As Kendrick Lamar releases new album Mr Morale, revisiting the reflections of social disquietude in rapper's music
As the world through—social media and otherwise—rapidly loses its decency while rejecting the idea of the “other”, Lamar is forcing you to face your own hypocrisy that masquerades as different versions of libertarianism today.
In #TheMusicThatMadeUs, senior journalist Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri chronicles the impact that musicians and their art have on our lives, how they mould the industry by rewriting its rules and how they shape us into the people we become: their greatest legacies
The whole point of this column has been to document artists or bands whose contributions to music have been so significant that they’ve created genres, or subgenres, and even altered the course of music history. There are few who create a mould that inspired generations to find their voice. There are fewer who take that mould and use it as the basis for something truly extraordinary. Dr Dre’s protégé and the only Pulitzer-winning popular artist in the world—Kendrick Lamar is one of them.
With his latest album around the corner Mr Morale and the Big Steppers, now’s as good a time as any to look at the legacy that Lamar inherited from the pantheon that includes Notorious BIG, Tupac Shakur, Eminem, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg et al, and how he has given it his inimitable stamp of originality; thus, creating a space for himself with the masters of the craft within just 11 years of his debut album.
While it may seem an overkill to talk about a widely written-about prolific album, Lamar’s importance in the Indian soundscape rests in the raw timelessness of his ground-breaking album To Pimp a Butterfly. Given that the focus of the album was beyond the “wokeness” one associates with millennials and instead hammers home points on discrimination, race, Black culture and the value of human life, it is all too relatable in our sociocultural contexts of casteism and anti-secularism, where dignity is a word that finds place in our Constitution but not in our everyday lives.
Lamar’s album was considered rather politically-charged when it came out in 2015, wherein the piece of work is said to have rewritten the idea of existentialism within the world of hip-hop. It isn’t just the haunting nature of the lyrics that rankles; it’s the fact that the lyrics represent a microcosm of trauma which plays out in so many marginalised communities around the world. Politically sidelined or hunted for the votebank, you can replace America’s Black community with the Muslims in India and the essence of To Pimp a Butterfly really shakes you to the core.
Lamar has championed in various albums—specifically this one—the magnitude of mental health issues by highlighting the struggles of anxiety, isolation, depression, and the spirit of survival in the face of it all.
While he may not be a rare musician to touch upon such topics in his songs, Lamar stands out in his ability to blend in jazz, soul, and even rock, into the mainstream hip-hop sound, thus creating music that not just provokes social disquietude but also pushes the limits of seemingly disparate genres. In essence, Lamar widened his audience not by changing the music but changing their expectation of him.
To Pimp a Butterfly is in many ways a most comprehensive, yet concise (only 1 hour 20 minutes-long) anthology of Black culture that balances the systemic racism and the daunting idea of simply being Black with the traditional richness that lords over jazz, soul and the blues. If it comforted the community by way of relating to their daily sufferings, then it also brought out the beauty of their artistic lineage because pain always finds its way to the arts.
Lamar has built up to this moment by taking his greatest influences from Tupac, Notorious BIG, Eminen, Jay-Z and more, emulating their best components while finding a truly unique voice, sound and personality in the midst of it all. He is the perfect amalgamation of hip-hop ancestry and the best catalyst to take it to a newer generation of musicians and listeners. He sings about ideas that resonate with all of us around the world and even when we risk a hagiography of his genius, we know that even the exaggeration is sometimes warranted.
That said, he has been known to publicly back dubious characters like R Kelly and XXXtentacion against Spotify’s new policy to police music of convicted abusers, and his unabashed love for Michael Jackson includes a ludicrous denial of the Prince of Pop’s sexual abuse accusations. So for all that we laud Lamar, there is a part of him that begs careful consideration for we the listeners need not necessarily suffer from the kind of idol worship that he does.
Despite all that, Lamar is extensively praised for the genius that his music is and what it represents; a sociocultural alchemy that urges you to be true to your most humane side. As the world through—social media and otherwise—rapidly loses its decency while rejecting the idea of the “other”, Lamar is forcing you to face your own hypocrisy that masquerades as different versions of libertarianism today.
Senior journalist Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri has spent a good part of two decades chronicling the arts, culture and lifestyles.
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