. Beletic explains in a social media message, “The video plays with the theme of guilty until proven innocent. We live in a world where the stronger the truth, the greater the opposition. In this story, EL-P and Killer Mike are in a police lineup and the cards are stacked heavily against them. But why is that?” For Run the Jewels, “this video is a worst-nightmare scenario... No bunnies were hurt in the making of this video.”