The case for Kendrick Lamar from the perspective of a 31-year-old white woman

by Kathleen Gauder

Kendrick Lamar performing at Panorama Music Festival on July 24th 2016. (Photo by Kathleen Gauder)

A few months ago, I posted the following status on Facebook: “Is anyone else out there suffering from DAMN. syndrome? Symptoms include an inability to stop listening to Kendrick on repeat and involuntary head bobbing during your favorite tracks. #worthit

My obsession with Kendrick Lamar, which started in his good kid, m.A.A.d city days, was in full force after the release of his fourth studio album DAMN. At the time, I was in the midst of looking for a new job and Kendrick was my go-t0 pump-up music before every big interview I had. I’d be dancing to songs like ELEMENT. in the shower while visualizing my flawless responses to hiring managers about why I really wanted to sell their product.

When I posted about my DAMN. syndrome, I assumed that the majority of my friends would agree that the album is indeed a masterpiece. However, this is social media and the trolls are always lurking when you least expect them. A friend (who will remain nameless because he is actually a cool, decent guy and not a troll as I suggested) commented on my post, saying that there hasn’t been good hip-hop since the ‘90s. NEEDLE SCRATCH. My immediate reaction was disbelief. Were there really people out there who believed there hadn’t been a good hip-hop record since The Low End Theory era?

“Is anyone else out there suffering from DAMN. syndrome? Symptoms include an inability to stop listening to Kendrick on repeat and involuntary head bobbing during your favorite tracks. #worthit

I was in the middle of sending post-interview thank you emails at a Starbucks when my friend’s comment stopped me in my tracks. (Unrelated side note: I’m convinced that one of the rings of Hell is a place where sinners are forced to write thank you emails for Eternity.)

Naturally, I had to be a good hip-hop citizen / K-Dot disciple and respond to the egregious comment polluting my Facebook wall.

Here’s what I said to my non-troll cool, decent guy friend:

“I hate to break it to you, but you’re very wrong on that statement. Where do I start? Well, I’ll start with the importance of Kendrick’s emergence on the hip hop scene. His work actually *means* something, it isn’t just about bling, bitches, and money. (Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I could see your point if you were lumping him in with likes of Drake, Fetty Wap, and Future). Kendrick is giving a voice to his community — one that desperately needs a cultural steward. As you likely know, the racial climate is as bad as ever in the US, and the black community is still being unjustly murdered by the police and incarcerated en masse (to learn more about how bad it really is, check out the book The New Jim Crow or the Netflix doc 13TH).

Kendrick’s work is contemplative, complicated, and largely about the struggle of being black in America. Check out his video for Poetic Justice or Alright; they are stunning works of social commentary. He isn’t afraid to stand up for the injustices that his community faces; on the contrary, he is providing hopes to million of people who have faced despicable discrimination. In a lot of ways, he is continuing the work that ATCQ, Nas, Public Enemy, Gang Starr, Jay-Z, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and countless others started in the 90s. Some other great hip hop acts out there that are doing important, meaningful work as evidence that modern hip-hop is still good: Run the Jewels, Open Mike Eagle, Earl Sweatshirt, ScHoolboy Q, Heems, YG, Jidenna, Joey Bada$$, and more. All I ask is that you listen to Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly or DAMN. once & pay attention to the message behind the work. I think you’ll love it if you give it a chance.

I thought this response would be enough to quell my K-Dot-doubting friend, but he threw a few more curve balls my way.

Firstly, he said he didn’t care for his flow and that it distracted from the message. This is a concession I’d grant. All of us have varying tastes and it’s unreasonable to assume that everyone will enjoy the same music all the time. As a music lover, there are some artists whose work I respect but am genuinely unable to tolerate their timbre. For example, I respect Tom Waits, but I can’t stand the sound of his alcohol-soaked growl. Kendrick doesn’t fall into this category for me personally, but he does for some and I’m fine with that. Hell, I bet there are some people who can’t stand the sound of Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder! With that caveat in mind, it’s impossible to deny the cultural significance of Kendrick even if you don’t like the sound of his voice.

My cool, decent guy friend had one final grievance that annoyed me most of all. Mentioning Pitchfork and the army of people who’ve made him king, he said that Kendrick was not nearly as good as the media has made him out to be. He made a comparison to Radiohead, saying that artists that are universally lauded by critics are never as good as the hype that surrounds them. Maybe their work is decent, he said, but not nearly as great as everyone claims. In his opinion, they can do no wrong and the masses blindly support these artists to feel sophisticated. (Radiohead is one of my favorite bands so this comparison was one of the reasons for my annoyance, though I’ll save their defense for another article).

I do agree that it’s frustrating when people blindly support artists without giving their music a critical listen. The other side of the coin though is to dislike something just because it is well liked. What if the work is as good as everyone has made it out to be? Does that mean it is somehow less worthy because of the accolades that it has received? As I said before, personal taste is subjective though perhaps we should take a deeper look at the meaning behind the work and stop paying so much attention to the acclaim.

This is how I responded to my friend (who really hates Pitchfork):

“I have heard that before and while it’s fair to say that he is overly hyped by the music media like Radiohead, his work is as good as they say (just as Radiohead is as good as they say, in my opinion). Fact of the matter is that what he is doing is indeed important, and he is very well respected by the key holders of the hip hop world like Dr. Dre and many others, not just bullshit hipster tastemakers. That to me shows that he isn’t a flash in pan, but rather that he is creating work that the hip hop community respects. Not to mention the fact that other big names in the music biz are collaborating with him — for god’s sake, U2 guested on his latest record!

To not like something because it is hyped is arguably misguided, though I understand that urge. I didn’t listen to the Fleet Foxes for the longest time for similar reasons but I’m glad I finally got over the hype & listened to them as they are one of my favorite artists now. I think we should always ignore the hype and appreciate creative work for what it was, rather than what people *say* it is.”

I think we should always ignore the hype and appreciate creative work for what it was, rather than what people say it is.

Hip hop scholars Public Enemy once said “don’t believe the hype.” This is a sentiment all of us should remember when words such as “genius” are used to describe a record or artist. Instead of buying into what the critics have said, we should listen to the work objectively and see if it speaks to us. Only then can we really understand if the music is worthy of the syndrome-inducing praise it has received.