The Critical Black Intellect Of Kendrick Lamar

The inter-connected artistry of a modern master...

The Grammys dubbed Virgil Abloh a ‘hip-hop designer’ and Tyler The Creator won Best Rap Album for 'IGOR' to which his iconic response online and in-person was both “uhhhhh I guess,” and “IGOR was not a rap album if you ask me.” Don’t forget both of these incidents happened in the past two years.

Sometimes hip-hop, that beacon of creativity that has lifted so many Black voices and culturally defined a lot of the past half a century, can be incredibly limiting in its scope. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to exist in a world without hip-hop. But the culture is often toted out in a way that limits the narrative of what Blackness can be, feel and achieve.

On that point I would like to posit this… Kendrick Lamar is one of this generation's greatest fine artists.

I think that alongside several other names we are in the unique position of having a collection of multifaceted Black musicians whose striking visual and conceptual aesthetics reflect a complex creative perspective that engages directly and critically with conversations around race, consciousness and politics in new ways.

It is no longer conscious hip-hop, it is elaborately layered in deeper conversations and more specifically art production. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Kendrick Lamar’s major-label debut album ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’, over the past decade he’s developed and refined his sound to become not only one of the greatest rappers of his generation but one of the greatest rappers of all time (it’s true, Google it).

Kendrick has been referred to as a genius on numerous occasions, he’s the only rapper to have won a Pulitzer Prize; often when speaking about these kinds of hip-hop artists their psyche and creative process is treated as though it exists in a limited vacuum. There’s this intangible idea that the hood rarely produces deep thinkers and great intellects or that when it does they are lifted swiftly to new heights away from the cracks in the pavement that birthed them. They are not like the ‘others’. The truth is these impoverished spaces are abundant with beauty and intellect, the very nature of the pain they face demands that it be present, lest you get washed away by agony.  

One of the things that makes Kendrick Lamar so unique and his projects so powerful is his specific reinterpretation and re-appropriation of critical Black intellect. By critical Black intellect, I'm referring to his homages to influential and pivotal Black photographers, writers, artists and cultural figures alongside personal connections with his Compton upbringing. All you need to do is look at his portrayal of the drug-addled hustler Laces on ‘Power’ to know that Kendrick is no stranger to the idea of hood wisdom.

As an artist, the feeling I get when I’m watching a Kendrick video is like being sat in a particularly difficult calculus class. The imagery is so strong and the artistic references so nuanced that it would take several group discussions in the top-performing universities to actually pinpoint the source of each of these, how he interprets them and the ideas they engage with. In the end, you would have something that would be visually reminiscent of Jeremy Deller’s ‘The History Of The World’.

Admittedly in the process of writing this article, it became clear to me that to make my point in its entirety I would probably have to fill a book so I do not go nearly as in-depth as the subject deserves. Regardless, here are a few of what I think are the strongest examples of Kendrick Lamar’s engagement with critical Black intellect, bear in mind many Black musicians actually do this, but often it is subversive. With Kendrick, it is direct and distinctive and that’s what makes him so iconic.

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The ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’ short film:

The Good Kid, M.A.A.D City short film shot by Kahlil Joseph is definitely where Kendrick hit the tipping point toward the hip-hop goliath he is now. By the time Good Kid, M.A.A.D City arrived he’d already been in the game for the best part of a decade. It shocks me that the whole short film has so few youtube views, to my mind, it is one of the strongest pieces of film work I have seen. It is truly Kendrick’s ode to Compton and how the city moulded him.

The dynamics of power he moves between are so visually distinct, from the scene of a man crip walking to Backseat Freestyle to the chilling figure suspended from streetlights. The emotional range and subversion of narratives around hood life and gun culture are striking, presenting something that can be so painful with such vulnerability directly challenges those ideas that ask you to disconnect poverty and Blackness from tenderness and beauty.

The Gordon Parks homage on ‘ELEMENT’:

The music video for ELEMENT is the next example, the set-up for each shot is a recreation of influential Gordon Parks images. For those of you unfortunate enough to not know who he is, Parks was the first African American to produce and direct major motion pictures, an author, poet and composer, he created the “blaxploitation” genre and directed the 1971 film Shaft. Best remembered for his seminal photos of poor Americans during the 1940s (taken for a federal government project), which Kendrick reanimates in the ELEMENT video.

By taking these pivotal and impactful points in history and bringing movement to them he brings new conversations and ideas. It is now no longer something we look back on but something we look forward through as well. Rather than a past observation of what was, through the use of motion and time it pulls into question the dynamics that still remain, what it means to have critical Black artists and how they engage with the past and present.

The cover of ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’:

The cover image alone has so many elements to it that just on a first look it’s clear why it has come to be one of the most powerful pieces of iconography from the Obama presidential era. Each aspect of the image comes with multiple connections to composition, political concepts, Black power narratives and more. From the Black men and children in the forefront that is basically a modern-day renaissance tableau to the references to civil rights sit-in movements pushed forward by the Black Panthers.

I wish I could break down all the layers within this cover art but alas again it would require a book, all I can say is if you follow up and research anything within this article let it be this. If upon your discovery of these nuances, you still disagree with the idea of Kendrick being a fine artist then I don’t know what to tell you.  

‘The Heart Part 5’ and ‘N95’:

On his latest album release, I feel like it would be diminishing to say Kendrick has hit his stride, honestly, he is the stride. ‘The Heart Part 5’ is probably his most on the nose example of his critical thought process; the video and the concept behind it delve into complex conversations around Black American culture. The same is true of ‘N95’, arguably one of the strongest tracks on ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’, in these cases the critical Black intellect he works with is his own.

His choice of Black men to deep-fake onto his face was incredibly specific, yes they were notable celebrities but their presentations and connections with a perceived Blackness are very precise, he didn’t choose say Huey P Newton or Malcolm X, and trust he definitely has the point of reference for these political and social activists. It’s clear from the previous examples I presented.

But it wasn’t simply about Black heroes and celebrities like so many chose to believe. It actually engages with the presentations of Blackness that the (and I’m gonna say it) almost entirely white-owned media distribution channels decide to engage with, sell and reproduce.

For example, OJ Simpson is more a Black villain than a Black hero, a quick throwback to his ‘I’m not Black I'm OJ’ comment speaks volumes. Kendrick navigates what these people mean to an internal perception of Blackness and how that has shifted a culture that now feeds on an idea of Blackness sold back to itself. This is arguably one of the most important concepts in media right now as I would argue that the same structures consuming and profiting off these cultures is not the anti-racist and empowering solution we like to act like it is.

These are just a few of the examples that show how critically engaged Kendrick Lamar is with art, culture, his community and himself. I would argue this criticality, the presentation of which spans poetry, video, art and fashion are what makes him both an amazing rapper and the marking point for an entirely new generation of fine artists blurring the lines between the creative boxes they have been ascribed to.

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Words: Naima Sutton

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