Frankly, I don’t want to write anything about the new Kendrick Lamar album.
For my money, Kendrick is the best working rapper out and that’s been true for a couple of albums now. Phonte is my favorite, but I love them both for the same reason: they’re powerful and singularly gifted technicians. They can rap about anything, in almost any style, and it be a version head and shoulders above anything you could compare those tracks to.
Each rapper is at a different place in their careers with drastically different goals, so any further comparisons would be wasted energy, but I believe it fair to say that their stakes are different. Kendrick still feels he has things to prove, maybe not to audiences, but to himself and to his artistic calling. Phonte is past that. His legacy is secure, and he has acquired the thing every artist covets: freedom. I don’t just mean the day-one basic fight about owning your masters. If an artist doesn’t get that by now, shame on them. I mean the freedom to be any and everything he wants to be – sometimes musical, sometimes not – and know that the work will land with some portion of the people who care about his journey.
Kendrick’s stakes are different. He is very much in a place where his every word and idea is scrutinized, and a lot rides on how those things land. Not just his career (which is probably as Teflon-safe as Dave Chappelle’s no matter what he does), but the albatross around his neck that comes with being the voice of a generation. And while such a designation makes for good headlines, all you have to do is observe how much frothing occurs at his every appearance in public life to realize it’s not just a title. He is genuinely representative.
Kendrick is what Kanye fans think their idol is. He is actually doing the things that Kanye fans are always attempting to sell folks on. Kendrick is searching for profundity, but in a way that builds off of previous ideas and experiences. It is a personal search, a search that understands that such a trek goes further inward, not out. Kendrick is not flailing at the world so much as he is trying to get his arms around it, which is to say get his mind around it, and his place in it. It’s a heavy crown to wear, and it’s no coincidence or merely a Jesus complex that his is so frequently portrayed as being made of thorns. The throne is uncomfortable.
Unlike West, he doesn’t want to burn down the world; he wants to understand it. He recognizes that which he does not know. And while both men process out loud, Kendrick’s work is not the work of someone who wants us to believe he has all the answers; just that he’s interested in what they might be. It is why so much of his music sounds like a conversation and West’s sounds like a sermon that you can feel has a collection plate coming behind it.
Criticisms of Kendrick’s takes on this record are pretty typical observations. News flash: he gets some things wrong. But the mistake here is less about what Kendrick is presenting and more about audiences assuming every message is for them. “Aunt Diaries” is not a conversation aimed at trans people, but people who struggle to accept them, particularly those of us still burdened with mountainous machismo and misogyny. He allows all of us to hear that conversation, but it is not a session aimed for everyone’s ears. And so, to write off the album as homophobic is reductive. But for some people the issue is beyond pertinent – it’s personal – and their criticisms must be listened to. And then you and I, like Kendrick, must walk our paths with new information and make some pimpin’ decisions. He took a swing at the subject. Was it a hit or a miss? Like all art, it begs you to determine that for yourself.
I think he swims too far out to make a shallow point about relationships on “We Cry Together”. I get what he wanted to do here, but it’s basically too radioactive to do any good. In trying to illustrate, well, any number of things about love and sex and communication, he left me mostly just needing a shower.
I don’t want to write anything about the new Kendrick Lamar album and yet I seemingly have. I don’t want to engage in a song-by-song thing here because it’s the kind of art you either have to go all the way in to talk about (which for me is several thousand words. For comparison, this is 1000 and I’ve only stated a fraction of what I could), or it’s a conversation piece that allows you to engage the person you are talking to specifically, unpacking what each of you feel, think and assumed. Also, it’s one of those things that everybody is going to listen to anyway, and I doubt anyone will come away from it with no opinion whatsoever. It’s kind of like a new Marvel movie: Everyone is going to see it, so it’s best to just let people put out what they want and check in on the people whose opinions you actually care about. And if those people haven’t said anything publicly about it, at least you know you have something to talk about the next time you meet. Kendrick Lamar has gravity. It takes more effort to escape its attractions than to dismiss them.
I don’t want to write about this record because the things that it talks about I write about all of the time. I read articles and buy books on them. I engage in public speaking gigs and compose speeches about them. I go back and forth on social media about them. I’m not so keen to spend 3000-4000 words trying to unpack what Kendrick gets right or wrong when I knew going in he was going to be an intellectual minefield. That’s masochistic.
One more thing.
What I don’t really hear many people talking about is how this album functions as music. Lots of talk about propaganda, about his political hits or misses, but very little talk about whether or not the album works as a collection of songs. People are talking about it like it’s an endurance test and not a record. I get it: it’s a very personal record for him, meaning internalizing and reflective of the self, which will make it a very therapeutic and interrogative experience for listeners. People who prefer to use litmus tests on what they consume before partaking have ample opportunities here to hit their respective eject buttons. A lot of this record is misguided. It means well, but it’s going to arm a lot of dumb dudes with slick catchphrases to sound deep for the next two years. I wish Kendrick had joined a book club during the time when he had writer’s block.
I find the album immensely listenable, though there are tracks I don’t need to hear again. That makes it pretty much like every other great album in my collection. I also think it’s his most intense record to date. It’s going to probably be considered a classic at the end of the day (say, in five years or so). It’s a heavy record. And I don’t want to write anything else about it, though I’m happy to engage folks on it otherwise.