"We Shall Overcome” was the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. “We gon’ be alright’” goes the anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. Because Kendrick Lamar gave us To Pimp a Butterfly—a dazzling project that centered socially conscious lyrics over free jazz, funk, and soul—it’s easy to forget that he can get as ratchet as the best of them.
He not only holds his own on A$AP Rocky's 2012 hit “Fuckin’ Problems,” he eclipses everyone else on the track, including collaborator-competitor Drake. “She eyein' me like a nigga don't exist,” he raps. The beat stops to punctuate the rest of the couplet, the part shouted with glee: “Girl, you know you want this dick!”
As a woman, you expect derogatory lyrics from, well, just about any person who raps. But from Kendrick, a Very Important Artist of our generation, you want depth. If women can trust anyone to reference them with greater care than the average MC, it’s him.
And yet, to some, even he can’t get it right.
The Compton native re-emerged last week with the track “Humble,” a Mike WiLL Made-It-produced banger with accompanying visuals by Dave Meyers. And while it was largely celebrated, critics found offense in these lyrics and their corresponding imagery:
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, ay
A split screen shows a woman done up like the traditional video vixen on the right, fresh-faced with curly hair flowing on the left. We also see a booty in all its stretch-marked natural glory. To critique said images is to infer Lamar’s intent: Was he trying to empower women? Was he making a statement on heteronormative beauty standards?
To me, it’s clear that Kendrick Lamar (who is not on the market anyway) is speaking for himself. By no means did I assume he was delivering an edict to all women on the proper way to attract the male gaze, as many takes have claimed.
But this is not to say he hasn’t done it before. The first half of the song “No Makeup (Her Vice)” from his 2011 mixtape Section.80 invokes the trite sentiment of men who think they’re paying women a compliment by suggesting we’re hiding our natural beauty, or worse, masking insecurities with the use of makeup:
I love your smile, you can do it without style / From your lips, all the way to your eyebrows / It's the beauty in her but when the makeup occur / I don't see it, all I see is a blur
These lyrics center Lamar in his partner’s aesthetic choices, ignoring the possibility that she just fucking likes makeup, Kendrick.
Another sign that Lamar wears no cape was the “For Free?” interlude on TPAB, which uses a gold-digging black woman as an extended metaphor for capitalism rooted in white supremacy. His point, while meritorious, is made at the black woman’s expense.
And so we shouldn’t conflate being able to rap masterfully about mass incarceration, racial oppression, and other complex issues with being able to deftly muse on beauty standards rooted in patriarchy and racism. Those are different conversations, the latter one that men generally have a hard time understanding. The notion of women as human beings deserving equal respect to men was so perplexing to TDE co-president Terrence "Punch" Henderson that he even tweeted, “Aiight last question on this. Can someone help me understand exactly what a feminist is??”
Kendrick is held to a higher standard—and he shouldn’t be, because he has proven himself just as duplicitous as anyone else. While I don’t take offense to “Humble,” I understand the backlash. Black men, rappers in particular, have contributed to the marginalization of black women for so long that they are no longer invited to the party.
Per usual, when black women want something done right, we have to do it ourselves. Through style, words, and images, from Lemonade to Insecure, black women went ahead and created our own much-needed safe spaces. We are talking to each other now, and outside commentary, even that which can be interpreted as praise from a rapper lauded as “woke,” is just as unnecessary as the outright degradation of his peers.
Even if he has the best of intentions, there’s little room anymore for a man to attempt to be empowering. Thanks for your service, but we got it from here.