Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Killing The Vibe, Forgetting The Meaning

Kendrick Lamar and Misconceptions of Black Men

"I be off the slave ship...building pyramids, writing my own hieroglyphs"
Kendrick Lamar - HiiPower

The other day, I told my fiance that Biggie's most underrated line ever was:

"Considered a fool because I dropped out of high school/Stereotypes of a Black man misunderstood, and it's still all good..." 

It's probably one of the most perceptive lyrics ever from B.I.G.  But Juicy is so melodic, you can just fly right past it.

It also makes me reflect upon our society's general lack of belief in Black men's ability to be introspective.  Or that they can practice healthy forms of ethos. There are really strong efforts currently underway to change those generalized views of Black male inability. But there is also a history and tradition that can be referenced and pointed to, which provides examples of how it can be done: from Wright, to Baldwin, to Biggie and Pac, to Saul Williams, to even Obama.  An intellectual, experiential, expressive one.

I think about Kendrick Lamar's young body of work, and on the politics of carrying on the tradition within the new realities and narratives. Kendrick has moments when he puts this new paradigm for introspection, ethos, and social commentary, together in the mold of  the great Black social commentators - in the tradition of story-telling. And those moments are so dope.

A few months ago, Ta-Neshi Coates wrote in the NY Times about how important K-Dot's album "good Kid, m.A.A.D. city" is for understanding what Black males and residents in urban cities face; that elites don't get it; and thus Black males seek to treat this misunderstanding and alienation through other means.  Coates decides to emphasize the means of music and criminality: 1) rappers are masters of violence, 2) they are authors commenting on the new social structures, and 3) music is where they make fantasy parallel to reality, as a way of explaining the rules and strategies for mastering the new structures. In this logic, mastery equals survival.
"Hip-hop originates in communities where such hazards are taken as given. Rappers generally depict themselves as masters, not victims, of the attending violence. Their music is not so much interested in exalting to our preferred values as constructing a fantasy wherein the author has total control and is utterly invulnerable."

He attempts to contextualize and nuance Black male rappers - the presumption embedded in the piece - "mastery of violence" through music and strategy, in order to not demonize it. But that approach seems..."stereotypical."  Just a very stereotypical way for analyzing the lived reality of misunderstood Black men. 

Instead, I really wished that he would of emphasized how Kendrick represents the Black male as social commentator.  The Black male that uses the local, as his text.  The Black male that uses words, to convey ethos.  The Black male, who is capable of not just commentary, but also analysis and introspection.  Rather than continue to be implicit that he, Coates, is unique because he is all those things, why not be explicit about how Kendrick is all those things too? Kendrick's social thought is just as important as his words. This point needs to be exalted more, and it goes beyond Coates' piece.

There is something troubling I've observed as K-Dot's music begins to find a broader audience and pop culture acceptance: his music is being reduced to choruses that put together finely chosen words and turn them into catchy phrases. The skits, track order, and coherent narrative which was thoughtfully and intelligently put together, is now signified through liquor in swimming pools and bitches that kill one's vibe.

Kendrick, isn't just the next great West Coast rapper, and not just a hip-hop artist who's music has a penchant for fitting the Top 40 format.  He also is in the lauded tradition of Wright, Baldwin, and Obama, and less recognized aspects of Tupac, Biggie Smalls, and many others.

And that he's been doing this way before "good Kid, m.A.A.D. city."

“Hiiipower: the three i’s represent heart, honor and respect. That’s how we carry ourselves in the streets, and just in the world, period. Hiiipower, it basically is the simplest form of representing just being above all the madness..."

Kendrick gives us an example of why we must listen closer.  Not just for words, but for intellectual thought.  Black men are capable of such.  But they themselves, and us as a listening community, must begin the process of thinking and speaking like we believe it.  And also behaving and acting in ways that develop what we have to say.

Study.  Learn.  Think.  Respect.  Remain Thoughtful.  And Share.  Let's call that HiiiPower

1 comment:

Enmanuel.Writes said...

"Hip Hop is prosecution evidence
The out of court settlement
Ad space for liquor
Sick without benefits"

Thanks for the analysis Mike, there has always been a rich tradition of introspection in Hip Hop. I'm glad that you're shining light to it.