By: Justin Cook
Kendrick Lamar’s presence speaks for itself. The man is a poetic, and artistic, genius. No one else in this current formation of the universe has bars like Lamar. For a lot of hip-hop heads, he is the best emcee that has graced the mic in a long ass time; some even go as far as calling him the “resurrection of Tupac” or the “savior of hip-hop.” It’s like he’s on some Jesus-level shit, or a secret Super Saiyan, or possibly The One who will rescue us from The Matrix. I really don’t think anyone else could get away with having such an otherworldly, almost godlike, reputation. Kendrick is that dude. And in all honesty, he deserves it. The man has been laying down solid tracks since day one, when he still went under his original moniker, K-Dot. Now, I don’t like to claim anyone to be the “greatest,” but without a doubt, Kendrick is sure to be one of the greats, and I will break down why in this week’s installment of “The Poetry Of Kendrick Lamar.”
“Fuck Your Ethnicity” [Section.80]
This was the first song I heard by Kendrick Lamar, and still stands as one of my absolute favorites. The beat, the lyrics, and Kendrick’s peculiar flow: all a testament to the man’s wizardry with words. The opening lines always send a shiver down my spine: “Fire burning inside my eyes, this the music that save my life/ Ya’ll be calling it hip-hop, I be calling it hypnotize.” From that point forward, I’m straight hypnotized, rocking to the beat, awaiting the next sequence of powerful imagery. The way Kendrick moves from line to line through metaphor and double-speak is quite brilliant:
“My details be retail, man I got so much in store/ Racism is still alive, yellow tape and colored lines/ Fuck that, nigga look at that line, it’s so diverse/ They getting off work and they wanna see Kendrick/ Everybody can’t drive Benz’s and I been there/ So I make it my business to give’em my full attention, ten-hut!”
These bars are proof that Kendrick is “kicking that math, dropping that science like an alchemist.” They’re pure gold, shining like an angel. Good God Kendrick Lamar! This “business” is the scripture. I love how he flips “yellow tape and colored lines,” referring to crime, violence, and racial boundaries, with “look at that line, it’s so diverse,” referring to the people lining up to see Kendrick live; these folks break the “yellow tape and colored lines” and come together through the power of hip-hop. And as Kendrick has thoroughly “detailed” in this song, he’s about the give the people his full love and attention. Hallelujah!
“Faith” [Kendrick Lamar EP]
This song is just real as fuck, simple as that. It doesn’t use any elaborate metaphors or word play to impress the listener. It simply speaks universal truths of the human experience: struggle, death, temptation, and the power of faith. At its core, this song is all about maintaining in the face of adversity. Kendrick highlights his own struggles of gaining faith despite being “a person that never believed in religion,” but also extends out into a wider narrative: the struggle of black oppression. This oppression is intimately described in the second verse, which begins “Single black parent from Compton raising children of 4/ That’s 4 innocent bastards cause Papa they don’t know.” I love the way Kendrick blends his narrative seamlessly with the narrative of his people, or in other words, using his own experiences to speak about greater social and economic struggles. We need more of this in not only the hip-hop community, but also in the greater reality of humankind. This song is truly a beautiful piece of poetry that reminds us “the next time you feel like your world’s about to end/ I hope you studied because He’s testing your faith again.”
“Cartoon & Cereal”
The whole aesthetic of this song is unreal. It’s so menacing, dark, and bleak—the feeling of a tortured existence. This aesthetic in and of itself speaks volumes. The track, aptly named “Cartoon & Cereal,” details Kendrick’s paradoxical childhood in Compton: “Now I was raised in a sandbox, next to you and her/ You was holding the handgun, she was giving birth.” Just those opening lines display the lyrical mastery of Kendrick Lamar. This “sandbox” comes to represent the whole of Compton, a small section of L.A. where life expectancy for young men is quite young, due to gang violence, lack of resources, drug addiction, and systematic oppression. These men never quite grow up, or grow out of this oppression, leaving them as children trapped in a metaphorical “sandbox.” The next line referring to the “handgun” and “giving birth” represents the vicious cycle that perpetuates this oppression. The handgun symbolisms the absent father, who is presumably out gangbanging instead of watching his child being born; the fact that it is a “handgun” invokes the idea that this violence is “handed” down from father to son, a reoccurring theme throughout the song. On the other hand, literally, we see a mother giving birth. The concept of birth, which gives life through spilling blood, juxtaposed with the notion of systemic violence, reinforces the issue that black bodies are born INTO a cycle of oppression, which they themselves did not create. Rather, it is a creation of the State and perpetuated by social institutions such as prisons, media outlets, and government. As Kendrick comments, cartoons and cereal represent unhealthy food and mindless entertainment; these are the new “Opiates of the Masses” that allow us to be continually controlled by the powers at be.
“Holy Ghost (Remix) [Ft. Kendrick Lamar]“
I’m not a big fan of Young Jeezy, but I had to include this jam on my list. Kendrick snaps on this shit right here. Similar to the menacing vibe we find on “Cartoon & Cereal,” this remix again shows us Kendrick’s dark side. At first listen, this may seem like another rap song glorifying sex, money, and drugs, but it is actually the exact opposite. To me, it reads more like the struggle of maintaining your faith and positivity while living in a Capitalist world full of temptation: the Lexus, Rolexes, sexting, and beaucoup bucks. It’s a song where we can see Kendrick expressing his anger and frustration in being a hip-hop superstar and role model. It’s a side we rarely see of Kendrick, but one I believe is just as honest, and important, as his positive side.
I also highlighted this track for its use of sound and intricate structure. First off, the assonance and alliteration carry this verse through. It’s almost unreal how slippery the sounds are: “Tee-Tee and Tiana sexting/ Teepees and mansions I rest in/ Two T’s and Top Dawg impress with/ TV’s that play their investment…” That shit is wild. It’s so damn smooth, almost like driving in the back of a Rolls Royce Phantom Ghost. On top of all that, the whole verse is syncopated the exact same way; it’s straight mathematical. To carry the same flow throughout sixteen bars is harder than it may seem. On top of that, there are four lyrical “breaks” in Kendrick’s flow, signifying the next onslaught of poetic genius, all end with the same rhyme: burn, turn, vrrrrrm, learn. Most emcees can’t even come close to this kind of artistry and attention to detail, further proof of Kendrick’s lyrical mastery.
“Poe Man’s Dreams (His Vice)” [Section.80]
“Smoke good, eat good, live good. Smoke good, eat good, live good…”
This is the jam. A song you can just chill out and vibe to. After a long day of stressing, this is the track I can rely on to level me out. Again, it’s Kendrick spitting some wisdom, and he’s not being flashy about it: “I know some rappers using big words to make their similes curve/ My simple as shit be more pivotal.” Just sit back and listen. Plus, GLC’s verse on the outro is crazy. This is the Gospel. Cathedral!
“Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” [Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City]
This is hands down my favorite song by Kendrick Lamar. Actually, it’s one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s a masterpiece. It’s so raw. I could listen to it over and over again, all day, everyday. Within the narrative of Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, this song serves as an important, and intimate, moment. In each verse, Kendrick embodies a different voice—the third being his own—which shed light on the harsh realities of living in Compton. It’s just a beautiful song, spilling with great line after great line. And that beat! It’s so damn smooth. Plus, I love how the beat parallels the narrative, adding another layer of poetics. For example, the gunshots at the end of the first verse, which kills the speaker who can’t fully express what he “hopes” for, always tugs at my emotions; or, at the end of the second verse when the vocals fade away, despite the speaker who insists, she will never fade away. That shit is hard and gives this whole song another dimension of artistry. Plus, it seamlessly transitions into “I’m Dying of Thirst,” which illustrates the struggle of material vs. spiritual gain. Time to hop in that water and pray that it works.