“Hip-hop has always been about bragging and boasting,” Eminem once told 60 Minutes and he was partly right. Mainstream hip-hop music has always had a reputation for the genre’s recurring themes of money, drugs, and women, evoking for those outside the community what may now be a stereotypical image of conceited rappers boasting about gold chains and the bevies of prostitutes in their narcotic-filled Ferraris. Many artists, however, employ hip-hop as a tool for protest and spreading awareness. Kendrick Lamar is one of them.
Born and raised in Compton, California, Lamar endured the struggles of living with gang tensions, poverty, drug dealings, poor education, and a bizarre environment throughout his adolescence. To Pimp a Butterfly, an album he released in 2015, compassionately addresses this amongst other issues. One song, “Alright,” revolves around the power of determination and optimism in the face of the much publicized police shootings of the past few years.
“Blacker the Berry” is a bitter reflection on self-hatred in the African American community. The album brings awareness to issues of racial discrimination, certainly, but also to the fact that, often, these communities are in their own conflict of hatred and violence in the form of gang tension and crime. Drawing on his own experiences of growing up in the midst of two infamous rival gangs, the Crips and Bloods, Lamar created more vivid imagery of this bellicose environment in his earlier song, “m.A.Ad city.” With lines like, “Pakistan on every porch, we adapt to crime. Pack a van with four guns at a time” and “‘AK’s, AR’s ‘Ay y’all duck’. That’s what momma said when we was eating the free lunch.”
The most personal song in the album is undoubtedly “u,” in which Lamar scrutinizes his insecurities and the plagues of reaching fame, even calling himself a “failure.” He despises himself for abandoning his family in Compton after attaining fame and fortune, and regrets his decision to refrain from suicide. This song has a significant place in the album, exposing Kendrick Lamar as an icon and inspiration who is vulnerable enough to reveal his insecurities and personal problems.
As a meaningful contrast to “u”, “i” is a jubilant song of contentment and self-love. With radiant instrumentation and the catchy “I love myself” hook, Lamar shelters his listeners from the negativity of his community, and instead emphasizes the importance of self-love and gratitude. Taking a welcome break from the self-loathing and social issues which pervade throughout the album, “i” is Lamar’s offer of optimism through hip-hop, as he uses the song to encourage a unified sense of strength, pride, and self-respect among the African American community.
“Mortal Man” is the final song on To Pimp a Butterfly, a lasting remark from Lamar where he questions the loyalty of his fans and affirms his responsibility in leading and influencing the youth. After exhorting his community to persevere in the midst of discrimination and self-hatred, Lamar feels that he is not only an artist, but an iconic leader. Throughout his hooks, he affirms his responsibility in prolonging the legacy of influential icons such as Nelson Mandela when he says, “The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it,” and later acknowledges himself as a flawed leader when he says, “As I lead this army, make room for mistakes and depression.” Though Lamar seems to accept his role in the public eye and in the African American community, he is still apprehensive about making mistakes, knowing he is only a “mortal man,” showing us another angle of his insecurity when he asks his audience, “When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?”
To Pimp a Butterfly will continue to have a lasting impact on hip-hop music and society as an example of how hip-hop as a platform can be utilized for far more than just entertainment. Its ripples are already being felt, and since its release we have seen more of the social action side of hip-hop . J. Cole, another very prominent and mainstream hip-hop artist, was recently featured in a song called “Jermaine’s Interlude,” where he refers to the issue of police brutality. In July, West Coast rap artists Snoop Dogg and The Game led a peaceful march protesting police brutality. Both artists were once member of rival gangs.
It’s too early to say whether Kendrick will become a figure comparable to Martin Luther King Jr., but there is no doubt that he is, like them, bringing attention social and motivating people to persevere–except Kendrick is doing it with some funky hip-hop beats.
Tazwar Ferdous is a junior at Hopkinton (Massachsetts) High School and has been writing as a hobby for a few years. He is currently interning at The Worcester Journal.