On my second listen to the instant classic To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album, I had this thought. This sudden, revelatory, all-consuming thought. The thought grew each time I gave the album a new spin; it was deepened with every exploration into the lyrics. Some of you may have already heard me declaring this thought but, with King Kendrick dropping the surprise and fantastic untitled unmastered album last week, I decided to put it to words because the thought was back in full force.
Kendrick Lamar is Tyler Durden incarnate.
Mr. Durden is one of the main characters in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club, personified by Brad Pitt in the cinematic hit of the same name (disclaimer, if you are not familiar with Fight Club, this article is not for you. I also refuse to be blamed for any spoilers. Fight Club has been out for 20 years as a novel and 17 as the famed film — you’ve had plenty of time).
In order to coax you into my belief in Kendrick Durden, let’s start from the beginning, from what I realized on that second play of TPAB. It starts with three simple similarities.
1. Kendrick finds himself screaming in a hotel room.
I know this is not a unique motif. But the line “I found myself screaming in a hotel room, I didn’t want to self destruct” from Kendrick, started this whole theory off. The imagery immediately conjured up the revelatory scene in Fight Club between the narrator and Durden in which the narrator feels he is losing touch. This scene also takes place in a hotel room. Coincidence? I think not. But this just scratches the surface.
2. Both Fight Club and TPAB culminate as a public conversation with someone who isn’t there.
3. Both Lamar and Durden consort with chicks we pretend we don’t like. First we get mad at him like, “Really, man? You could have gotten with anyone. ANYONE. Why did you choose her?” And then we’re like, “…but how is she though?” Marla Singer-cum-Taylor Swift.
Now, this business with the chicks holds more weight than you might think. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden is having relations with Marla and the narrator rudely questions this decision. Yet he famously tries to catch a glimpse of them in the horizontal tango and constantly wonders about how it is they’re getting on. Comparatively, we’ve been giving Kendrick a lot of flack — or at least skeptical surprise — for doing a Top 40, pop song with Taylor Swift yet I’m guessing many of us can’t help but sing along to when we’re alone. If Kendrick is Tyler, we are the narrator. We are Eddy Norton.
Please lock your tray tables and put your seatbacks to their full and upright position.
Stick with me because us as the narrator in Fight Club makes an incredible amount of sense. As is revealed while screaming in that hotel room, Durden is everything the narrator wants to be. He is created from the holes in the narrator’s own life and problems with society that he wants to rectify. The narrator made Durden out of necessity as a means to deal with all that he didn’t have the courage or know-how to address within himself.
“You were looking for a way to change your life. You could not do this on your own. All the ways in which you wish you could be, that’s me.” — Tyler Durden
Just as Durden was manifested by the narrator to address his shortcomings, contemporary America manifested Kendrick. If you look at some of the main topics addressed on TPAB and untitled unmastered: police, governmental accountability, community support, social and civil equality, racism, sexism, mental instability, etc.; America is Ed Norton. We are Ed Norton. We made Kendrick in order to say and do all the things America cannot collectively bring herself to.
Why did we need to make him? Because we created the circumstances for which his words can exist. Because we created a system in which rapping about injustice is not a work of fiction. We have guilt in that. We have guilt in racism, in social inequalities, in dubious federal spending, in governmental misrepresentation. Yet we shy away from confronting it, seemingly because we simply do not know how to tackle the presence that we have let injustice become.
This is why we needed him. Kendrick doesn’t predict the future. He is not a prophet. He is simply bold enough to actually see what is there, what we are all turning a blind eye to. That’s where his strength lies. His album is a lineup of things we as a culture attempt to cover up, hide and re-dress in ways we find acceptable. We knew about police brutality, we knew about social injustice and economic inequality; he just repackaged it. He says it in a way we feel comfortable addressing it. He brings up the frustratingly inhumane components of our society and has us yelling them verse-for-verse en masse. He is — like Durden — taking our unsightly, unwanted fat and selling it right back to us.
“You admitted it once I submitted it wrapped in plastic.” — Kendrick Lamar on “Momma”
In Fight Club, Durden ultimately helps the narrator. He is a medium through which the narrator gets closer to his truths. Perhaps Kendrick has been manifested for us to do the same. He deserves accolades for that. He does. The fact that he made an album so openly critical of American society and its shortcomings that not only made it on POTUS’ list for best of the year but also had the recording academy recognize it for being creatively competitive suggests that we’re getting somewhere. It suggests that maybe, just maybe, both civilian and the powers-that-be are starting to agree that things aren’t as they should be.
In a eulogy for another notable social musician and lyricist, Steve Almond postulated that we idolize artists because they “project the voice we wish to summon within ourselves.” America has manifested Kendrick to do just that. Just like Durden, Kendrick — this Kendrick anyway — won’t back down until we assess our problems head on. Otherwise we continue to fuel the environment that prompted him in the first place. Until we testify for our legacy of mistakes, Kendrick will continue to do what he does best: take a long, hard look at society and give us a lyricially and rhythmically inventive tsk-tsk-tsk. A chastising in a language we can understand. And each time he confronts us, he disrupts the dark institutions America is indebted to and leaves us reeling and collectively asking, “Where is my mind?”