The Masterful Lyricism of Kendrick Lamar

By Trevor Jones

Kendrick Lamar, who is arguably the greatest rapper alive (and maybe ever), has certified his brilliance in his recent winning of the Pulitzer Prize for Music for DAMN. But his newest album may not feature his best storytelling.

DISCLAIMER: This article will feature politically charged/explicit lyrics that could offend some individuals.

In 2015, Lamar released his 3rd album, To Pimp a Butterfly, which in my case is one of the best album of all time. In this LP, Lamar maintained some elements of that west-coast sound from good kid, maad city in songs like “Hood Politics” but the majority of this project included avant-jazz sounds. TPAB revealed how dynamic of an artist Kendrick could be, as he made comparing this project and GKMC almost impossible. I’m going to try and give a description of the album’s meaning because the story is incredible. Throughout the album, Lamar builds an intricate poem that starts three tracks in, and grows into a multiple stanza long piece that is read in its entirely during the last track, “Mortal Man”. Lamar opens the poem by stating, “The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it / Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city”. On “Wesley’s Theory” he claims that when he “gets signed”, he’s going to bring “a few M-16s to the hood”. But Lamar knows that he is dulling his potential by adhering to the damaging aspects of Compton’s culture. At this point, he realizes he is in the cocoon. The next part of the poem states, “Already surrounded by this mad city the caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalized him / He can no longer see past his own thoughts / He’s trapped”. In the intro of “Institutionalized” Lamar raps,

 

“What money got to do with it

When I don’t know the full definition of a rap image?

I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it

Institutionalized, I keep runnin’ back for a visit

Hol’ up, get it back

I said I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it

Institutionalized, I could still kill me a nigga, so what?”

 

Although Lamar has physically escaped Compton through his success, he is still mentally in this “mad city”. As previously mentioned, Compton, or the cocoon, is restricting him of his full potential. Lamar then starts to feel thoughts of how he is misusing his power and influence to help his family and community, causing him to think he has failed. In “u”, Lamar hears voices in his head that tell him that he is “irresponsible, selfish, in denial”

 

“What can I blame you for? Nigga, I can name several

Situations, I’ll start with your little sister bakin’

A baby inside, just a teenager, where your patience?

Where was your antennas?

Where was the influence you speak of?

You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her

I fuckin’ tell you, you fuckin’ failure—you ain’t no leader!”

 

After feeling ashamed of himself, Lamar puts his trust in God, enabling him to feel that he’s “gon’ be alright” (from “Alright”). The album’s prevalent poem says, “when trapped inside these walls certain ideas start to take roots, such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city”. With this feeling of optimism, Lamar returns home on the track, “Momma” but he realizes that he “doesn’t know shit” after being gone from his home for so long. On “Hood Politics”, he flashes back to his younger days when trapping was all he knew.

 

“The little homies called and said, “the enemies done cliqued up”

Oh, yeah? “Puto want to squabble with mi barrio?”

Oh, yeah? Tell ’em they can run it for the cardio

Oh, yeah? Everythin’ is everythin’, it’s scandalous

Slow motion for the ambulance, the project filled with cameras

The LAPD gamblin’, scramblin’, football numbers slanderin’

Niggas names on paper, you snitched all summer”

 

In “How Much a Dollar Really Costs”, Lamar encounters a homeless man, who is really God in disguise, that asks for one dollar. Lamar says no as Uncle Sam and Lucy (two characters representing corruption of the US and Lucifer) still have a grip on him, causing his selfishness (from his success) to show.

 

“I’m insensitive, and I lack empathy

He looked at me and said, “Your potential is bittersweet”

I looked at him and said, “Every nickel is mines to keep”

He looked at me and said, “Know the truth, it’ll set you free

You’re lookin’ at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power

The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit

The nerve of Nazareth, and I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost

The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss. I am God”

 

At this point in the album, Lamar has broken out of his cocoon, which reveals the butterfly, an empathetic, loving, and kinder version of himself. “Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the internal struggle”. Using his newly prescribed wisdom, Lamar explains to White America, or the “master”,  that complexion/race doesn’t matter and that everyone is beautiful, and equal, on “Complexion (A Zulu Love).

 

“Even if master’s listenin’, I got the world’s attention

So I’ma say somethin’ that’s vital and critical for survival

Of mankind, if he lyin’, color should never rival

Beauty is what you make it, I used to be so mistaken

By different shades of faces”

 

In “The Blacker the Berry” Lamar discusses the racialized self-hatred that African-Americans endure due to the toxicity of the cocoon, or modern America, that they are trapped in. He wants to kill the aspects of being black that have been conceived in the cocoon, by mocking those stereotypes in a fierce, angry manner.

 

“I’m African-American, I’m African

I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan

I’m black as the name of Tyrone and Darius

Excuse my French but fuck you — no, fuck y’all

That’s as blunt as it gets, I know you hate me, don’t you?

You hate my people, I can tell cause it’s threats when I see you”

 

In the final track of TPAB, “Mortal Man”, the entire poem is read by Lamar. He discusses his complete transformation from caterpillar to butterfly and what wisdom he has attained from this massive revelation. It’s pretty lengthy so I only wanted to share the most important stanza that summarizes the meaning of this project.

 

“The word was respect

Just because you wore a different gang colour than mine’s

Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man

Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets

If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us”

 

Lamar repeats throughout the track, “when shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?” This line conveys Lamar’s visceral desire for TPAB to be more than just an album. He wants this piece of work to show that people of all races need to love and respect each other. I believe that the story Lamar crafted can be compared to the important notions put forward by civil rights pioneers like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.

 

If you haven’t listened to TPAB, I highly encourage you to do so. It has the capacity to change the way you think in a very impactful way as you enjoy its  tremendous and diverse production.

 

One thought on “The Masterful Lyricism of Kendrick Lamar

  1. Solid article. However, I believe that Good Kid, M.A.A.D City is a far superior album, both in terms of sound and message. Reevaluate your musical takes and we could talk…

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