Kung Fu Kenny's Top 10: Exploring the Best of Kendrick Lamar (and why)

There's too much to say about Kendrick Lamar. I don't know where to begin.

Some brief history?
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The 30-year-old rapper from Compton, CA has recently released an accompanying album to the movie Black Panther, kicking off what promises to be a big year for our man Kung Fu Kenny. Kendrick packs a lot of punch.

In his 2017 album DAMN, his short, jumpy, and bold mini-essays on identity and spiritual quest over tight-knit beats earned him a place in the spotlight. Per Kendrick, the album is designed to be listened to either forwards or backward.
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2015's To Pimp a Butterfly was sprawling, artistic, free-form jazz that found its heart in Harlem, California, Israel, and South Africa in equal parts. Prior to Butterfly, Lamar (he always has been) was big on concept albums- good kid, m.A.A.d City and Section 8.0 were both like novels. While kid was Kendrick's autobiography, Section 8.0 looks at a generational struggle through the lens of two characters named Tammy and Keisha. Point is, Kendrick's albums are worlds unto themselves, cinematic storyboards that are part sociology class, part personal reflection, and part religious exploration.
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Interestingly, it seems as if Kendrick Lamar believes in an "angry God", and certainly takes the idea of judgment to heart. He is a man who puzzles over sin- of both personal, and the large-scale, societal nature. If there is indeed a unifying theme of his work, it is about the corruption of the human heart and attempts to hold that heart prone to stray accountable. Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote that "there is a line between good and evil. . . that runs right through every human heart". Kendrick takes this line seriously, exploring his faults, joys, successes, and responsibilities. Ultimately, Kendrick is aiming for righteousness-seeking moral consistency and fulfilling personal responsibility.

In the Biblical text, John 4:14 states that "whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst". Kendrick has claimed that he's both been "dying of thirst" and has lamented that money and power haven't "made him real". He's on a quest. Like any hero on a quest, the quest naturally takes detours. We get to hear all about it in Lamar's music. Aptly, the poet Ruth Feldman writes of these journies in her poem "Detour":

It was a long time getting here
much of it wasted on wrong turns, 
back roads riddled by ruts. 
I had adventures I would have never known 
If I proceeded as the crow flies. 
Superhighways are always so sure of where they are going
they arrive too soon. 

A straight line isn't always the shortest distance 
between two people
Sometimes I act as though I am somewhere else
while, imperceptibly, I narrow the gap between you and me. 
I'm still not sure I'll ever know the right way, 
But I don't mind getting lost now and then. 
Maps don't know everything. 

It is this quest that one can hear in Kendrick Lamar's music- the quest for God- the road of detours. These songs are the stuff of life. There's no hotline bling to be found. Here's the best of it:

1. "Alright"
A jazzy intro pushes the pavement into a song that finds its emotional core on the streets. It's uplifting. It's hope: "I'm at the preachers door/ my knees are getting weak. . . but we gonna be alright". Sharp drums and horns bring this one home. Quick note: the song ends on a spoken word/note- introducing us to "Lucy", a repeating motif in Lamar's music that symbolizes the devil, humanity's sinful nature, and the like.

2. "Untitled 03 5.28.2013"
Here, you'll hear Kendrick rap about racial stereotypes and the ways in which we so often box people of varying identities into corners. In the end, he uplifts the individual- expressing disdain for a world that exploits desires and cultural values for profits. In providing an overview of cultured definitions of the "good life" (some sound better than others) Kendrick provides insight into how our lives should be structured by pure values- and how hard it is to get a hold of 'em. Manic keys and an edgy bass line cut the sharp edges of this excellent song (by the way, this track is from Lamar's collection of discarded tracks, a collection that was appropriately named Untitled Unmastered).

3. "A.D.H.D."
Over a dissonant, fading set of sounds that set a darker mood, Kendrick Lamar brings us into the heart addiction, self-fulfilling prophecies, and generational curses. "Born in the 80's. . . A.D.H.D. crazy. . . crack babies". Lamar also quotes the female he's connecting with at a party by, well, not directly quoting her. He reads between the lines, and grasps the fundamental hurt of growing up in poverty and its intersection with addiction.

"Sing About Me I'm Dying of Thirst"
In perhaps his greatest musical achievement, here, Lamar tells a long story from multiple perspectives (three, in fact) over a sharp, muted pat-pat of drums and easy, reflective keys. It's like rain on the roof at night. The first verse tells the story of Kendrick's friend (Dave, I think), the second, from a female neighborhood friend, the last, Kendrick himself. He's hearing voices, in a good way. He sees it as his duty to bring the stories he's heard and experienced in his life to a wider audience. The chorus- "promise that you will sing about me"- fades deep into the psyche. Stories are dying to be told. There's freedom in truth. In this case, it's twelve solid minutes of truth-telling that concludes in the "sinners prayer". The radical change that the prayer represents is only possible after processing all the emotions that these stories hold, and accordingly, comes through our speakers at the end of the song. This song is the crux of good kid, m.A.A.d City, as it details the transformation of Kednrick from the adolescent K-dot to Kendrick Lamar, the man.

5. "Pray for Me"
"Pray for Me" features boom-loud, aggressive drums and all the production that a Hollywood soundtrack (Black Panther Soundtrack) demands. Here, Kendrick is ripping bars right through a moral crisis. If life is suffering, what makes the suffering worth it? The answer is only possible after prayer. Kendrick is seeking a community to uplift his suffering and sacrifices.

6. "Swimming Pools (Drank)"
Here, we're greeting by a word of swirling world of dark keys, strong buzzes, and a party that serves more as a template for the exploration of substance abuse than a celebration. A party ain't a party if you party every night, as Kendrick is keenly aware. The first verse features Kendrick discussing his family history of alcoholism. He scientifically lays down the causes addiction: it could be precipitated by family history (his grandfather's golden flask), social conditioning ("some people just want to kill their sorrows"), and peer pressure ("some want to fit in with the popular/ that was my problem"). In the second verse, Kendrick takes on the persona of his conscience, imploring him to not fall into the temptation of substance abuse. It's all wrapped up, deceptively,  in a club-friendly chorus about drinking alcohol.

7. "FEEL"
"FEEL" is a  brooding, alienated track of isolation, sorrow, and grievances. Here, Kendrick gets vulnerable as he throws jabs at the world around him. This is a document of the journey- as Kendrick fights with "demons/monsters/monsters/false industry promises"- rattling off a series of laments and frustrations at a rapid pace, backed a delayed background vocal sample that sounds like an echo in the darkness. "Ain't nobody praying for me", Kendrick sings, as timely hits on the keys extend this sentiment to the cosmos. It should be noted that all the songs off of his 2017 album DAMN are written in caps. These songs are bold statements. Well constructed paragraphs. And they don't back down.
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"DUCKWORTH" is Kendrick Lamar's last name (full name Kendrick Lamar Duckworth). This song details Kendrick's fascination regarding life- it's random occurrences- and how seemingly small acts of humility and kindness can have unexpected, positive consequences in the long run. It's something like karma. One reaps what one sows. A well-planted tree will bear good fruit. The beat is soulful, but switches to frantic as the story gets more intense- as Kendrick lays down the tale of his father (named Ducky), a worker at KFC, and his unexpected kindness to a potential robber (named Anthony). Anthony's penchant for violence and Ducky's desire for peace collide at KFC, in what Kendrick labels the "chicken incident".  Today, the robber and the father work together at Kendrick's label, Top Dog Entertainment.

Imagine if things had been different. Sometimes order arises from the chaos of life, if morality is firmly established.

Key lines? ". . . take two strangers/ and put them in random predicaments/ give them a soul so they can make choices/ and live with it/ twenty years later them same strangers/ make 'em meet again/ inside the recording studio/ where they reapin' the benefits/ then you start reminding them about the chicken incident. . . because if Anthony killed Ducky/ top dawg could be serving life/ while I grow up without a father/ and die in a gun fight".

9. "DNA"
Loud, in your face, and rolling with the thunder of a Greek God, "DNA" is Kendrick's rebuttal to Fox News, cable news, or any other person/entity that he feels has taken his lyrics out of context. Famously, Fox News had criticized Kendrick for, basically, being a "thug" who only thought that police were around to harass his community. To illustrate their point, they took an out of context line from his song "Alright" (which became an anthem for Black Lives Matter in the wake of many publicized police shootings) to paint Kendrick with a broad stroke. He wasn't happy. Here, he runs through a series of stereotypes, almost knocking the Fox News depiction of an "urban rapper" by facetiously feeding into their unnuanced view of him.  At the same time, the lyrics also suggest that Kendrick was not gonna roll over and take criticism that hit him in his soul. The booming bass line and aggressive notes send the message home.

10. "How Much a Dollar Cost"
"How Much a Dollar Cost" is Kendrick's deepest, most poetic track, and a fitting conclusion to this discussion of his ten best songs. Musically, the song takes its cues from a reflective, moody jazz piece and English rocker Radiohead's "Pyramid Song", setting the stage for a song of Biblical proportions. Keys and strings swirl in and and out as the song picks up intensity. Kendrick has a meeting with the Messiah, the Lord. And he doesn't appear to Kendrick as a burning bush, but a homeless man, as Kendrick fills up $20 bucks on pump 6. You'll hear Kendrick feed: 1) his own resentments, 2) his propensity for greed, 3) common reactions to the downtrodden, and, 4) religious epiphany into this song. It's like a moving stream, full of strings, keys, moving imagery, and a seriousness that can't be ignored.

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