By: Keith Nelson Jr (@JusAire)
“We got a young brother that stands for something! We got a young brother that believes in all of us! Brother Kendrick Lamar! He’s not a rapper, he’s a writer. He’s an author!” – Opening skit on Kendrick Lamar’s “i”
Kendrick Lamar is entering a rarefied and often imprisoning space in music where he no longer makes songs, he makes statements. His most imprudently militant song since 2011’s “Ronald Regan Era”, “The Blacker The Berry” finds Lamar internalizing the hypocrisy of those destroyed by racism who help perpetuate its ills in a thug character who understands “gangbanging make me kill a nigga blacker than me.” It’s the third Kendrick song in less than five months that focuses on the divisive nature of race, with the previous two being lead single “i” and an untitled song he performed on The Colbert Report. Kendrick is using his “voice as an instrument and doing what needs to be done,” as he told Complex late last year. Just like another great Black artist who was on the precipice of a transformation: Marvin Gaye
On the evening of August 11th, 1965, Gaye was listening to his song “Pretty Little Baby” on the radio when the announcer interrupted to relay news of the racially charged Watts Riot in Los Angeles, California. At that moment, according to Gaye in his 1985 biography Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye written by David Ritz, the burgeoning soul star was so wrought with despair and anger he “wanted to throw the radio down and burn all the bullshit songs I’d been singing and get out there and kick ass with the rest of my brothers.”
Unfortunately for Gaye, he was signed to Motown Records, whose founder Berry Gordy (whom Gaye believed was “crazy back then”) discouraged Gaye from recording a protest song in response to the Watts Riots. Gordy even regarded “What’s Going On” as “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” Gaye’s uncontrollable urge for political change may have transformed him as a singer, but he shied away from direct activism as he was “reluctant to alienate any part of his audience,” according to Ritz’s account. Engulfed in a newly discovered compulsion to uplift society, Gaye shifted the Motown paradigm by releasing “What’s Going On” without Gordy’s permission, and the song’s subsequent success forced dictator Gordy into allowing Gaye to produce and release his seminal record What’s Going On LP in 1971.
— scott vener (@brokemogul) October 30, 2014
Long before celebrity music curator Scott Vener exulted an unheard Lamar song named after popularized African slave Kunta Kinte, Kendrick was forging a distinctive place for himself in Hip-Hop. He turned a critique of his generation’s obsession with recreational alcohol consumption into a platinum-selling single (“Swimming Pools”) in an era where rappers blur the lines of date rape. His refreshing abrasion to mainstream conformity is by design. In an interview with Rolling Stone last September, Lamar explained how he has been avoiding the influences of current music while crafting his upcoming sophomore album: “Sometimes I go into the studio and study music. Just sit in there and vibe out to music that’s not really of — Marvin Gaye or something like that… I haven’t been listening to a lot of the music that’s out right now. You can get influenced by it.”
Kendrick released the uplifting song “i” on September 23rd, a mere week after he finished song. Was the song released quickly in order to give his upcoming album a marketable lead-off single that would translate well across a variety of demographics? Its inclusion in the NBA on TNT’s promo a month later would suggest so. Nevertheless, the song opens with a skit of a speaker exulting Kendrick to savior-status in order to galvanize a raucous crowd, reminiscent of speeches from civil rights leaders. Even though the commercially-released version and one featured in promos do not include the opening skit, a chorus addressing “big guns and picket signs” following a month of volatile civil unrest in Ferguson, MO over Michael Brown’s murder frames Kendrick as one of a handful of Hip-Hop artists with far international reach who can address such societal ills on a broad scale. There’s no bucket big enough, or ice water cold enough, to wash away the world’s sins.