When “To Pimp a Butterfly” came out, I remember being overwhelmed. It was an immense project, vast in scope, sound and concept. I had many conversations with friends trying to unpack and understand it. A close friend of mine said something to the effect of, “Kanye’s single bar, ‘Is hip hop just a euphemism for a new religion? The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missin‘ has more weight to it than the entire song ‘Complexion.'” That statement, though brash and critical, was somewhat true. And while I thought it was unfair to Kendrick, it resonated with me.
I remember thinking what he said was kind of absurd, because that Kanye bar is pretty much one of the heaviest hitting lines in the history of hip hop — you could make that statement about almost any song. I thought for a long time about that single bar — how it seemed to encompass what hip hop meant with just a few words — how it was the thesis of the genre. Maybe that is why I never fully understood “To Pimp a Butterfly,” because I am not black in America and my ancestors were not slaves, so I am not part of the youth missing the soul music.
Kanye had indeed written the thesis of hip hop. It is a line that illustrated the strife that black people go through in America, and how they used hip hop to remedy those struggles. But on “DAMN.,” Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, he operates on a different premise than Kanye, and that is how he went about re-writing the thesis of hip hop.
“I can’t fake humble just ’cause your ass is insecure.” The line from “PRIDE.” is the focal point of the entire album, and also the entire world of hip hop.
“DAMN.” is an assertion in the most pure sense of the word. It is an assertion of Kendrick’s beliefs, his politics, his religion and his lifestyle. He unabashedly spits out his “theories and suspicions,” whether they are his cousin Carl’s affirmation that “the ‘so-called’ Blacks, Hispanics and Native American Indians are the true children of Israel,” his advice on “LUST.”or the royalty inside of his DNA. Everything he does is a call to attention concerning the pride he has in himself, his family and his race. He even samples a voice clip from Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera misquoting his song “Alright,” and in the very next second asserts his loyalty and royalty, both thrashing and rendering irrelevent the confused reporter’s comments. Like I said, “DAMN.” is an assertion of Kendrick Lamar’s very being.
This assertion is the premise of the entire album. Kendrick asserts that he and his brethren are royalty. He asserts that black people and other minorities are sacred and he refuses to view these races as anything other than royalty. Where Kanye’s line hangs on to the enslaved history of blacks in America, Kendrick sheds the weight of those chains, asserts the true and royal image of minorities and the transcendence of hip hop. It is no longer the “soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing,” but rather the fire in the hearts and heads of a holy, royal and proud race of people.
Kendrick maintains that no longer should black people “fake humble” just because old white men are insecure and racist. Instead, he has now made hip hop the ruling class of the royal.
Though usually a modest figure, Kendrick wears a ring in his video for “DNA.”
Lest we not forget that, historically, the kings are the ones who don the jewelry.
All hail Kendrick, and all hail the black and minority kings and queens around us.