Hip-Hop Man Of The Year 2015: How Kendrick Lamar Proved That He Truly Is “Chosen” (Editorial)
In large part, 2015 was a difficult year to make sense of. Around the world, there were major acts of violence, hatred, and reminders that injustice and systematic prejudice lurk in every corner. Approaching an election year, the discourse in the United States often felt polarized, with across-the-aisle messages vitriolic. With that, in the streets, the world found answers. The populist reaction to the complicated world in 2015 was a glimmer of hope. People across color lines, gender lines, and language barriers came together to stand up against oppression.
In Hip-Hop, Kendrick Lamar could not have forecast the remaining 3/4 of 2015 when he released To Pimp A Butterfly in mid-March. The Compton, California MC’s fourth studio album (and second in the major label system) seemed to resonate so strongly with what was on the minds and in the hearts of the masses. Like Bob Dylan in the 1960s or Marvin Gaye in the 1970s, K-Dot took an air of strife and made intricate, kaleidoscopic art. But then, as the dust settled on the next nine months—Kendrick Lamar Duckworth unassumingly and valiantly walked it just as he talked it. One of the culture’s crowned lyricists and #1 album makers used his latest long-player to remind the world about love, courage, and solidarity.
At a time when “Black Lives Matter” chants echoed through the main streets, suburban malls, and Times Squares of America, Kendrick Lamar gave Black folks a reminder to feel proud, and at the forefront of popular culture. T.P.A.B. preview single “King Kunta” did not concern itself with making all audiences feel included in Hip-Hop’s party. Instead, Kendrick rhymed exclusively from the perspective of being a Black Man in America “taking no losses.” The record ostracized those who did not believe in the pre-fame man, or talent of the Hub City luminary:
“Straight from the bottom, this the belly of the beast
From a peasant to a prince to a motherfuckin’ king”
First single “i” had much of the same sentiment. In a chaotic world, Kendrick Lamar stressed the human foundation of self-love. The record, released in 2014, was packing ammunition for the year ahead. Regardless of race, gender, creed, etc., Kendrick wanted humanity to thrive, and not let evil win:
“The sky can fall down, the wind can cry now
The strong in me, I still smile”
Somewhere between the two narratives, “Alright” was the anthem. The song’s chorus offered hope to the people, and let the oppressors know that they will not win. However, the record was more specific than that. The same year that Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland would inexplicably die in police custody, and Tamir Rice’s killer would not face conviction, Lamar blatantly acknowledged the institutional hate. In 2015, he would tell The Guardian “I am Trayvon Martin,” and claimed that if he were to have a son, he too, would be the slain Florida teen—whose killer walked without serving time. Later in the year, penning a letter for XXL magazine, Kendrick opened up further, showing that he lived the storylines of Black Lives Matter. “From Trayvon Martin, to Eric Garner to Michael Brown and issues of police brutality and racism and for so many other reasons. All of it has really struck a nerve with me because when you experience things like that personally and you know the type of hardships and pain that it brings first-hand, it builds a certain rage in you. It brings back memories of when I’m 16 and the police come kicking the door in. They don’t care that I’m a little boy and they [stomped] me in my back two times and they dragged me out the house and have us all handcuffed.” He told The New York Times, just over a week ago, that “Alright” had magnitude before it ever left the studio. “[It is a] simple phrase: We gon’ be alright. It’s a chant of hope and feeling. I credit that to Pharrell, for being able to present an arrangement and to inspire me to do a record like that. Immediately, I knew the potential.”
“When you know, we been hurt, been down before, nigga
When my pride was low, lookin’ at the world like, “where do we go, nigga?”
And we hate Popo’, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, nigga
I’m at the preacher’s door
My knees gettin’ weak and my gun might blow but we gon’ be alright”
In 2013, Kendrick Lamar garnered his largest fame from a shelved feature verse on Big Sean’s “Control.” There, K-Dot was portrayed as a combative MC, dissing his peers in the interest of reviving Hip-Hop’s spirit of competition. While the attention surely appeared welcomed in Hip-Hop, is that really what Kendrick has meant to listeners since Overly Dedicated? Instead of the chippiness or trouble-maker persona painted by some media outlets two years ago, To Pimp A Butterfly allowed no other takeaways of the artist than somebody who had great insight into the times, aimed to restore Hip-Hop’s sense within chaos, desired to be a voice for the perceived voiceless. On an album so overtly attached to Tupac Shakur (as well as Parliament-Funkadelic and The Isley Brothers), Kendrick Lamar knew how to revive dangerously accurate, unafraid lyrics that not only resounded with people of color, but reached the hearts and minds of all people.
In the same late 2015 XXL letter, Kendrick Lamar spoke about just how powerful he believes his path is. “I know I’m chosen. I know I’m a favorite. I know in my heart there’s a whole other energy and leadership side of me that I have probably run from my whole life.” Perhaps this explained the direction of T.P.A.B. “When you are a voice for the youth, nothing can stop you. The youth is what changes things. Can I lead that? Should I? I get confused because people are championing me to be that vocal point and it’s a challenge for me to be that because I have some fear of that type of power. This goes back to me being who I naturally am or who think that I am now, that 28-year-old kid that’s kind’ve a recluse. But 28 is old enough for me to figure out who I am and have that power at the same time.” Already older than Tupac Shakur was when he died, Kendrick Lamar knows the gravity of his message, and his time on earth as “mortal man.” Rather than try to reach the charts, clubs, and arenas, the TDE flagship artist has chosen to be the voice of the streets—whether street kids, or street rallies.
At a time when the party (and its music) was a welcomed distraction for many of us, Kendrick Lamar wagered a platinum career on depth and substance. To Pimp A Butterfly was not unanimously loved. The album notably generated criticism by some media outlets months after its release. Not once did Kendrick ever succumb to justifying his art. Without its “Swimming Pools” or “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” K-Dot was invested in making sure his stardom used its platform for sociological storytelling on “How Much A Dollar Cost?,” the inner-conflicts of “Institutionalized,” or stressing the attractive power of pigment in “Complexion (A Zulu Love).” In the end, substance prevailed. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization responsible for the Grammy Awards and who seemingly snubbed Kendrick two years ago, rewarded the MC’s artistic courage, with 11 nominations surrounding his T.P.A.B. work.
Perhaps more validating though, in the streets of America, the record quite literally became the hopeful soundtrack to protest and change:
There was also great encouragement in the fact that Kendrick Lamar did not just let his music do the hard work. Upon learning his latest music was being used in a high school curriculum, one of the biggest Hip-Hop stars in the world went right to the Bergen, New Jersey students to interact. He went back to his hometown of Compton, as well, fully embracing his new status as a role model. “It’s still a work in progress. Perfect example: Going out to the [Compton Christmas Parade, where he served as grand marshal] and seeing these kids’ eyes light up. I’m looking at them like, man, I was one of y’all before. The more I get to see it visually and hear their words, the more it helps me aspire to inspire. Every time I think about that, it gets me out of my own selfish ways. It’s not just for me. It’s for these kids out here that hang on to these words. They’re more dependent on me saying the next thing and seeing my face than I’m consumed with being an introvert,” he told The New York Times. The Golden State would also recognize Kendrick’s intentions and merits. He received the Generational Icon Award from the state. The MC who rapped about what he’d do if he was in the White House (and boldly portrayed himself with the homies in front of the storied venue on the T.P.A.B. album cover) received the accolade on the California Senate floor.
In an era when Hip-Hop stars liked being the teachers, Kendrick Lamar spent 2015 as a student. As Straight Outta Compton cinematically portrayed the lineage of music in Compton, Kendrick Lamar gained access to N.W.A., to ask the questions. It was not the passing of the torch as much as it was a reinforcement of the values and courage to represent a city, and a culture through uncompromising lyrics and attitudes. The same was true when K-Dot interviewed Quincy Jones, another cultural luminary of an earlier time. The world is used to loquacious Rap stars with lots of opinions, but Kendrick Lamar made listening, asking questions, and processing information cool. If rappers could be role models without posturing, Kendrick Lamar did so, even in his more understated moments.
In 2015, “shit hit the fan.” Kendrick Lamar gave the Hip-Hop culture reason to still be a fan. With his star burning bright, the MC made one of the boldest, most experimental Rap albums in years, with the People in mind. To Pimp A Butterfly bet it all, on not what the fans wanted, but what they (and the times) needed. In step with his art, Kendrick Lamar never wavered. He was committed to his causes and out to leave a mark on our minds.