How do you keep it real when others are taking shots at you?
Who dat nigga thinkin’ that he frontin’ on Man-Man?
Get the fuck off my stage, I’m the Sandman
Get the fuck off my dick, that ain’t right
I make a play fucking up your whole life
The second verse of “HUMBLE.” opens with these four lines aimed at the bitch nigga who has risen up against Kendrick. The lines reinforce Kendrick’s assertion from the end of verse one that other humans are not meant to stand on his level. Hence, Kendrick threatens to throw down from his stage this man who would dare to compete with the dominance of Kendrick’s voice. Kendrick claims that such a man is “on his dick” — a slang term referring to situations in which a weaker, often undesirable, male or female has become a nuisance by trying to closely associate themselves with a dominant male. If this bitch nigga refuses to get off Kendrick’s dick, Kendrick threatens to make a game out of “fucking up his whole life” — an explicit way to say that Kendrick will bring trouble and potentially violence upon the lil’ bitch.
The thought of fucking a bitch naturally leads Kendrick to turn his attention back to the female he has been toying with since the first verse.
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
Still will take you down right on your mama’s couch in Polo socks
The Feminist Rebellion
When the music video of “HUMBLE.” was released prior to the release of the full album, these four lines took on a life of their own as they became the center of a controversy about Kendrick’s views on women. Numerous feminists were quit to vent frustration on Twitter and write long think pieces which dissected how these lines were evidence that Kendrick’s views on women fall short of what is needed for a leader in the black community.
Many women expressed disappointment and outrage over “Humble” on social media, noting that Kendrick was putting down a segment of females in an attempt to uplift others.
- From “Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Humble’ Song Sparks Feminist Backlash”, published March 31, 2017
Despite no less than 40 uses of the word bitch, media were quick to dub the track as a feminist triumph.
In requesting an afro, in yearning for some stretch marks, Lamar is still asking women to fulfill his wants. He’s still expecting women to display themselves to him. For him.
Broadening our perception of beauty to include afros and cellulite is just a new set of grounds to appraise women, to anoint some as attractive and to dismiss others as fake. It’s just another way to pit women against each other while continuing with the assumption that our hearts beat only for validation from men.
- From “The False Feminism of Kendrick Lamar’s Humble”, released April 1, 2017
Woke Boy Extraordinaire™ Kendrick Lamar has supposedly taken on body positivity in his latest release “Humble.”
It’s not surprising that the woman whose face is shown in the video is light-skinned with long, loose curls, a desirable look within the black community. A woman who wears no makeup but has minimal blemishes, who doesn’t agonize over what she eats yet is still thin, who hasn’t had plastic surgery but is born with features he deems acceptable. They’re all variations on the same theme: a woman should embrace her natural beauty provided that she’s already conventionally attractive.
Kendrick Lamar and the legions of men like him could’ve made a positive change if only they redirected their proclamations. Instead of waxing poetic on what they find acceptable, men can fight against the notion that a woman who isn’t beautiful (however it’s defined) loses a piece of her humanity. If only they could see women as complete people and not objects waiting for male approval. So much for humility.
- From “The Problem With Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Humble’”, released April 7th, 2017
These women — who know all too well the experience of being oppressed by male-oriented systems — provide a very thorough and thoughtful critique we should stop to consider in full. Their central complaint is that while Kendrick’s lyrics appeared to uplift women, in reality his word choice and casting choice merely reinforced the male-dominated hierarchy that dehumanizes women into animals made for the sexual gratification of men.
It Ain’t Complex to Put it in Context
Having paid attention to the narrative arc of DAMN as well as the opening verse and chorus of “HUMBLE.”, the feminist complaint should not be surprising. In the first verse of the third track, “YAH.”, Kendrick did clearly state his intention to “keep the family close, get money, fuck bitches”. In the first verse of the current track “HUMBLE.”, Kendrick did clearly state his belief that the hierarchical levels of society should be accepted as a fact of life. Furthermore, in the chorus of “HUMBLE.” Kendrick degrades his opponents to the level of bitches while simultaneously forcing them to obey a commandment against their will.
Kendrick could have provided us with balanced dialogue on beauty standards if he really wanted to. Better yet, he could have invited a woman onto the track to speak from her own lived experience. That is exactly what he did on the track “Complexion (Zulu Love)” on TPAB when he invited a lesser-known female rapper named Rapsody to rap a verse about how darker and lighter skinned black women are all equally beautiful.
All my solemn men up north, 12 years a slave
12 years of age, thinkin’ my shade too dark
I love myself, I no longer need Cupid
Enforcin’ my dark side like a young George Lucas
Light don’t mean you smart, bein’ dark don’t make you stupid
If you don’t see you beautiful in your complexion
It ain’t complex to put it in context
Find the air beneath the kite, that’s the context
Yeah, baby, I’m conscious, ain’t no contest
If you like it, I love it, all your earth tones been blessed
Black as brown, hazelnut, cinnamon, black tea
And it’s all beautiful to me
Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens
We all on the same team, blues and pirus, no colors ain’t a thing
Unfortunately, Kendrick has abandoned any thoughts of equality on DAMN. At various points throughout the album — including the intro to “HUMBLE.” — Kendrick has routinely complained about having to pray for others — a fact that makes it unlikely that he will pray for any sisters who reject him as their people’s leader. Furthermore, the verses of “HUMBLE.” no longer has space for female perspectives since Kendrick told all other rappers to get the fuck off of his stage in the second line of verse two.
With all the complexity of “HUMBLE.” put into context, Kendrick’s problematic lines about female beauty standards seem to be consistent with the persona of the problematic prophet that he has embodied throughout the album. The fact that many feminists became angry at Kendrick is likely a symptom of the fact that they along with the vast majority of listeners missed the inherent irony that makes “HUMBLE.” so subversive.
Is It Feminists or Fox News?
Feminist critics deserve much credit for highlighting the truly problematic nature of Kendrick’s “HUMBLE.” lyrics far better than any male reviewers. At the same time, the writers of these critique articles made the critical mistake of assuming that the literary representation of Kendrick is identical to the real life version of Kendrick. They came to the track with an expectation that a righteous Kendrick should offer a woke statement about women — something not found in a satirical work like “HUMBLE.” Thus, the critics rushed to conclusions not just about the song but also about Kendrick’s character in real life. When shit hit the fan, they were no longer fans.
Some critics went so far as to dismiss Kendrick’s entire career as false consciousness, rather than realizing that the entire point of the track is to illustrate what false humility looks like. In doing so, these liberal women of color fell into the same trap that a conservative man like Geraldo Rivera fell into when he dismissed hip hop as an artistic genre while ignoring the literary context of the song “Alright” — the very song that caused so many people of color view Kendrick as a woke and righteous rapper that was fit to be their leader.
Unfortunately, neither Geraldo nor the feminist critics were humble enough to let Kendrick provide a more wholistic approach to interpreting his music. In the rush to have their voices heard above the noise of social media, the feminist critics rushed to publish their thoughts within a week of the song being released — often within just a couple of days. In almost all cases, these articles were written without waiting to listen to the whole album.
The reaction of these women to fight for much needed change is actually a perfect illustration for the problem that “HUMBLE.” and the Book of Jonah are both trying to get at — the people who have awakened to the truth are often the same people who fail to remain humble when they try to convey the truth to others. Like the narrative version of Kendrick, those who have a lot to say often become busy asserting why their perspective should be considered above the perspective of others and thus are unable to listen to others.
Speaking the Truth Without Love
Ayy, this shit way too crazy, ayy, you do not amaze me, ayy
I blew cool from AC, ayy, Obama just paged me, ayy
I don’t fabricate it, ayy, most of y’all be fakin’, ayy
I stay modest ‘bout it, ayy, she elaborate it, ayy
This that Grey Poupon, that Evian, that TED Talk, ayy
Now that Kendrick is a famous rapper, he has the credentials that would allow his perspective to be sought out by former President Barack Obama or the organizers of TED Talks. Unfortunately, Kendrick — like most men who find their way into controversy — uses his new position of privilege to dismiss the testimony of a woman as untrustworthy elaboration.
Watch my soul speak, you let the meds talk, ayy
In case Kendrick’s fame, fortune and phallus are not enough to discredit his adversary, Kendrick can always assassinate her character by suggesting that her testimony was affected by the drugs in her system. On another layer the line also elevates Kendrick’s lyrical abilities above competing rappers who are incapable of producing creative lyrics unless they are under the influence of mind-altering drugs. As we discussed in “DNA.”, Kendrick does not smoke weed and needs no substance to stimulate his creativity.
While more conservative listeners might take Kendrick’s statement as a positive denouncement of drug use, the line exemplifies the same problems that we saw with the lines about natural beauty. Specifically, Kendrick is lifting up the virtues of the class of humans to which he belongs by means of putting down another class of humans to which his adversaries are included. This pattern of self-righteous people justifying themselves at the expense of others is exactly the problem that Jesus critiqued by means of a parable.
Jesus also told this parable to some who were confident that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
“The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’
“The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
“I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Jesus’s parable offers contrasting portraits of a Pharisee and a tax collector — two classes of people who have little relevance to modern readers but would have stirred up strong reactions within the minds of the original audience. Tax collectors were one of the most despised classes of people in Roman-occupied Judea. They were seen as traitors who had sold out to the Roman oppressors and made themselves rich by exploiting their own people and taking a cut of the illegal gains. Essentially, tax collectors were the drug dealers of Jesus’s day. On the other hand, Pharisees were the political-religious group who prided themselves on following their interpretation of biblical laws and looked down upon anyone who did not live by their strict interpretations. Essentially, the Pharisees were the Evangelical Fundamentalists of Jesus’s day.
Once the two individuals were introduced, the original audience would have immediately assumed that Jesus would consider the Pharisee to be righteous and the tax collector to be unjust. However, in a stunning reversal, Jesus claimed that God considers the proverbial drug dealer to be just because the drug dealer humbled himself. In contrast, Jesus claimed that God considered the self-righteous Fundamentalist to be unjust because he took pride in himself.
The Biggest Hypocrite of 2017
Kendrick — along with most liberal listeners — might feel satisfied to hear Jesus condemn those who were the ancient equivalent of Fox News hypocrites. However, Kendrick’s self-satisfaction has made him oblivious of the fact that he has historically judged others — particularly white Americans — by the laws of “wokeness” — laws that Kendrick is now hypocritically breaking with his misogynistic comments about women. Hence, the world’s most woke rapper has himself become the modern equivalent of a Pharisee.
As further evidence for Kendrick’s hypocrisy one needs to look no further than the lines which conclude the second verse of “HUMBLE.”
If I kill a nigga, it won’t be the alcohol, ayy
I’m the realest nigga after all
While Kendrick’s adversaries might kill someone and then sing “Blame it on Alcohol” — à la Jamie Foxx — Kendrick does not need to be under the influence to kill a nigga any more than he needs to be under the influence to write rhymes. Kendrick seems to be suggesting that he is so cold-blooded that he needs no additional stimulation to commit murder against one of his own people. This boast is a significant reversal from TPAB . There on the song “Blacker the Berry” Kendrick confessed his own hypocrisy for judging George Zimmerman’s killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin even though 16-year-old Kendrick also killed a nigga.
I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015
When I finish this if you listenin’ then sure you will agree
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
- Kendrick Lamar from “The Blacker the Berry” on TPAB
These lines found a way to stir up far more controversy within the black community when the track was released in 2015 — two months before the release of TPAB. Many woke black critics — particularly female rapper Azealia Banks — blasted Kendrick for upholding the false narrative of “black-on-black crime.” Kendrick later defended himself by explaining that the lines were about his own experience growing up in Compton. The controversy eventually subsided after people heard the song in the context of TPAB. At that point the black community felt uplifted by songs like “Alright” — a song which some black commentators argued should be the new Black National Anthem.
If one had listened to “HUMBLE.” in isolation after listening to TPAB, one might assume that Kendrick would condemn intraracial violence. However, we are listening to a very different version of Kendrick on DAMN. This is a version of Kendrick who after boasting about sex and money on the first verse of “HUMBLE.” has not completed the unholy trinity by bragging about murder at the end of verse two. More troubling, Kendrick now associates murder with being “real.”
The Emancipation of a Real Nigga
Don’t even matter, dawg, cause I’m a always be a real nigga
Always be a real nigga
I never learned how to be nothin’ but a real nigga
- The Game from “100”
If one surveys hip hop lyrics over the last 30 years, one will find that the last lines of verse two of “HUMBLE.” are contributing to a long running discussion. In particular, the term “real nigga” is one of the most common ways that rappers over the decades have distinguished certain men as being worthy of great honor — particularly in comparison to “bitch niggas” and “fake-ass niggas”. Thus, within urban communities, the word “real” carries much more weight than the standard dictionary definition would suggest. One can see this weight in the lyrics of The Game who once declared that his whole life is oriented around being a “real nigga.” As the king of L.A. prior to Kendrick’s reign and a notable member of the Bloods street gang, The Game has made numerous songs which boast of his street credibility due to his association with a notorious gang.
After recognizing the significance of the term, one might naturally ask what the criteria is for being considered a “real nigga.” While hip hop has no governing body to standardize terminology, one can examine the actions with which real niggas are routinely associated.
Real niggas tryna fuck
- J. Cole from “Trouble”
Real niggas is getting money
- Jeezy from “The Real Nigga Album” on The Real Is Back 2
Real niggas fingers on nickel-plated 9 triggers
- 2Pac from “Can’t C Me”
By now it should not be surprising to find that “real niggas” are predominately distinguish by their abilities in pursuing sex, money and murder. In a sense, there is something very authentic about someone pursuing the things that are an essential part of their DNA. Nonetheless, during the track “The Blacker the Berry” on TPAB, a more “woke” version of Kendrick asserted that real niggas needed to be emancipated.
You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’
You made me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga
- Kendrick Lamar from ”The Blacker the Berry” on TPAB
Kendrick’s statement seemed to imply that the pursuits which traditionally defined real niggas are in reality chains that mentally enslave black people. However, the version of Kendrick we see at the end of “HUMBLE.” seems to have willfully turned back towards slavery. In the process of returning to his chains, Kendrick has now rebelled against the leader he said that he needed at the end of GKMC.
Real is God, Nigga
During the GKMC’s twelfth track “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” Kendrick was finally humbled low enough to pray and acknowledged Jesus as the Lord of his life. Afterward, the anonymous woman who prayed with Kendrick told him that from that day forward his understanding of what is considered “real” would be transformed along with the rest of his life.
Alright now, remember this day
The start of a new life — your REAL life
- The anonymous woman from “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”
Immediately after hearing the woman’s declaration, Kendrick used the subsequent track, “Real”, to contrast the old life he had previously enjoyed with his peers to the new life he was now only beginning to understand. In the first verse of “Real”, Kendrick spoke to a girl from his neighborhood and listed the pursuits around which she had oriented her life.
And your plans only can pan around love
You love him, you love them, you love her
You love so much, you love when love hurts
You love red bottom and gold that say “Queen”
You love hand-bag on the waist of your jean
You love French tip and trip that pay for
You love bank slip that tell you we paid more
You love a good hand whenever the card dealt
But what love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself?
- Kendrick Lamar from verse 1 of “Real”
After seeing that the woman’s love of material possessions eroded her ability to love herself, Kendrick then spoke to a guy from his neighborhood and lists the pursuits around which he has oriented his life.
When it all breaks, you’ll still say you’re lovely
And love them and love when you love her
You love so much, you love when love hurts
You love fast cars and dead presidents old
You love fast women, you love keepin’ control
Of everything that you love, you love beef
You love streets, you love running, ducking police
You love your hood, might even love it to death
But what love got to do with it when you don’t love yourself?
- Kendrick Lamar from verse 2 of “Real”
After seeing that the man’s love of sex, money and murder eroded his ability to love himself, Kendrick then questioned which of the offered pursuits he needed to turn away from.
I love what the both of you have to offer
In fact, I love it so much, I don’t love anything else
But what love got to do with it when I don’t love myself
To the point I should hate everything I do love?
Should I hate living my life inside the club?
Should I hate her for watching me for that reason?
Should I hate him for telling me that I’m seizin’?
Should I hate them for telling me “ball out”?
Should I hate street credibility I’m talkin’ about
Hating all money, power, respect in my will
Or hating the fact none of that shit make me real?
- Kendrick Lamar from verse 3 of “Real”
By the end of the third verse, Kendrick concluded that none of the pursuits offered to him made his life real. However, he had not yet determined what pursuits would make him real. Thankfully, Kendrick’s dad, Kenny Duckworth, left a voice mail that provided Kendrick with an answer.
“Just calling, sorry to hear what happened to your homeboy, but don’t learn the hard way like I did, homie. Any nigga can kill a man, that don’t make you a real nigga. Real is responsibility. Real is taking care of your motherfucking family. Real is God, nigga.”
- Kenny Duckworth from “Real”
After spending years in the streets and having his brother shot to death at a burger joint, Kendrick’s dad came to the conclusion that one’s life is not real because one is able to kill a nigga. Instead, Kendrick’s dad suggests that one’s life is real when it is oriented around serving God and serving other people. When considered alongside the problem of eroding love presented in the track’s three verses, the implication is that only by living a life of service to God and others is one truly able to love oneself.
This life of service seems to be something that Kendrick has lost within the narrative of DAMN. In its place we have a version of Kendrick who has relapsed back into the life that was offered to him and his peers as teenagers in Compton.
While Kendrick’s relapse into a problematic version of childhood is less than ideal, the fact that Kendrick made it out of that mindset before gives us some hope that he might again find his way out. Maybe if Kendrick examines the current lives of his peers he may be able to see how far he has fallen from his real life. This reexamination of his peers and himself is what we will explore on the next track.