The number one with a bullet reason why hip-hop has played such an important role in my life is its ability to bridge the gap between experiences I’ll never understand and my own personal struggles and successes. Sure, there’s plenty of hip-hop I enjoy simply because it sounds good, but the albums and artists that stick with me for years are those that somehow relate my own emotions and experiences to someone I’ve never met.
Since I first hit play on Section.80 in 2011, Kendrick Lamar has been one of those artists. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, I couldn’t have been raised in an environment and under circumstances further from Compton, California in the 90’s, but there are universal themes and truths evident in Kendrick’s music that make his words resonate deeply with a 28-year-old white guy from the Midwest.
Like all of the greatest artists of any genre before him, Kendrick found a way to make music that is both intensely personal and specific to his own experiences but still resonates with a wide-ranging audience.
In a recent interview with Dave Chappelle, Kendrick emphasized that his ability to create powerful and lasting music is heavily dependent on his limitless self-expression. Rather than worrying about what’s going to sell, or what will please his record label, Kendrick’s music is steeped in realness and authenticity.
Post-Section.80, Kendrick has crafted three major label albums that are primarily rooted in the freedom of self-expression and progressive thought. Hell, the intro track to Section.80 is even titled “Fuck Your Ethnicity.” The themes Kendrick has explored since then have only deepened in growth and complexity. Throughout his ascension, Kendrick has made it clear that no subject is off topic, and no train of thought is too progressive to explore within the confines of an often judgmental culture.
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Yet, when asked by Chappelle what he thinks about when he’s creating an album, Kendrick unselfishly directed his attention to the fans. “At the end of the day, the music isn't for me," he said. "It's for people who are going through their struggles and want to relate to someone who feels the same way they do.”
There’s a selflessness at play in Kendrick’s personality that allows him to simultaneously dig into the depths of past experiences and allows them to be a conduit for the emotional accessibility of others, a winning attribute that has helped to propel him to iconic heights.
Through his interviews and certainly his music, Kendrick has made it clear that he’s confident in his role as a vessel through which messages bigger than himself can be conveyed to the people that need to hear them the most. His role as a vessel was forged through a combination of several noble traits, converging to form an artist that simultaneously doesn’t give a fuck what people think about his expression and yet is able to still deliver music that people need.
Divinity is absolutely at play in Kendrick’s music—his faith has been a staple of his musical thematics from day one—but there’s also a very earthy characteristic to his universality. While Kendrick loves people, he also enjoys an accessibility to individuals of all creeds, colors and cultures that success has brought him. In turn, this has allowed Kendrick to act as a sponge of experiences and emotions, drawing similarities between his life and that of a white hipster kid at Coachella or a homeless man at a gas station in South Africa. Toss those virtues together with some expert penmanship and an immaculate ear for production and you get an artist that knows his God has sent him to bring people together and the personality and skill set to actually make it happen.
The reason why Kendrick has been able to continuously throw expectation curveballs is his ability to pick up on perspectives—an experiential lens that’s different for every single person—and weave them together through underlying similarities illuminated by his extensive communication with all walks of life and a deep-seeded faith that we’re all here to love each other. And because of that, Kendrick has managed to cement himself as an artist we’ll be studying and relating to long after his career in music comes to a close.
There’s nothing wrong with making music that just sounds good, but for artists in search of legacy and longevity, Kendrick’s footprints are the ones you want to follow.