Who is polarizing Hip Hop?

By Tom Jewitt

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A lot has been written about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Arguably the album that will define 2015, Lamar’s latest creation is much more than a seminal masterpiece of hip-hop; it is poetry for the people, a political statement and a grassroots reclamation of black culture. The record attempts to underscore the common associations with black hip-hop music: mainly the glorification of gang violence, drug abuse, guns, profanity, and the rest. Media critics, academics and sociologists alike have long attributed the hip-hop genre with encouraging such problems. Whether you’re into hip-hop or not, it is hard to ignore that this genre is entrenched in politics.

But this information isn’t new. It is a commonplace idea and recurring theme, according to Mic’s Tom Barnes. Lamar’s conversation with the audible reincarnation of Tupac Shakur personifies this point, as the two discuss the endless bloodshed between African-American youths on the poetic ‘Mortal Man.’ Lamar questions “I can truly tell you that there’s nothing but turmoil goin’ on so I wanted to ask you what you think is the future for me and my generation today?” before Shakur replies “I think that niggas is tired of grabbin’ shit out the stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, bloodshed for real…. It’s gonna be murder.” The track is both provocative and artistically astute, and unveils Lamar’s political motivation: to divorce hip-hop from these commonplace conceptions, and to use hip-hop for good.

Firstly, it is important to remember that To Pimp A Butterfly is a commercial and critical success. While being applauded by critics, the album peaked at number one in the UK album charts, US Billboard 200, Canadian Album chart, and various other hip-hop charts. As author Simon Reynolds explains in his book Bring The Noise, hip-hop and urban music is supposed to be identified with the “truth on the street” and is, in ways, assumed to be “proto-socialist, or at least humanist.” For such a commercially successful LP, Lamar spared no expense at directly addressing his audience to push his politics beyond the fourth wall. In the record, he showed humility, compassion and regret; he took black America’s problems as his own.

The listener is placed under Lamar’s arrest by his compelling storytelling in songs like ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’. As such, Lamar expresses a raw desire to bring about the impact of music for good, rather than for bad. Despite the shockwaves caused by Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly powerful and provocative themes, the media spotlight continues to be fixed on one man and one man only when it comes to hip-hop: Kanye West. But why? As arguably the biggest hip-hop pioneer of the last five years, West has made a killing in the music industry. Commercially speaking, it is difficult to chalk West down. But critically speaking, he takes next to no responsibility in a genre he has projected to millions worldwide.

For instance, in the track ‘I Am God,’ West quite literally compares himself to God. Musically, the style of the song is quintessentially hip-hop right down to the bone. As a political substance, it is weak. It is beyond weak; it’s sanctimonious and has a total disregard towards the responsibility that such a megastar should have in a genre rife with representation. In the past, West has shown a strong aptitude for political songwriting and the poetical spectacle. From his infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” speech, to songs like ‘New Slaves’ and ‘Black Skinhead,’ West has shown he has more than enough to say. The crux of the problem with West is that his messages are diluting, and becoming more self-centred, manufactured, and tabloid-esque. Once seen as the man carrying the mainstream mantel for black music, Kanye West, as a character, has become politically blunted by his ever-growing fame, favouring the spectacle of neuroticism over the substance of politics and recapturing black culture.

No such change has been seen in the case of Kendrick Lamar as of yet, as he takes on hip-hop’s legacy as his own responsibility: to make a difference, to cause a ripple of cultural change. His candid approach to lyricism and highly enjoyable, catchy style of songwriting is key to this mission. Referring to Lamar as hip-hop’s saviour is, at this point in his career, too grandiose a term. To call him hip-hop’s newest hero is, however, just fine. Lamar has the edge, and he has the fanbase. He therefore has the pieces needed to build the puzzle for change.

Of course, it is reductive to firmly attribute this kind of responsibility and positive use of hip-hop to Kendrick Lamar alone. Other artists — most of which have influence Lamar in some capacity — such as Dr. Dre, Mos Def and, as mentioned before, Tupac Shakur, have also used hip-hop as a political tool. It is also problematic to assume that music alone is enough to change the world. It is, however, enough to spark off something important. Look back to tracks like Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ as a political-art game changer. As the voice of a generation, Kendrick Lamar has taken over where Kanye West abruptly left off.

Boiled down, it seems clear. Lamar speaks for the people, the deprived and the innocent. West speaks for nobody but himself.


Cover photo by Drew