Thus, and seriously, how does any human being, let alone an artist as sensitive and emotionally naked as a Kendrick Lamar, digest and interpret Donald Trump, a global pandemic, endless mass shootings and murders and violence, the explosion of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, Russia’s war on Ukraine, tragic deaths like that of Kobe Bryant and Nipsey Hussle, and the gruesome videotaped murdering of a breath in the form of George Floyd?
What must you feel when one of your tracks, “Alright,” becomes a universal anthem for protest and change as omnipresent as John Lennon’s “Imagine” has been for half a century?
Or what do you do when the multitudes are begging for a hero, a savior, and they choose you? A chosen one because Kendrick Lamar, like Marvin Gaye and Tupac Shakur, is unafraid to machete his mind in half and let the blood flow where it may.
Take his latest single not on the new album, “The Heart Part 5.” It is a pulsating five-plus minutes of a sermon to himself, to Black America, low-riding atop an interpolation of Gaye’s under-appreciated romance opus “I Want You.”
What Marvin is crooning about is the flesh, but so is Kendrick, kinda. The difference is Gaye wants a sensual love here while Kendrick wants to be mentally and spiritually hugged by Black communities, and for us to put arms around ourselves, around each other, to stop destroying ourselves, and each other. The mind-jarring part of the cut is when Kendrick slides into the persona of Nipsey Hussle philosophizing from the heavens to his family, to his fans, even to his alleged killer.
There are few songs in pop music history that so boldly probe who and what we are. Think Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Think Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in The Wind.” Think Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn.” Think Lauryn Hill’s “That Thing.” Think Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” And think Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up.”
That the accompanying promotional would be a starkly minimalist Kendrick on screen with white tee shirt, black bandana around his neck, a maroon-ish background, and semi-twisted locks framing his weary eyes like a lion’s mane, was surprising, given his penchant for music videos as cinema verité short films. Until we see him deepfake into the faces of O.J. Simpson, Kanye West, Will Smith, Jussie Smollett, Kobe Bryant, and Nipsey Hussle. Some of these Black men are dead. Some of these Black men are alive. Each of them controversial for one reason or another, and some of them totally problematic. But Black men, nonetheless. And the questions they have in common with Kendrick, with me, with pretty much every Black man who has had to battle racism and the contradictions within ourselves are these: When can my life stop being the amusement park and punching bag for y’all, when can I stop being the envy of the world, and its number one enemy, too?