“I’m obsessed with my craft and what I’m doing. I know what I’m chasing for my life, even though I don’t know what it is. But it’s an urge that’s in my every day. That urge to make an ultimate connection with words to man. And I don’t feel I’ve done that yet.” —Kendrick Lamar, “The Gospel According to Kendrick Lamar,” Vanity Fair
To write is to put yourself through a series of personal and public failures until something sticks, then sleep for four hours and try to expedite the process, and maybe try for five hours of sleep. I once had a professor tell me that writing about writing was trite, especially in poetry, and consequently was not worth reading. Suspicious from the jump, I’ve never been more certain of my professor’s patently untrue opinion than when I was reading Kendrick Lamar’s recent Vanity Fair cover story.
Lamar was asked by writer Lisa Robinson about starting a family and replied by ordering his priorities for the interviewer and the reader. That is, writing and achieving “an ultimate connection with words” must come first.
This may be one of the most resonant things Kendrick Lamar has ever said, on or off wax. The man is heralded by many as the greatest rapper alive, has more accolades to his name than years on this planet, and just scored hip-hop’s first Pulitzer Prize for music. Yet, he still imagines himself to be short of his goals, short of mastering his craft. Where Kanye West abandoned a pursuit of perfection, Lamar appears to feel as if his pursuit is nowhere near completion.
The success of Kendrick Lamar’s magnitude necessitates this thinking. Think about the professional athlete with endless titles to their name, who continues practicing like they’re the scrappy underdog. If this image isn’t congruent with your idea of Kendrick, that means his approach is working. While there is a cardinal difference between enjoying your accomplishments and drowning in your ego, nothing will end a music career faster than a loss of hunger. When an artist—I’m looking at Nicki Minaj, Drake, and Eminem—realizes they’re either too big to fail or remains too headstrong to evolve until their hunger disappears, their music becomes an admitted slog.
Obsession is hunger; Kendrick Lamar remains hungry.
The type of obsession Kendrick Lamar describes must be cultured from a deep-seated fear of The Slog. After all, to chase is also to run. To chase is to be aware that there is something threatening right behind you. When Lamar finally makes that “ultimate connection with words,” it should send a cleansing tide out from his core and expel his fears. Keywords: “when” and “should.” From this interview, we find that Kendrick has no expectation of making this connection, but is reveling in his journey nonetheless.
With that, Kendrick proves that writing about writing, talking about writing, and reading about writing are nothing short of medicinal. Writing demands unhealthy amounts of isolation and the thoughts that peel off the recesses of your mind hours into a session range from tiresome to paralyzing. How could this admission be considered trite when hearing that Pulitzer Kenny himself feels language is still out of his grasp is the ultimate form of validation? His words are an empathetic suture.
This is how DAMN.’s reeking of despondence spoke to creatives in a coded language. Pressing play on the album, we can hear the tinkering and the resignation of an artist overly dedicated. The record opens with curiosity, empathy, and loss. There is Godlessness and Godliness in the same breath. Lamar puts his "lyric and my lifeline on the line" on "LOYALTY." There is “FEAR.,” so much fear. When you realize we are only as good as our most recent piece of content, the idea of Lamar following up To Pimp a Butterfly is maddening in itself.
When an article of mine goes live, I spend upward of a few hours worried I will never write again. Now, if the next time I settled in to write, and someone were to tell me that my opus already came to pass, I would suffer from a prompt and hysterical ego death. DAMN. is terminal in that way, a play-by-play of Kendrick Lamar’s own inevitable ego death. Looking more broadly at death and obsession, then, the album’s apex is, without a doubt, “LUST.”
“LUST.” is hot and terse and tearing, a track that is caged by its seeking quality, and simultaneously free in how aimless Lamar frames the search for the enigmatic “more.” His deadpan and slack delivery boulders over the stringent guitars and synths. The scratches evaporate and sound more like anxious ticks. “LUST.” is a song about the vortex of obsession and how seductive it may be to hand yourself over to the storm. In the context of Lamar’s interview, perhaps this submission is more than the byproduct of seduction. Perhaps he feels it’s his duty to spiral. I certainly do.
As a writer predisposed to obsessive behavior, I feel a constant impetus to release myself into a swirl of self-destructive work practices in the name of the art. I also worry that no matter how drastic my actions, I will never achieve an “ultimate connection with words.” I am plagued by the fear of burnout, by the fear that I am an obvious fraud, and by the fear that running from The Slog is pointless when I have been up to my ears in sludge the whole time. I am terrified of the impossibility that everyone can smell this on me before and after I confront the blank page. It sounds to me like Kendrick Lamar is battling more of the same, but now we are in this fight together.
So, if all types of music fans are searching for cathartic release each time they press play on a record, then the cathartic subgenre a writer is looking for is something I’ve affectionately dubbed “You Ain’t Shit Music.” In the process of making his “ultimate connection,” Kendrick Lamar has simultaneously made some of the best “You Ain’t Shit Music” of the past decade.
Think DAMN.’s “LUST.” or even Lil Peep’s far more melodramatic “OMFG,” where he still wants to kill himself despite success. These are songs that bemoan or personify burnout, but their very existence proves that there is more to artists than their creative lows or their creative highs. “You Ain’t Shit Music” may be the most miserable collection of hustle anthems available for our streaming pleasure, but they are some of the most humanizing pieces of art to exist all the same.
Kendrick Lamar struggles to connect with his craft, and may never consider himself a master. What could be more grounding? The lesson here, and within most “You Ain’t Shit Music,” is that we could all stand to ease up on ourselves in an effort to work harder. Passion and obsession can kill you as quickly as they can make you, and there is no line between the two unless you draw one yourself. Here, Kendrick Lamar has helped draw a line for all of us ambitious types. Let’s take that in stride before getting back to work.