On Music As Art or Commerce (Part 2)

This piece, which is the second of a larger two-part essay, was written by spechaar contributor, Luyanda Madliwa. The text is a version of a speech he delivered in early 2023.

Serving as Drake’s counterpart, Kendrick Lamar’s music is almost as beautiful and flawed as the man himself. It’s hard to speak generally about Kendrick in the way I so easily can about Drake because of how singular each of Kendrick’s albums feel, both sonically and thematically. Take, for example, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ – the album where his artistic vision was most fully realised, and how it ascends to meet Scorsese’s definition of cinema. 

Firstly, the realisation is seen in the risk Kendrick took. For context, hip-hop convention is to make instrumentals by sampling existing music. The music of  ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is far more ambitious as it plays almost like a History of African American music in its influence – from Jazz and Soul to P-Funk and G-Funk, and almost everything in between. Kendrick Larmar seemed to be very careful in his choice of musicians, however, showing reverence to the genres that inspired the album’s sound, from recruiting industry veterans such as Thundercat and The Isley Brothers, to forward thinking artists in those same fields like Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington. 

The album’s narrative also has a far wider scope and is so dense that it requires active listening to be fully appreciated, with the variety of literature, music, film and history that Kendrick Lamar references either directly (like in this line on his 2015 record, ‘Complexion (A Zulu Love)’: “solemn men [Solomon] up north, 12 years a slave”) or through sustained thematic reference, such as the idea of yams and what they represent, as mentioned in “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, being developed on the song “King Kunta,” being worthy of their own lengthy dissection. This had the potential to alienate large audiences, “because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all,” and he did it anyway. 

In the vignettes of his life that he paints on this album, Kendrick meets Scorsese’s definition of what cinema should evoke to a tee. Kendrick sheds light on the complexity of people throughout the project. On “Institutionalised” ,he sheds light on the effects of poverty in inner-city Compton on the psyche. “You can take the boy out the hood but you can’t take the hood out the homie,” says Snoop Dogg on the song but the message seems to instead be that change is a process that requires active effort, or put more simply by Bilal: “Shit don’t change until you wash your ass.” On “Mortal Man”, having completed his own narrative arc, he turns the proverbial mirror to the listener and questions their loyalty to figures such as himself, asking us, “When shit hits the fan, are you still a fan?” Willing to accept the role assigned to him following good kid,M.A.A.D City’s release as “voice of a generation “, but asks if we as listeners would be quick to abandon him, citing artists like Michael Jackson and religious figures like Jesus as people who the public turned on. 

He is self assured enough to show the listener his contradictory and sometimes paradoxical nature. On “u,” arguably the album’s lowest point emotionally, Kendrick reckons with his personal demons, from feeling that his messaging is not reaching his audience, notably his song “Keisha’s Song” which was written to warn his younger sister against prostitution, but which failed to prevent her from becoming a teenage mother, to guilt over not visiting his friend in the hospital because he was touring, and that friend eventually dying and all this guilt leads to his suicide attempt on the song, with the poignant final line stating that “money can’t stop a suicidal weakness.” “i” is almost the complete emotional opposite of “u” with a message of loving one’s self in spite of any hardships the world may throw one’s way, with the single version even plainly stating “I gotta get up, life is more than suicide” and with Kendrick boldly proclaiming “I love myself” at album’s end. 

He loves in spite of differences in skin tone on “Complexion,” trying to overcome the colourism inherent in American society. On “These Walls” he “abuses his power, full of resentment” and has sex with the girlfriend of the man who shot his friend on previous album good kid, M.A.A.D City, as an act of revenge. At the album’s climax “How Much A Dollar Cost,” Kendrick’s failure of God’s test of him, causes him to comes face to face with himself and seek to change his ways for the better, in the words of Ronald Isley on the song “Turn this page, help me change to right my wrongs.” 

It is only after he repents that he can earnestly deliver the album’s most pointed social commentary on the album’s last leg, and can deliver the album’s overarching message. “The word was respect.” Kendrick says at the end of Mortal Man, “Just because you wore a different gang colour than mine’s, doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man.Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets, If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us.” This serves as a sort of thesis, supported by his personal journey on the album. It is a truly transformative work, so unique in its genre that people seek to compare it to other visionary works of art in completely different mediums. That any hip-hop album can be mentioned in the same breath as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica or James Joyce’s Ulysses ,or can win a Pulitzer prize, typically reserved for “real music” like Classical or Jazz, is important for shifting perception of the genre to a valid medium for artistic expression. 

If nothing else, I reject the idea that everyone should be seeking out the Marvel or Drake model of success. To me, the works of artists like Kendrick may be less successful in their time, but they are the works that push art forward and “60 or 70 years later, we’ll still be listening to those albums and marvelling at them.”