The hip-hop messiah is both real and not real. He– and with the possible exception of Lauryn Hill, it has actually constantly been a “he”– is real in the sense that every 5 years or two, whenever hip-hop feels too boring, or, worse, too corporate, an artist will be selected as the spiritual future of the kind.
However the hip-hop messiah is likewise a potential title: When he’s greasy, it’s not for the work he’s currently done, but more for the work he ought to do. He should develop something that feels as though it has grown naturally from his city, but that is at the same time universal. His work should feel political, but not overtly political. He must be a hero and an example to the young black people who pay attention to his music. It’s a difficult role to populate– at least while the hip-hop messiah is alive.Shortly after Kendrick Lamar launched “great kid, m.A.A.d city,” his 2012 major-label debut, he was anointed the current in the line of hip-hop messiahs by the critics, lovers and solemn ex-rappers who figure out these things. Like Nas– a one-time messiah himself– Lamar, a scrawny 25-year-old from Compton, was a visual poet. You can see Compton– the burger stands, the lights of the police car, the 405 freeway– in every track of “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” just as you can see the dice video games, job hallways and parks of Queensbridge in Nas’s “Illmatic.”.
Like Tupac, Lamar might easily juxtapose his feelings of worthlessness with a bravado that was magnetic, inspiring. Most important, he had that rare blend of raw talent, compassion and confidence that made every song, no matter how unfortunate, ring with the kind of hope that you felt as a knot in your chest. He anticipated his messiah status even before it was bestowed on him and pushed back versus the social burden placed on artists who, by virtue of their skill, are expected to raise up their neighborhoods.
In the last moments of the “good kid, m.A.A.d city” track “Real,” we hear a phone message from Lamar’s mother. In “m.A.A.d city,” Lamar seems to imagine himself as the local bard, one who doesn’t have to address to the white world or the music market. He does not appear to desire a larger, ambassadorial role, does not desire to be the artist whom white kids play for their parents– the rap artist whose “intelligence” is a “relief.”.
On “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar enter a new role, one that feels shaped, in part, by the burdensome expectations positioned upon him as a hip-hop messiah. In some ways, this was unavoidable– every anointed rapper ultimately has to move far from the memories of youth to tell other sort of stories. Couple of have actually done it as quickly, and with as sharp a move from the personal to the clearly political.
The brand-new album is a thicket of inspiring, historic references; you’ll discover important race theory, George Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Richard Pryor, Exodus 14, respectability politics and six different levels of meta-analysis about the meaning of Lamar’s success and messiah status. It appears nearly designed for parsing in a college class. As Clover Hope explained in an exceptional essay for Jezebel, the build-up of all these black references washing over the listener creates its own mood, its own emotional timbre. What you will not discover on “To Pimp a Butterfly” are the engaging storytelling and descriptive eye that brought Lamar’s Compton to life on “good kid, m.A.A.d. city.”.