Consciousness and commercialism: The two opposing sides of Kendrick Lamar

CommonSpace music critic Robert Blair takes a look at the contradictions between American rapper Kendrick Lamar's work and his actions

FROM the moment that his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly sprouted its wings and made its way from the confines of recording studios and into our homes, headphones and minds, it swiftly elevated the man born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth to the status of one of the finest and most ambitious artists of his generation.

Of course, the seeds may have been sown on previous outings; with the empowered sound of Section 80 portraying him as a candid and dexterous lyricist that was on the ascent while the unflinchingly vivid social commentary on life in Compton, California’s most deprived, gang-ridden and violence-infested community stripped away at the façade of 1990s era gangsta rap in glamorisation in favour of gritty realism, but no-one could’ve foresaw what was waiting around the corner.

In spite of all he’d he accomplished up until that point as both a solo artist and one of the leading lights of Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE)/Black Hippy gamp, the MC that once performed under the pseudonym of 'K-dot' before deciding that he  "wanted people to know who I am and what I represent", was not discussed in such reverent terms before the release of his third full length project.

No MC since Tupac '2pac' Shakur has managed to traverse the mainstream while also advocating for the betterment of his community in the way that Lamar has.

A 16-track odyssey that took its musical cues of from the rich lineage of genres that originated in the black community such as soul, funk and jazz, it is a staggering body of work that not only provides an insight into his own fractured mind state and insecurities fuelled by the injustices that are perpetuated around him, but is also emblematic of the discrimination, hatred and unrest that resides at the heart of America to this very day.

A prophetic and transcendent body of work that truly qualifies as protest music in a modern generation where hedonistic vapidity is so often richly rewarded in the music industry, the track 'Alright' has since taken on a life of its own as the defiant clarion call of the Black Lives Matter movement that has fought against the unlawful killings of young black men since the untimely death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. 

No MC since Tupac '2pac' Shakur has managed to traverse the mainstream while also advocating for the betterment of his community in the way that Lamar has and his position as an agent of change, education and awareness is exactly what landed him on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people for 2016.

Far from just impacting America, Lamar’s uniquely confessional yet intensely engaging brand of hip-hop has been adopted far and wide and the nation has eagerly anticipated a return to the UK for the man in the wake of his latest album, Damn.

After what seemed like an endless parade of American shows in support of his latest LP that spawned some of his biggest crossover singles in 'Humble' and 'Element', the news that Los Angeles’ modern-day monarch of the rap game would be visiting these shores during a February UK tour was met with a rapturous response.

The news that Los Angeles’ modern-day monarch of the rap game would be visiting these shores during a February UK tour was met with a rapturous response.

Fans were elated to finally receive this icon-in-waiting and champion of social justice in the flesh - his last standalone headline show in Glasgow was in 2013 at the ABC - but the joy would soon turn to be bemusement for many as each tour date’s extortionate ticket prices began to come to the fore.

Priced at £80 for an average standing ticket to the show at The SSE Hydro with the potential to pay up to £107 for entry to the 'golden circle', this beguiling turn of events is indicative of one of the crucial dichotomies that lies at the heart of not only Lamar’s public persona, but arguably the man himself.

How can a man who so readily critiques the ills of society and makes explicit reference to the corrupting powers of the almighty dollar on many occasions justify pricing out some of his most ardent and long term fans with such unaffordable tickets?

Although the critical world may hold Lamar and his consistently astounding albums in such esteem that he encroaches upon the status of a cultural sacred cow, it is also important to remember that Lamar is an artist making his way through the treacherous commercial landscape. 

It is admittedly very unlikely that the Compton-born MC’s star will dim at any rate over the next few years but, as is so acutely expressed on tracks such as 'Fear' from his latest body of work, Lamar is a man that lives with the irrepressible knowledge that all of his fame and fortune could be snatched away from him at any given moment.

The joy would soon turn to be bemusement for many as each tour date’s extortionate ticket prices began to come to the fore.

When viewed through this context, some of his more perplexing collaborations with mainstream artists appear to make more cognitive sense and are less condemnable.

Having turned in verses for a string of pop acts including Taylor Swift, Maroon 5 and the oft-critiqued Robin Thicke, his ingrained complex about having all that he’s worked for so cruelly snatched away by the fickle mistress that is public adoration would likely be a factor in temporarily sacrificing that social conscience for a lucrative payday.

Going back to the very first track of ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ - which as a title itself could be seen as a remark upon something organic, pure and beautiful being polluted and used - Lamar enlists a cautionary tale in the form of prominent actor Wesley Snipes.

Titled 'Wesley’s Theory', it is a song which hinges on the notion of financial illiteracy and recklessness within his community and the underprivileged as a whole which can lead to the industry casting you aside when it has taken all it can. 

Expressed through the voice of his inner demons and reckless side of his personality, it proclaims that he can have any lavish trapping of fame that he so desires, but they "Wesley Snipe your ass before 35".

How can a man who so readily critiques the ills of society and makes explicit reference to the corrupting powers of the almighty dollar justify pricing out some of his most ardent and long term fans?

As financial security is clearly an issue that plagues his mind, are these inflated ticket prices simply a case of the Californian MC making hay while the sun shines?

It would be naïve to insinuate that a massive tour such as this won’t have overheads accompanying it, and the fact that these shows will also provide fans with a chance to see the elusive and pioneering English singer/songwriter James Blake in support of a star of his magnitude does make it slightly less preposterous.

However, no matter how we attempt to rationalise it, there is something about paying such exorbitant rates to see a man that is for many the voice of a generation, that calls into question the authenticity of his message. 

His catalogue is inundated with some of the finest art that has been created in the past decade and therefore has a weighty value to it, but there is a fine line between knowing what your music means to the zeitgeist and exploiting the adoration of your fans. 

As a man who so frequently draws the correlation between money and evil throughout the length and breadth of his back catalogue, we can but hope that a man who has proved himself to be a perennial great over the course of his four awe-inspiring albums isn’t succumbing to, or being coerced into those very temptations that he has so actively warned of in his illustrious past.

Picture courtesy of Jon Elbaz

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