Kendrick Lamar Mythology
Kendrick Lamar's newest album DAMN. is not by far and away his best and that’s okay. Depending on definition, this is either his third or fourth album. Certainly, Section.80, and even Overly Dedicated are worthy additions to any discography however the nectar of Kendrick Lamar's marvelous mythology is most present in the trifecta of Good kid M.A.A.D. City, To Pimp A Butterfly and now DAMN.
Beginning from Section.80, Kendrick builds a mythology unheard of since the likes of Nas, Biggie and Tupac. By mythology I mean the discursive space where all or at least the bulk of his music resides. Like his precedents, elements of his storytelling – be it the strong symbolism of a good kid lost in a crazy world, or the personification of America or even Lucifer – stand out in the mind long after the first listen. Now certain artists of the genre must be held to a higher cadre than others because their concept albums do require more critical attention to absorb. Indeed, these theses of a modern day black man that question politics, reality and God remain more salient than the the trippy self-expressive quasi-nonsensical mumblings of the Lil Uzi’s and Kodak Black’s and Lil Yatchy’s of the world. A crucial reason Kendrick Lamar claims the title of the greatest rapper alive is because of the contextual depth of his lyricism and music. A brutal attention to detail in the choices of samples, rhymes and voices gives a heightened cinematic feel to the discographic experience Kendrick provides. Mr. Duckworth’s early incarnation as K.Dot (see his eponymous song off Compton State of Mind mixtape) bleeds into the Kendrick Lamar/good kid persona which in turn fuels the creation of the titular ‘Butterfly’ concept from To Pimp a Butterfly and eventually aids the export of the Kung-Fu Kenny voice in DAMN.
“…Keisha, Tammy, come up front. I recognize all of you, every creed and color…”
The bassy intro to F*ck Your Ethnicity initializes the album incredibly well, singling out two supporting characters of the play Kendrick has written. Keisha’s Song and Tammy’s Song delve deep into their nuanced stories in the semi-fictitious neighborhood of Section 80. Keisha’s daughter is referenced approximately six years into the future on Kendrick’s DAMN. showing how he builds off pre-existing mythologies. Call it foresight, vision, whatever, Kendrick Lamar’s ear for detail in lyricism matters every bit as much as the musicality of these albums.
Fast-forward to the groundbreaking Good Kid M.A.A.D city his first major-label studio album, (apparently, Section.80 is a mixtape) the best case-study for mythology is “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”. G.K.M.C. is chock-full of skits and other voices decidedly not Kendrick’s however this song boasts being the most poignant example of several frames of reference, nuanced characters that fit into his previously established motifs. In one of the more meta moments of rap music, Kendrick’s second verse jumps into the mind frame of the sister of Keisha (from Section.80) who criticizes him, saying “how could you ever just put her on blast and shit/judging her past and shit/well it’s completely my future/a nigga behind me right now asking for ass and shit/ and Imma need that forty dollars even if I gotta fuck, suck, or swallow”. Here is a jarring exposition on the power of telling the stories from perspectives that may otherwise be forgotten. Following that Kendrick can speak on the life of a prostitute who struggles with the necessary evils of her occupation, “Sing About Me” signifies a marked improvement in storytelling, one that is only more observable as one delves into the chronology of Kendrick Lamar’s music.
To Pimp A Butterfly, which ranks atop many a ‘Best of’ list, is the next arena wherein such rap mythology is proliferated albeit in a different manner than previous works. Similar to GKMC, now characteristically for a Kendrick album, there are a plethora of voices and tones in this project. One that continues to puzzle me is the female voice on the ‘For Free’ Interlude. I understand that the metaphor of a woman who complain about materialistic lack but in the end, she says “Imma get my Uncle Sam to fuck you up” which is assuredly a commentary on the corruption of the black woman in America by capitalism. Kendrick has been maligned of late for supposedly anti-feminist lyrics on the new album and so this puzzles me because I do see it as problematic but never the less a potent example of his mythology and a pertinent story that needs telling. In the act, Kendrick’s protagonist, the butterfly, battles himself as much as the vices within its cocoon especially in tracks like ‘U’ where depression and guilt personified becomes part of the cast of the audio play. Jump into the album a few songs and Kendrick is being seduced by Lucifer – the character Lucy in the ever-funky ‘For Sale?’ Interlude – and eventually after circumambulate his consciousness, searching for himself, as narrated in the culminating poem spoken in bits throughout the album, on ‘Mortal Man’, he finally presents his findings to the ghost of Tupac and asks for clarification on some puzzles from his life. What could be more poignant than literally going into conversation with the rapper one claims to idolize. I can only imagine the licensing battles Top Dawg Entertainment had to go through to get those interviews. More to the point, I can only imagine how Kendrick imagines. The point of this all is after all an exhalation of his powers of imagination.
To become a legend in rap music, one must muster mythology. Take Biggie or Pac or Nas. Illmatic was a proud celebration of the vagabond subculture of growing up in New York. Ready to Die was an album that spelled out its themes in bright, blood-stained colors and a tone to match; ‘Suicidal Thoughts’, ‘Machine Gun Funk’, ‘Warning’ and ‘Gimme the Loot’ headline a very violent, aggressive track-list whose spirit is a cry for sympathy for the misfortune of a gangster-turned-rap-mogul. That ethos spills into the posthumously released Life After Death. 2pac’s bildungsroman is much the same, just as tragic, moving, the difference being that Pac’s was more gradual than Biggie’s and therefore, more conscious of itself. Kendrick’s is of the same cloth as these legends and by all accounts, the paragon of modern rap mythology.
DAMN. has been out for less than a month and already conversations have risen and died over where it should land in the hierarchy of all things Kendrick. “Nothing could be better than To Pimp A Butterfly” “Are you mad?” I’m not that crazy. I simply don’t care for discographic hierarchies anymore; I just want to appreciate the seemingly ever-expanding realm of Kendrick’s mythology. And in DAMN. Kendrick metamorphoses from pimped-butterfly to Kung-Fu Kenny. (This isn’t even my final form) Similar conversations and frames of reference are exported from the previous work towards the benevolent end of exposing some hidden truth in the American experience for the black man.
To begin unpacking DAMN., I want to pivot from TPAB’s problematic character from For Free. She berates him as “hoe-ass nigga” for not providing her with material needs like an outfit for the fourth of July or a new weave. Indeed, this balance between the material and spirit saturates the ethos of DAMN. ‘Yah’ laments “money to get” and “bitches to hit” even though “He” – God – walks the earth. ‘Loyalty’ asks if it is “money…fame…weed…or drink” that drives loyalty. ‘Pride’, perhaps my favorite on the new record echoes the seductive draw of excess: “In perfect world, I’ll put work over bitches, faith over riches…” Kendrick, since I began listening, has been wrestling with the cognitive dissonance intrinsic in the MAAD city he was exposed to as the ‘good kid’. DAMN. juxtaposes concepts in ‘Love’ and ‘Lust’, ‘Pride’ and ‘Humble’ and eventually ‘God’ and ‘Duckworth’ as a means to understanding his existence as well as a grand scheme plan for the world around him. In his eponymous final track, ‘Duckworth’, he presents the story of how his father Ducky managed to avoid a violent encounter with Anthony Top Dawg Tiffith, the gang member turned CEO of Kendrick’s record label.
In parting, Kung Fu Kenny wonders “Who would have thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence” considering that if Top Dawg had killed his father, he would have grown up fatherless and likely “died in a gun fight.”
So, in summation, Kendrick’s mythology is about this asymptotic journey towards death. The Compton native’s music resonates louder than any of his contemporaries because he boasts a strong production team in addition to his ability to blend hooky anthems with new-age philosophy in discussing life, death and the space in between. Elements of songs like ‘Sing About Me’ can be traced over the five years in between GKMC and DAMN. showing not just a dedication but, again, an attention to detail. More than most, the music he makes emphasizes just how beautifully Kendrick thinks. Mythology as defined by its etymology, is about revealing lost things, ‘mythos’ meaning ‘of unknown origin. The beauty of Kendrick’s storytelling is that it reveals perspectives and narratives that would otherwise be lost to minds and the pages of music history.