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The political theory of Kendrick Lamar

- March 23, 2015

Kendrick Lamar performs at the 2012 BET Hip Hop Awards at Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center on Sept. 29, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Chris McKay/Getty Images for BET)
Last Monday, Kendrick Lamar’s eagerly anticipated new album “To Pimp a Butterfly” dropped a week ahead of schedule. Rapturous reviews quickly followed, declaring it an instant classic. Spin gave it a 10/10 rating, proclaiming it the great American hip-hop album. The Verge declares it “perfect” and Rolling Stone calls it a “masterpiece.” With its politically charged lyrics and jazzy, funky beats, it calls to mind the great albums of an earlier era of politically committed and musically diverse hip-hop. Tupac Shakur is the guiding spirit of the album, released 20 years almost to the day after Tupac’s “Me Against the World,” and which ends with a reconstructed conversation with Tupac that could have come off as a gimmick but most emphatically does not. I haven’t listened to anything else all week.
The moment is clearly right for artistically ambitious, politically engaged hip-hop to re-emerge. Talib Kweli, Killer Mike, J. Cole and many other hip-hop artists have been prominent voices responding to the killings of young black men such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. “To Pimp a Butterfly” seizes this moment, infusing it with a complex, sustained meditation on the nature of power, identity and leadership. There have already been some great essays on “To Pimp a Butterfly” by music critics far better positioned than I am to discuss Kendrick’s place in the history and practice of hip-hop. But there is also a real political science dimension to the project. Where talented contemporaries like Drake rarely venture a thought deeper than “being rich makes me sad,” Kendrick grapples with core political theory questions of power, identity and the ethics of leadership. He exhibits a challenging ethos of self-critique as a tentative path forward. And, lest you worry that you’re in for a tedious sermon, he does so without ever being less than lyrically and musically thrilling, cultivating a sound utterly unlike hip-hop’s state of the art.
My admiration for Kendrick goes way back. Last year, in “King Kendrick and the Ivory Tower,” I used Kendrick as a model for how academics should approach the emergent public sphere. That essay focused on the structure of the hip-hop field, including the use of mixtapes to engage specialist hip-hop communities, the complex web of alliances and rivalries revealed by song collaborations and the nature of competition between elite rappers. I singled out Kendrick in part for his mastery of that hip-hop game, but also for the vision of raising the bar through the intense peer competition he outlined on his scene-shattering “Control” verse. “To Pimp a Butterfly” extends and expands Kendrick’s relevance to contemporary political science with a direct, challenging engagement with some of its core concepts. He even seems to go out of his way to express pride in being an honorary member of The Monkey Cage political science collective, declaring “I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.”(What, that wasn’t what he meant there? Sorry. Well, we’d be happy to welcome him aboard.)
One of the first things that leaps out from listening to the album is its thematic unity and its conceptual ambition. In the terms of modern academia, this isn’t just a collection of articles or the routine advancement of normal science: This is a book. Kendrick has proven repeatedly that he can turn out astonishing guest verses on hit singles. He has the equivalent of enough peer-reviewed journal articles on his CV to satisfy the stoniest heart of a job search committee. He could probably have gone platinum just by collecting the singles to which has contributed guest verses over the last two years. But, as with his second album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” he has greater ambitions for an album. As Jeffrey Isaac, editor of the leading political science journal Perspectives on Politics, puts it in a forthcoming essay, “Important books help to create new research agendas … they develop ideas, over many chapters, typically in the distinctive voice of their authors… books are not standard research articles writ large, nor are they mere collections of articles.”
Like a great book, “To Pimp a Butterfly” stands alone, telling a coherent story from start to finish in a unique voice and making an important statement about big issues. It is an organic whole, a sustained reflection on complex ideas, which offers great fun along the way but makes no compromises to the format or scope of the “single.” Emblematically, for the album he transforms his Grammy-winning single “i” into a pseudo-live performance interrupted by crowd noise which he quiets with a heartfelt speech. This would be incomprehensible for the traditional studio executive, but makes brilliant sense in the context of a 79-minute argument.
Kendrick wants music to matter as much as any serious political scientist should want her ideas to influence public policy. As he tells Tupac in the imagined interview which closes the album, “In my opinion, kinda the only hope we have left is music.” Kendrick hearkens back to the glory days of hip-hop when leading rappers like Tupac, Nas, Public Enemy and the Roots engaged with big political and social ideas. On “Butterfly,” he complains that “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin/Motherf—er if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum/Y’all priorities f—ed up, put energy in wrong s—.” Instead, brain-dead club thumpers dominate the charts while Killer Mike and El-P’s brilliantly abrasive “Run the Jewels 2” sells only a handful of copies. With a platinum album and a virtually unprecedented media platform, Kendrick understands how uniquely positioned he is right now to lead the industry in a new direction. He has clearly felt that pressure since long before he sang about hotel room meltdowns for his new album: “When the whole world see you as Pac reincarnated/That’s enough pressure to make you live your whole life sedated/Find the tallest building in Vegas and jump off it/But I could never rewrite history in a coffin.” And rewriting history is exactly what he wants to do.
Kendrick’s political vision is deeply shaped by his upbringing in Compton and by a deep skepticism about leaders and power. He is filled with righteous passion, but he refused to glorify violence and mistrusts all leaders – even himself. Years ago, on “The Relevant,” he described himself as “militant as Martin Luther King in the penitent.” Other rappers play with a violent response to injustice and abuse, whether it is Killer Mike demanding to know “When you n—– gon’ unite and kill the police?” or The Game musing about going to Ferguson to “murder all the cops/then the cops will probably stop killing” or even Tupac invoking Nat Turner in the album-ending dialogue. Kendrick backs away from such violence. He has seen the human costs of violence in Compton and doesn’t want any more dead bodies on his conscience. As he raps in the key track “Hood Politics,” “I don’t give a f— about no politics in rap, my n—-/My lil homie Stunna Deuce ain’t never comin’ back.”
That recognition of the limits of solidarity and the futility of violence pushes back against the spirit of today’s political age. It is far too easy to spiral into violent polarization between mutually hostile solidarity groups, the dehumanization of rivals and the valorization of the voices offering the most extreme solutions. Kendrick responds with an ethos of self-criticism, listening to his own arguments with a skeptical ear and finding them wanting: “So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers/Or tell Georgia State ‘Marcus Garvey got all the answers,’” he raps, only to make clear that he knows that he does not have those answers.
He performs this act of self-undermining repeatedly. The second verse of “Momma” begins with the confident recitation that “I know everything, know myself/I know morality, spirituality, good and bad health/I know fatality might haunt you/I know everything, I know Compton/I know street s—, I know s— that’s conscious, I know everything.” But after his long list of affirmations that “I know what I know and I know it well,” he then faces the truth: “Not to ever forget until I realized I didn’t know s—/The day I came home.” It takes a remarkable degree of confidence to face up frankly to such limitations and to expose the shortcomings in one’s own analysis.
This unrelenting ethos of self-critique extends to his own celebration of African-American identity. He has been famously unwilling to be silent about the problems of his own community for tactical or strategic ends. He took a lot of abuse for commenting that “What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within.” In much-quoted lines from “The Blacker the Berry” on “Butterfly” he is unapologetic: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?When gang banging make me kill a n—- blacker than me? Hypocrite!”
For Kendrick, such auto-critique appears to be the key to political consciousness and the precursor to any meaningful political action. It does not lead to quietism. There is little calm to be found in the ferocious “The Blacker the Berry,” where he rages – to an audience primed to love him – that “You hate me don’t you/You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture/You’re f—ing evil.” He sees power in overcoming the manufactured differences that keep subordinated communities weak, but refuses to allow any illusions about where such a unified movement might lead. Where other political rappers radiate certainty in their calls to action, Kendrick’s radical self-questioning becomes his vehicle to escape the traps that have repeatedly led to failure.
It is no accident, therefore, that his refrain, “I knew you were conflicted/misusing your influence/Sometimes I did the same,” repeats again and again throughout the album. Temptations and abuse of power are a constant theme, from the invocation of the how power corrupted Bill Clinton in “King Kunta” to the costs of his own selfishness and arrogance in “How Much a Dollar Cost.” The closest he comes to offering role models are Tupac and Nelson Mandela, but he follows them without offering any illusions: “The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it/Let these words be your earth and moon you consume every message/As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression.” He goes on: “You wanna love like Nelson, you wanna be like Nelson/You wanna walk in in his shoes but you peace-making seldom.” His efforts to avoid such contradictions and failings leave him deeply conflicted, most powerfully articulated in the brutal meltdown track “u.”
In an acapella speech at the end of the gloriously reconstructed “i,” he quiets a restive crowd: “How many n—– we done lost, bro? It shouldn’t be s— for us to come out here and appreciate the little bit of life we got left.” The poem running through the album, finally unveiled in its entirety at the end, tentatively offers an ethos of mutual respect:

But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one
A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination
Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned
The word was respect
Just because you wore a different gang color than mine’s
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know.

As a political rallying cry, that is a long way from political hip-hop anthems like “F— the Police” or “Fight the Power.” His caution feels earned. Kendrick is a militant who might well appreciate Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s theories of strategic non-violent resistance. He urgently wants change, but does not want rage to consume him, power to corrupt him or violence to cut short the lives of more people. His ethos of self-critique offers another path towards rebuilding shattered communities and constructing new forms of solidarity. That’s a lot to ask of a hip-hop album, perhaps, even one which feels so much like Makaveli’s return.