“When we were working initially, he wasn’t that good a rapper. I was like, ‘You a’ight, but you a better actor.’ He was like, ‘Fuck you, man. Hip-hop is my voice.’”—John Singleton Recalls Telling Tupac to Quit Rap and Pivot to Acting
There is a split-second of silence during Kendrick Lamar’s 2013 BET cypher. The pause is quickly filled with the reverbing clap of a perfect high-five, arguably the decade’s best. “Ha-ha, joke’s on you, high-five,” Kendrick raps before turning toward fellow TDE rapper ScHoolboy Q, whose arm is precisely raised on cue as if possessed by a higher power. Their hands connect, like magnets born to collide, and then, seamlessly, without expression, Kendrick turns to the camera and utters two words: “I’m bulletproof.”
The sly theatric doesn’t stall Kendrick—the Pulitzer prize-winning emcee neither fumbles his flow or ruins the rhythm. He displays the composure of a performer who never forgets about the audience. Each movement is for their eyes as each lyric is for their ears. Kendrick is not just rapping; he is here to entertain.
Unlike celebrities who remain engaged in times of stillness, Kendrick is discreet—a shadow instead of a superstar. He’s neither seen on social media nor heard from in public. Not until he’s ready to be seen. For the good kid from Compton, California, isolation is only broken by song.
When Kendrick sings, hip-hop listens. But to fully experience Kendrick Lamar, one must watch, not just listen.
Think back to Kendrick’s 2014 SNL performance of the single “i.” Think back to his eyes and the depths of their blackness—the same shade of midnight-black eye contacts that Method Man wore on the cover of sophomore album, Tical 2000: Judgement Day. Think back to his hair, and the puff of his half-finished braids (also an homage to Meth). What is most striking, though, is Kendrick’s body language. He ticks in sporadic bouts and dances like a man possessed. Even the way Kendrick raps is unlike the recording. On that stage, with a stellar backing band, the record came to life anew.
Although “i” only has two verses, Kendrick adds a third from “Momma,” a song that was unreleased at the time. The verse required all the air in his lungs, but Kendrick created a breathless launch of words. They end with one final, screeching “SURVIVE!” The building intensity explodes in those last seconds, a war cry of jazz, funk, and hip-hop soul.
“I always felt like God used me as a vessel,” Kendrick told Zane Lowe on his Beats 1 radio program on Apple Music in a 2017 interview, a sentiment he also shared with Rick Rubin in 2015 during their interview for GQ’s Epic Conversation series. This mantra explains why, on stage, Kendrick Lamar seems present but distant—like himself, but someone else entirely. From that perspective, the Aftermath signee is kindred to actors and actresses who are vessels to the scripts like he is a vessel to the songs.
“When I hear you, I don’t always know it’s you. You seem to inhabit so many different characters with your voice,” Rubin tells Kendrick during their hour-long Q&A. This viewpoint is similar to French philosopher Albert Camus, who, in chapter two of The Myth of Sisyphus, wrote the following:
“They speak in every gesture; they live only through shouts and cries. Thus the actor creates his characters for display.”
The Myth of Sisyphus is a 1945 collection of philosophical essays translated to English in 1955 by Professor Justin O’Brien. The Drama section of chapter two, The Absurd Man, is dedicated to actors. “I am not saying that actors, in general, obey this impulse, that they are absurd men, but their fate is an absurd fate which might charm and attract a lucid heart,” O’Brien writes, a quote that yet again speaks to the actor within the artistry of Kendrick Lamar.
Kendrick Lamar doesn’t create different characters like Tyler, The Creator, or Donald Glover, nor does he reprise old versions of himself. The acclaimed superstar doesn’t make sequels. No two albums the same; no two performances are alike. Kendrick is a natural-born actor, but beneath the rapper’s gift-of-gab lies a convincing talent. Is that not the quality of an actor? Are they not transmitters of identities through physical representation?
Let’s ask Camus:
“A mime of the ephemeral, the actor trains and perfects himself only in appearances. The theatrical convention is that the heart expresses itself and communicates itself through gestures and in the body—or through the voice, which is as much of the soul as of the body. The rule of that art insists that everything be magnified and translated into flesh.”
Kendrick Lamar is aware of appearance and translating thoughts into flesh. How he stands, moves and sounds are decisions made precisely to present a character through performance. For SNL, his eyes, hair, voice, and body language were costumes no different from his acting debut on season five of 50 Cent’s Power. On the Starz television series, Kendrick plays Laces, a homeless, quirky drug-abuser who falls into a murderous scheme with 50 Cent’s character Kanan Stark.
Lamar as Laces is a sight to see. There’s no cool in his waddle; no gloss to his gear; nothing that informs the audience that one of the most admired hip-hop artists of this time is on the screen. It’s Kendrick Lamar, though. There’s no mistaking that grin. He smiles like Kendrick, somehow himself, but someone else entirely. He’s a surprise scene-stealer, able to make the eccentric Laces into a loveable companion who leaves the blood and laughs wherever he roams. The praise that followed was well deserved.
Kendrick Lamar is the rapper for Hollywood. He has the ability to, as Camus calls, “slip into an imaginary form and transfuse his blood into the phantoms.” If NBC could cast Will Smith for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for the charisma he brought to music videos and live performances, Kendrick’s reel of visuals shows the same, if not more, potential.
Imagine if Kendrick’s “God Is Gangsta” music video was a short film directed by David Lynch. Or if the music video for “Alright” was a feature film directed by Spike Lee. As someone who placed rappers on the big screen in the ‘90s, imagine the kind of magic Kendrick could’ve made with the late John Singleton. If Singleton told Tupac to quit rapping to act, what would he tell Kendrick as we turn the page on 2019?
Kendrick Lamar may not be an actor by trade, but cinema exists in the language of his discography. In the open of his 2010 music video for “Ignorance Is Bliss” the subtitle reads, “Based on a True Story, written by Kendrick Lamar.” On the cover of his major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, his handwriting reads, “A short film by Kendrick Lamar.” To begin the music video for his 2015 single “These Walls,” the opening screen reads, “BEHIND THE WALLS, A Black Comedy.” During the 2018 GRAMMYs, after performing the second verse of “XXX,” a DAMN. selection featuring U2, an on-screen projector reads, “This Is A Satire by Kendrick Lamar.”
From the beginning of his career, Kendrick has intertwined the trades of acting and directing into the DNA of his world of music. Not since Tupac has a rapper felt destined for a different kind of stage. Why should Kendrick Lamar make the soundtrack for Black Panther when he can play Erik Killmonger? Why should Kendrick Lamar settle for another GRAMMY when there are Academy Awards to win?
I’m not saying Kendrick Lamar is bound to be the greatest actor of our time. But ever since that perfect high-five with ScHoolboy Q, the rap superstar has been building himself into a budding auteur. “Hollywood has been good to me,” Kendrick said in his 2013 cypher verse. Now, are we enter a new decade, it’s time for him to be good to Hollywood.
By Yoh, aka Yoh Singleton aka @Yoh31