What Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Kanye West Say About the Black Experience in America

How three of hip-hop's biggest stars reflect the multifaceted experience of blackness in this country.

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Complex Original

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If you think about it long enough, the American Dream is not for the black man. The idea that a certain set of traits will bring you power and bounty, or the belief that you simply pull the resources off of what is essentially a shoelace to achieve greatness could not possibly include the black man. The very essence of being black is rooted in the idea that you cannot even get down with that shit. You can't live in a white supremacist country and believe the ultimate dream is for the systematically oppressed—it just don't add up. This point could be said to be the very theory of hip-hop itself: We are not you and we want to be us.

In this year where the black experience faces possibly its most vital conversations for a generation, many lament the lack of reflection in popular black music. While some rappers are lauded for their "consciousness"—a term that rings excessively hollow in 2015—others are seen as unconcerned or downright delusional. In this first quarter of the year Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Drake serve as three points in a triangle, connected but facing separate trajectories.

They're often presented as rivals in a beef that has yet to grow any legs or worse, as fake friends just keeping enemies close. They are trotted out as banners for entire categories of folks, some at their urging but oft more as slander. What's usually missed is that together they present a trifecta of the current black male experience in America. In a time where we accuse each other daily of all sorts of dubious motives toward the movement, these three men serve as a narrative of not just where we're are but how much we have left to figure out.

Kendrick’s newest, To Pimp a Butterfly, is a mad scientist's experiment of a therapy session. Previously Kendrick has always presented himself as an insular “revolutionary”—I put this in quotes as it is more of what he presents rather than how he may actually think of himself. Kendrick’s previous music seems almost instructional and though it is rooted in personal experience, there is always an air of condescension. It’s not that he himself is egotistic but rather his conviction gives off a sense of moral superiority.

But this is not the same K-Dot from the m.A.A.d city. This is a black man who is dealing with all sorts of people (of course, yes, white people!) for the first time and realizing he might not have all the answers. It’s the smart black kid just arrived on the white college campus effect—a newer, maader city, if you will. good kid, m.A.A.d city was about home, but now he's stepped out of the comfort zone on the great pursuit of success and like all of us, he's realizing he doesn't have all the answers. It seems to be a huge cause of turmoil for him as he screams at himself (and us) about being hypocrites and how hard it is to love ourselves.

Normally, when Kendrick is yelling on his records you feel like he's yelling at you to wake you up. A friend once called him a gospel rapper and it's fitting. He believes in his sermons and like all good pastors he works out his demons as a guidance for his congregation. The issue with being a pastor is that feeling of intelligence, that slight condescension that makes you assume the role of teacher to your students. (Let's not forget that GKMC ends with all the gangsters turning to God!) TPAB presents Kendrick not as teacher but as student who has found out that school is not just about facts but rather an education in thinking. It’s a place many people of color find themselves when they’ve followed the rules and find the game to be rigged. Kendrick is unsure about what he will believe, but he clearly believes the solution is within his blackness. 

In many ways Drake is Kendrick’s antithesis. He grew up a half-Jewish black kid in Canada. He was the black character on Degrassi, playing basketball and checking white boys who then shot him in the back—a metaphor that still gives me chuckles. Still, the most standard (read: tired as fuck) sleight against Drake is that he is a wimp. Not only that but the "proof" all lies in his inability to meet a "real nigga" standard that's really just code for saying that his blackness is diluted. We’ve spent so much time calling Drake a bitch that even white girls feel OK describing him as such. When in a discussion about a clip where Drake expresses disappointment over his mother bringing him the wrong kind of deli sandwich, a white woman informed me that this proved that Drake was, indeed, a fraud. She intimated that he was a whiny little Jewish boy talking back to his mother, citing her own background as expertise while she casually tossed his blackness out the window. I wondered, and eventually asked, where she, as a person who would never experience blackness, found the ground to even question his and claim ownership over any part of him. She wasn’t the only one but what exactly was she (and all the others) pointing out besides the fact that he wasn’t “bad” enough to be a real (read: thug ass) black man? Because he was upset over a sandwich order? I immediately thought of how many times I’d watched dudes in the hood yell at Akh for forgetting they hate tomatoes. But these kind of nonsensical arguments are always there for Drake.

People point to where he grew up and create stories of a middle class upbringing despite him repeatedly speaking on supporting his single, chronically ill mother as a teen and borrowing his aunt and uncle’s car to fake stunt. Subsequently, with each project and verse that Drake drops these days his anger is more palpable and his attitude more aggressive. It’s a progression into hypermasculinity as an affirmation of his blackness, his realness. When he spits, “I used to get teased for being black/Now I’m here, and I’m not black enough” on “You & The 6” it strikes so hard. One could recall when he spoke about being teased for being black and Jewish as a child in the race issue of Vibe, a fact his childhood peers found scientifically impossible. On Nothing Was the Same and If You're Reading This It's Too Late, he often discusses his relationship with his father and by proxy, his Southern American heritage, his Black American Dad story. The intention seems to be to remind us that he is equally as American as he is a Canadian, as he is black and as he is Jewish, equal parts “opposing” things. It’s a lot to constantly deal with as a black man, but isn’t that the story of our very existence as people of color? Constantly having to prove we are human and also black, all at once. Racism is real, but race is performative and nobody proves that better than Aubrey. His foray into presenting himself as hard seems less and less about fronting and more about retaliation for the erasure of his experience. It’s no wonder he linked up with Kanye: a man who has grown tired of trying to please one group and rather focuses on influencing all through his own story.

Drake’s is a progression into hypermasculinity as an affirmation of his blackness, his realness.

Kanye is the standout of the trifecta. He is, for lack of a better metaphor, the Father of the Holy Trinity, but honestly he’s more like the Holy Ghost. By the time ’Ye started on his meteoric rise to success he was already an adult. (He was 27 when College Dropout dropped—K-Dot is 27 now and Drake, 28—and his influence on their generation of rap can’t be understated.) He was also raised closer to middle class than them both. His very understanding of the world is a generation ahead of them, but also Kanye’s day to day surpassed Drizzy/K-Dot’s success in 2015 before either of them even had a platform. It’s also safe to say that Kanye—despite having occupied some part of both their skins—is coming from a different place. Kanye is now a black man living in the utmost elitist world and trying to define his blackness now that poverty is no longer the jump-off point. White supremacy hinges on the assumption that your non-whiteness indicates a lack of...well, everything! Many were enraged by his comments about racism being a distraction, but there’s something to consider. Kanye is a black rockstar, recognized not just in rap but in culture, art, and fashion. When you are dealing with the 1 percent, with the highest level of elitism, you realize both it’s all just racism transformed once you can’t just be dismissed for being poor.

His wild example of being protected by his doormen and driver is not just mindless rich people talk, it is his very reality. He acknowledges their existence in a way the white people he's interacting with never would! He’s rich, famous, and his existence is put in danger every day. His not-yet-2-year-old daughter’s face is already an international meme/icon, and people literally try to tackle his wife. They're not just his "help," they are the gatekeepers of a celebrity/rich person's most vital asset in this time: access. I don't need to tell you that rich white people do not think of their servants with such regard.

Still, many accuse him of forgetting the man who made "Jesus Walks" but this is the evolution of that man. He is in a world where race is barely even uttered not because of acceptance but “propriety” and lack of black people in the room to even speak to it. Rich people don’t just accept you bringing up race. They shame your attempts with claims of rudeness and admonishments of being crass. You don’t have to be called a “nigger” at a fashion party, you can simply be called “uncouth”—both achieve the same STFU. The conversation isn’t even allowed a space because the cost of inclusion requires you be a respectable or silent other. Kanye exists to be crass, to be rude, to be loud because the world he lives in demands the utmost silence and placating of his experience for the privilege of luxury. (Just look at his BFF/Big Brother!) A world that has no need for basic racism because classism and elitism covers it for them—even a black celebrity billionaire like Oprah can be questioned by some loser about her finances. Even in success blacks find themselves stereotyped as gold-wearing, ostentatious "new slaves." A world that Kanye will now spend more of his life living in than he did being "normal" back in Chicago. A world that he will raise his daughter in. It’s important to remember that Kanye doesn’t have the answers. He is also a man sorting it out and just like Kendrick has misspoke and Drake has been questionable as a dude, he too should be allowed to figure it out while he yells. We've been quiet long enough.

Kanye exists to be crass, to be rude, to be loud because the world he lives in demands the utmost silence and placating of his experience for the privilege of luxury.

These three men are conflicted, headstrong and ambitious. They are all angry, just as we “regular” POC are as well. All are experiencing money changing not just their lives but their very blackness; all aggressively fighting back on assumptions made of them. It’s a story of our time told in parts, and they represent not just what you already know about black folks but what has yet to be discovered because we have never experienced true individuality. We are all stuck in imposed solidarity that while it provides support in many cases can also be stifling, especially when “your own turn against you.” But rather than seeing it as such we should look at all three and see inspiration to weave our own stories, our own beliefs. We harm ourselves by judging their blackness and pitting them against each other on a scale of “realness,” rather than presenting the idea that the blackness experience is multifaceted and then calling them out. We are not one brick stone wall weathering the storm—we all got issues. (It also begs pointing out that our obsession with them regularly allows us to leave out black women like Nicki Minaj who tell a better story from an even deeper place of erasure!)

We all want to achieve greatness, and we’ve all been knocked on our ass about what we believe. The narrative is bigger than white supremacist theory; it is about the power to finally speak on what we see. To argue with each other and respect that we as people of color are not one but rather an “all” and we are all trying to figure it out for ourselves. It’s no coincidence that all three of these dudes promote ideas of knowing, trusting, believing in, defending, and loving yourself above all else. It is the only thing we have learned about black survival in this country: Nobody knows our story better than us but a life is lived by one, even if felt by all.

Judnick Mayard is a writer living in New York City. Follow her @Judnikki

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