Kendrick Lamar makes important music. The easiest explanation you may give to someone attempting to decipher between Lamar, J.Cole or Drake is just that. Whenever Kendrick writes something and applies it to warm microfilm or digital audio, we dissect it. Not on a surface-level grade of artistic creativity, either. Critics pull any and every thing out of a Lamar release. This particular line of thought has been settled since 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. It amplified two years ago when Lamar decided to shift from making a direct GKMC sequel and instead opted for something fiery, political, jazz-driven and ultimately engrossing in To Pimp a Butterfly.
This Friday, we’re getting a brand-new Kendrick Lamar album. In less than two weeks' time, it has become the most sought-after disc of the new year and we’re only a quarter of the way through. We know we’re getting the album because his label, Top Dawg Entertainment, can’t stop hyping it up and Lamar has already given us a hard deadline to prepare. Last week, he delivered a video for “Humble” from this upcoming, as yet untitled album. And all because of two lines in the song, it became a talking point.
Feels weird, doesn’t it? A week ago, we were literally foaming at the mouth awaiting for new Cornrow Kenny to pacify that section of rap fans who love introspection, lyricism and concepts. Now fans have spent four days embroiled in a civil war over feminism, body image in music videos and more. Is Kendrick above critique? Not at all. The curiosity lies in how we levy the title of “conscious” on artists we believe wouldn’t rap about women in derogatory fashions or speak about indulging in life to appease oneself.
The shot in particular that had your Facebook and Twitter timelines simultaneously enjoying the swipe up or down aspect of conversation comes at the mid-point of the video. Kendrick positions himself alongside a beautiful woman, dolled up and made to appear like a Mad Men standard of beauty. Soon, the filter drops and the woman’s hair hangs loose and in freeing curls; her face is bare, without makeup. The video, a well-crafted and rich appeal from co-director Dave Meyers, speaks to plenty of things. Then Lamar said, “I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop/ Show me somethin’ natural like Afro on Richard Pryor / Show me somethin' natural like ass with some stretch marks.”
I don’t need to express to you that the immediate arguments that followed sat upon a hill that nobody should have died upon. That perception says one person should immediately be the conscience of all. One can’t fully discredit the argument, though. When the lines were drawn for beauty standards, they were drawn by men. In fact, a lot of them still are being erased, redesigned, redrawn and redlined by men. From a Houston perspective, how often have you heard rappers from Big Moe on down hope and pray and wish to bed a “yellow bone”? It’s not because “chocolate cocoa butter sister” didn’t fit into a rhyme. Yellow bone was top of the line to those men, the most desirable and rare of women in Houston, a trophy and status symbol.
Of course, Twitter didn’t exist back then to have these conversations about colorism and preference. We largely ignored it and went along with it, but that can’t happen in 2017. The more music videos we watch, the more we watch films that skewer representation bomb at the box office, the more it stands out. The typical rap fan, however, doesn’t apply these standards or modus operandi to everyone. For every Migos record, every Drake song that celebrates wanting a certain woman but fills a screen with KING Magazine models, there’s a Common, a J. Cole and a Kendrick Lamar, artists fans immediately latch onto as the antithesis.
“They won’t do that,” fans may decry. “They love us, they discuss all women of all shapes and sizes.” In truth, it’s a fallacy that many a rap fan refuses to ignore and falls for time and time again. Rappers are fallible human beings who adjust their preferences over time and stick to them. When we attribute intelligence and the general “conscious” tag to a group of rappers, we demean them because “conscious doesn’t sell.” Or in the way of J. Cole, mask our “consciousness” behind a mask of being just another rap dude who calls women bitches as often as Too $hort does.
The failure of Twitter, despite being the great catalyst for evolved thought in some ways, is that those arguing for or against a certain position truly don’t give a damn about said position. They care to start a thread, respond with more than a few projections of their own insecurities and beg for someone to agree with them, as if a wrestling hot tag is coming.
Which brings us back to the original point of “Humble.” The song itself is not one of Kendrick Lamar’s best; it mostly serves as pie to feed fans with a catchy, putdown-worthy chorus. By the time the album comes out on Friday, most of this conversation will wash away and we’ll begin stripping away the LP to gather what everything means and if the intro connects to a thread from song number 7. But the longer we move into believing everything deserves an elongated, thoughtful procession of dialogue, the more we’re going to have to attribute it to all rappers and not just the ones fans place ridiculous labels on.
J Dilla by and large was one of the greatest producers ever. He also rapped about sleeping with multiple women (“Won’t Do,” “Crushin’”). J. Cole has singles, like “Crooked Smile,” which speak to accepting the flaws of women in a world that celebrates everything artificial. There’s also the hyper-misogynistic “No Role Modelz,” which, outside of being a rudimentary rap single, eschews any and all “conscious” labels Cole has been tagged with. Kendrick himself? A full-on history of tip-toeing the line of being aware of the plights of women and then using them as devices to further shrewd gender dynamics.
To put it simply, sexual politics with rappers, regardless of content, is tricky.
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“No Makeup” showcased Lamar writing about a woman who wore a mask of bronzer, mascara and more to hide the scars of domestic violence. “Keisha’s Song” and “Tammy’s Song” piece together different valleys of abuse at the hands of men. “Keisha” involves a prostitute getting killed by a police officer; “Tammy’s Song” is about two women living out the plot of Bound and ultimately sleeping with one another. “Fuckin’ Problems” is self-explanatory. “These Walls” was about his using a woman for sex purely out of revenge. "For Free" is weaponizing a woman as the main root of evil. To paraphrase André 3000 from “Humble Mumble,” hip-hop isn’t all “guns and alcohol,” and all the rappers you consider “conscious” can fall to the same pragmatic thoughts as, say, a Gucci Mane or Future. Only difference is, Gucci may be far more able to detail the pitfalls of life more than any of your “conscious” favorites.
At times, we as critics look at one another with wonder in regards to the things that become talking points. Instead of looking at “Humble” as a rap video with Papal allegories; a Maury-style 4K pan; a re-creation of The Last Supper; Kendrick looking more and more like the Rap Harbinger of Death with a more than million-dollar budget, we got Gender Wars. One may say, “It’s not that deep,” but that would be obtuse. For many, rappers speak directly to them in regards to correcting false societal norms. Problem with that? You run into an endless supply of equivalences that hold about as much weight as Corey Brewer in an MVP discussion.
Come Friday, you won’t be thinking about Kendrick Lamar’s history concerning rapping about women. In fact, you’ll barely remember the “Humble” video unless somebody brings it up in conversation. We’ll be back on discussing his overall importance in music. In the larger conversation, criticism is healthy. It’s key. It’s how our artists end up creating meaningful bodies of work.
It also helps to not feel lost in the sauce while it’s happening.