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Loving You Is Complicated: Why Kendrick Lamar Is the Artist of the Year

The depth of Kendrick’s statement, and the sociopolitical ramifications still undulating out of it, are the reasons he is the artist of the year.
30.11.15

“We gon be alright! We gon be alright!” It’s early November, and I’m standing in the middle of Manhattan’s Terminal 5, a mid-sized concert venue where Kendrick Lamar and his band have just walked off stage after a mercenary set of hits and deep cuts from his sophomore studio album To Pimp a Butterfly, with one notable exception. They’ve skipped over the towering album centerpiece “Alright,” ostensibly to trot it out as a rousing encore, but something peculiar happens as a chant of the song’s chorus rises slowly and powerfully up from the crowd. Kendrick saunters back out, but not to play any songs. Instead, he bounces around the stage gleefully leading the chant before launching the encore that brings the place to its knees. For those six minutes, the crowd at Terminal 5 sounded like a protest rally, hundreds of youth shouting a clarion call for perseverance. Since To Pimp a Butterfly’s release in March, “Alright” has become something of a battle cry and its author, an unwitting general.

Annoncering

Kendrick Lamar maintains a public persona steeped in the hallowed mystery of his pre-internet predecessors: He speaks almost exclusively through music, interviews, and the stage. His moves run shockingly counter to the unfettered exposure typically elicited of rappers in the era of Snapchat and Vine. He won’t offer himself up piecemeal through meme-friendly video moments like Drake. He doesn’t have Meek Mill and Wale’s case of Twitter fingers, Rozay’s cloak of calculated cool, Nicki Minaj’s multi-platform social media omnipresence, or Young Thug’s Lil Wayne inspired release schedule overdrive. Paparazzi don’t much catch him courtside at sporting events like Jay or front row at fashion events like Kanye. Oftentimes, it feels like Kendrick Lamar isn’t there at all. And yet, he remained at the heart of the year’s hip-hop dialogue through sheer force of the gravity of his grand artistic statement. The depth of Kendrick’s statement, and the sociopolitical ramifications still undulating out of it, are the reasons an artist who kept an impossibly low profile throughout 2015 can rank among our Artists of the Year.

From “Wesley’s Theory” to “Mortal Man,” To Pimp a Butterfly is a radical sermon of black self-love in wartime, a call to mobilize in an election year where Syrian refugees are being refused asylum by US governors on race-based fears of terrorism, and confusingly popular presidential candidates like Donald Trump promise frightening, xenophobic defense measures like a wall around Mexico and federal surveillance of Muslims. Butterfly braided isolated threads of black music into a yarn bafflingly consistent despite the expanse of its components, jazz, g-funk, and soul fusing with Los Angeles’s beat scene aesthetic to create a sound somehow of the moment in how dizzyingly out of time it feels, all of this while the rapper takes himself brutally to task for acting out under the too-hot spotlight of fame, and for good measure, dazzles with innovative flows and wordplay. Lamar sits beside his peers at radio as a monument to the old world; his kingdom is built on his words, not an impossible cool. For many that sets him ahead of the class. They forget how much stock the greats of eras past placed on their looks.

Annoncering

A craft-obsessed anti-celebrity by contrast, Kendrick wore the dire moment in blackness as his image. Whenever he showed face, it was to ruffle feathers. The Butterfly videos—an unfussed, hyperreal treatment for “King Kunta,” a satirical “For Free” short pitched squarely between the disparate tones of Spike Lee and Mel Brooks, the monochrome grit and subtle protest of “Alright”—were every bit as breathless and weightless as the music. A performance at the 2015 BET Awards found the rapper delivering his verses from the top of a destroyed cop car, a scene all too familiar to anyone watching from hostile grounds or comfort of television while Baltimore and Ferguson burned. (It brought Lamar to the attention of the Fox News pundit circuit, where Geraldo Rivera zeroed in on the line, “And we hate po-po, they wanna kill us dead in the streets fo’ sho’,” brackishly suggesting that “hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism.”) Kendrick’s art imitated life, but life closed the loop: Many youth sponsored police brutality protests would take up his song’s chorus as a slogan, a mantra we shouldn’t have to repeat to ourselves in a movement we shouldn’t have to present to our country. We shouldn’t have to tell ourselves we’re going to be all right. We shouldn’t have to remind America black lives matter.

If To Pimp a Butterfly speaks presciently to the year’s stormy racial climate, Kendrick made sure it wasn’t missed that his message extends deeper than culture. A January Billboard interview touching on the Michael Brown shooting shocked fans, who didn’t expect the note of personal responsibility in Kendrick’s layered rebuke of the event and its response: “Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start with looting—it starts from within.” On the surface, it scanned as an unsubtle suggestion that Brown had landed himself in St. Louis police crosshairs, but if you consider Butterfly’s dogged trek toward inner peace—from “Loving you is complicated!” to “I love myself!”—the remarks lose a considerable measure of malice. A professed Christian, Kendrick seems most religious in his push past the outward injustices of the world into emotional and spiritual self-improvement. Rap as politically incensed as Butterfly can be doesn’t often arrive with a chewy crisis of doubt in the middle, and the depth and dark of the enterprise makes the record something of a gauntlet toss for the listener.

Annoncering

Culture critics and rap writers alike spent the year arguing over the Compton wordsmith’s work, some suggesting that Butterfly, in its unblinking dissection of race politics, is too white-hot to be handled on a regular basis and others glibly blaming their challenge of engaging the music on short lead times for rap journalists, and so on, and so forth. It is a ridiculous proposition, policing how best to process (or maintain comforting distance from) challenging art. The online hip-hop community constantly pits the merits of music that inspires thought against those of music that primarily inspires dance, as if it were a foregone conclusion you can no longer do both to the same songs or that music that grips body-first is somehow less essential to the culture. (Fittingly, in “Alright,” Kendrick Lamar and Pharrell affix a black radical pulse to production that walks like Atlanta trap and chamber jazz at the same time, a fact which might have thrown the perennial righteous/ratchet debate into delicious chaos, had anyone stopped shouting long enough to crane their necks.) They are secretly happiest when they’re arguing. Un-secretly, the argument is of precious little consequence. An album that unfurls its charms over time is a blessing, and the enduring squabbles show To Pimp a Butterfly continuing to haunt months after interest in albums that fared much better at retail subsided. Kendrick remains present and yet, eerily not.

Annoncering

On the subject of artists that moved more units than Butterfly: Kendrick Lamar achieved all of the above while advancing his cold war with Drake, a passive aggressive volley of subliminals spread out across two years of albums, television appearances, and guest verses. Whether it was Kendrick’s intent or not, Butterfly’s early spring release sapped considerable steam from the conversation around Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. He had loads of fun baiting Drake like this: the target of Kendrick’s subliminals on Butterfly as well as Dr. Dre’s swansong Compton snapped into laser focus after Meek Mill spilled the beans about Drake’s Quentin Miller songwriting assists, and mere weeks after OVO’s shock-and-awe campaign scorched Meek, Lamar could be seen puckishly accentuating the “King Kunta” line “A rapper with a ghostwriter, what the fuck happened?” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Drake didn’t offer much in the way of a reply, and the impression is that the Toronto despot is intimidated. Some wonder whether the summer’s relentless pursuit of Meek was for show, assertion of a dominance Drake couldn’t pull against a more fitting challenger. If Kendrick felt like a reclusive mystic for much of the year elsewhere, in his dealings with his rival, he flashed a capricious capacity for mischief, a complexity and versatility that showed shades of his beloved 2pac. Black unity is the message, but bless your heart if you cross it.

For a year spent reacquainting trap-obsessed rap radio with lush keys and horns sorely missed since the commercial apex of Questlove, J Dilla, and the like, for rewriting the rules of hip-hop stardom by dialing the clock back to a time where artists led on ideas rather than the thrill of round-the-clock access, for helping reactualize major label hip-hop as actionable protest music without sacrificing quality for purity of message or falling prey to divisive, circuitous hotep logic, and for rattling neocons, liberals, trap heads, and lyrical miracle types in one fell swoop with a daring message of love, Kendrick Lamar is a no-brainer for Artist of the Year. Even when he eluded the spotlight, the dialogue crept back to him. He’s writing hip-hop history with every step, and in the years to come, it will be a joy to watch what weird waves issue forth from his impact.

Craig Jenkins is a contributing editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.

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