“Cornrow Kenny, he was born with a vision,” says Kendrick Lamar on “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014” – a jazzy cut from untitled unmastered, his 2016 album that pulled back into the drunk-funk flavour of To Pimp A Butterfly. It was during this period that the Pulitzer Prize winning rapper began rocking braids, publically debuting the cut in a live TV performance the year previous (something he would later reference on the “Mask Off” remix) and the importance wasn’t lost on fans.
In today’s hyperspeed world, eras aren’t measured by time (think the previous unit of decades) but by a shift in aesthetic – whether that’s glowing up, getting a haircut, switching styles, etc. In Lamar’s case, you have his breakthrough era – where, on the press trail for good kid, m.A.A.d city, you’d likely see him in a checked shirt with short back and sides and a diamond in one ear; then there’s the To Pimp A Butterfly look, when he grew his beard out and dreaded his hair alien style (catch that in the “For Free” video), and lastly the lead-up to DAMN, when, in the months after To Pimp A Butterfly dropped, he appeared on television with those tightly structured braids.
Those cornrows eventually culminated in the King Fu Kenny character. Stylewise, you can look to the DAMN cover, where Lamar’s hair mimics that of an Orthodox Jew, complete with beard and sideburn dreadlocks, linking with the religious concepts at that album’s core (and more overtly the line “I’m an Israelite” on “Yah”). But that album dropped back in 2017 and there’s talk that Kendrick is revving up for an imminent new release; based on a swiftly deleted Instagram story of 2019 releases from his distributor, a media blackout (he’s blacked out his Instagram and Twitter profile pictures; the last time he did so, he released pre- DAMN track “The Heart Part IV”) and a passed around screenshot that – if believed to be recent – shows Kendrick with a new cut.
Whether Kendrick Lamar is set to release a new album in the coming weeks is debatable (fellow TDE label mate Zacari has an album out this Friday; TDE member ScHoolboy Q is promoting something too, and you can’t imagine the label would overshadow either drop with a Kendrick release). However there is some credence to the notion that changing one’s look is indicative of new music sitting just beyond the horizon. It’s a practice that’s been followed by everyone from Kanye West and Frank Ocean through Lady Gaga and back toward the likes of David Bowie and Prince.
For every Kanye West album, there’s been a distinctive look – the pink polo and backpack, the shutter shades, the “Love Lockdown” suit, that all-red ensemble of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, all the Yeezus masks and Yeezy merch for The Life Of Pablo, all the way up to the shorts and trippy Grateful Dead aping sweaters that’ll come to define his 2018 Wyoming sessions. Or there’s the primary coloured hair, a look he seemingly ripped wholesale from Frank Ocean who – after showcasing a green dye on the Blonde cover – started experimenting with everything from pink to blue to red as he slowly released loosie singles like “Chanel” and “Biking”.
It makes sense that a new period in a musician’s career is often marked with a new wardrobe or haircut, especially since an album often focuses on a particular chapter of time or event. After all these artists are human like us, and so they’re not beyond the break-up haircut or wardrobe revamp. When I take stock of my life up to this point, it separates into eras based on moments and the clothes I was wearing at the time – from first year university days, shopping at Beyond Retro and reading Pitchfork, to cold depressed winters with overgrown hair and big coats, through to dressing in as many different colours as possible in the years 2017 and ‘18 and up to current day.
You can also see it in the people around you too, sartorially code switching as they enter new periods in their relationship or career. And so the same goes for musicians. See Alex Turner with his American accent and slicked back hair on AM, which he then grew out for the release of Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino with a brief pit-stop in wannabe mobster town (aka shaved heads and garish tracksuit bottoms) for his Last Shadow Puppets project. Or Dev Hynes, going from nu-metal gear in Test Icicles to jumpers and trapper hats with Lightspeed Champion to his current slick 80s get-up in Blood Orange.
Some changes in looks are to do with the natural passing of style and time – unless you’re in a post-punk band you’re gonna want to change your clothes every couple of years. But they’re also certainly evident of an artist entering a new phase, gearing up to release a new album. Sometimes, too, the look hints at what that music may sound like. When it comes to Kendrick Lamar details may be sparse – a short haircut, some blacked out profile pictures. However you can be when his new album drops it’s going to be another shift, just as DAMN moved away from To Pimp A Butterfly and that album switched up everything you might have expected after hearing GKMC.
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