Tag Archives: Kendrick Lamar

Snubbed for his Skin: Kendrick Lamar’s Racially Charged GRAMMY Rejection

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When Kendrick Lamar took the stage at the 2014 GRAMMY Awards, he stared right at thousands of well dressed white people sitting in their seats, staring awkwardly at this rapper they might’ve heard of a handful of times.  They looked nervous, not knowing what to expect from this so called good kid from a M.A.A.d. city.  He was interrupting that Radioactive song that had heard on a couple commercials and they SO couldn’t wait to add to their running playlist now that they knew the artist’s name, so he’d better make it quick.

Four minutes later, the tuxedos stood and the flashy dresses swayed. This Kendrick guy had just spit two verses about gang violence and young poverty with a hungry motivation that would make you believe he had just escaped the madness of Compton.  All of a sudden he was jumping up and down pounding a bass drum with his hands, and they had to clap along.  If you haven’t seen the performance, I suggest you check it out.

So this was the guy who just lost in all seven categories in which he was nominated? Listen to the last verse of the song, which didn’t appear in the original version of M.A.A.d. city, written specifically for the GRAMMYs performance.  The last few lines sound as if Kendrick expected the snubs.  As if he was screaming out to primetime television that he doesn’t give two fucks about a GRAMMY award:

Fuck, look in my eyes, tell me I died, tell me I tried, to compromise

Tell me you love me, tell me that I, don’t give a fuck and can barely decide

Wishin’ good luck on my enemies, all of my energy go to the almighty God

I could drown in a bottle of Hennessy, fuck your amenities, I’m gettin’ better with time

And why should he care?  Good Kid M.A.A.d. city will stand as one of the best albums of Kendrick’s career.  The work earned him well-deserved commercial success and acclaim, and the credibility to claim his spot as one of the best rap artists in the field.  Can he really beat himself up for losing an award because of the color of his skin?

That’s right.  The reason why Kendrick Lamar lost in all seven of his categories was because there were white artists—generally Macklemore and Ryan Lewis–in contention.  The general response to Macklemore’s GRAMMY sweep wrote off the awards show as a popularity contest.  Like every other awards show, they recognize artists because of their likeability.  Or because they’ve attained commercial success by making pop hits.  Or because they look good in the spotlight.  But most of all, because they’re white.  Skim the list of GRAMMY winners  this year, or last year, or the last ten years.  Count how many times a black person won an award over a white contender. For years, the GRAMMYs not-so-subtly awarded black artists by crowning them within the rap and r&b genre categories, rarely awarding them  with album or song or performance of the year.  Kanye West might have won best rap album or rap performance competing against other black rappers—he is  ranked sixth all time with 21 GRAMMY awards–but has never won album or song or performance of the year.

As much as I’d like to toss away the GRAMMY Awards  and every other show into a black hole  of irrelevance, the racial discrepancies here are far to pertinent to the current  state  of  American race  relations, and more specifically, how the music industry perpetuates and demonizes black stereotypes, mutes any form of socially conscious black counterculture, and rewards white artists who make us think  that everything is hunky dory. Excuse the pun.

Friends of mine can confirm that I was one of many music heads who had Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” video on a tab, preloaded, ready to press play to anyone and everyone with a few minutes to share.  The four-minute secondary shopping spree was one of  my favorite music videos of the year.  Hell, the duo’s  album turned out to be a decent compilation.  So  when GRAMMY nominations were announced, I wasn’t surprised to see The Heist listed in several categories, although rumors have spread that the rap nomination committee stirred controversy over Macklemore’s eligibility as a rapper in the first place.

Macklemore is a rapper.  His music belongs in the hip-hop genre, and his album deserved nominations for Best Rap Album, Song, and Performance.  His race shouldn’t be a factor in his eligibility any more than Kendrick’s.  But history has spoken, and Macklemore four more awards to add on the wall, and Kendrick chose to celebrate his seven snubs with a TDE fan appreciation concert at the House of Blues, even bringing a fan on stage to freestyle to a Section 80 classic.

Macklemore texted Kendrick to apologize, saying “You got robbed” and “I wanted you to win.”  A nice sentiment, perhaps, but Macklemore shouldn’t have to apologize for his white privilege.  The issue is so much bigger than Kendrick being snubbed.  Rather, his main stage elimination is part of a long lineage of racial discrimination in the music industry.  For that, apologies have long been due, and will most likely never come to pass.  Kendrick’s electric performance was a slight slap in the face to an audience that was hesitant to clap along at first, but when the smoke finally cleared, all we seem to talk about is Beyonce’s over-sexualized twerking.

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Guest Post: Taking Control; Kendrick Lamar’s Wake Up Call to Hip-Hop

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By Adam Cancryn

We are on notice.

As of about 11 p.m. on Aug. 12, we are all on notice. That’s when Kendrick Lamar dropped the verse of the year, the verse that reverberated across the internet and shocked the hip-hop community to its core.

We were shocked by the viciousness. We were shocked by the hunger. We were shocked by “King of New York” and those 11 names, rattled off with venomous precision.

Most of all, though, we’re shocked that, days later, we’re still shocked. This wasn’t just some tricky wordplay over a sick beat. This was a challenge:

Step back and look around at the hip-hop you’ve wrought. Do you like what you see?

For too many, I suspect the honest answer is no. And that’s jarring, because we thought we’d made it. A genre that started in grungy Harlem basements and on street corners in the Bronx now dominates the charts. Rappers aren’t regarded as criminals or thugs anymore; they’re celebrities. Jay-Z hangs with the president. Questlove and the Roots are on NBC every weeknight at 12:30/11:30 central. That’s a long way from “Fight the Power” or “Licensed to Ill”

Hip-hop clawed its way into the mainstream, and now it’s firmly entrenched. This is success.

It’s supposed to be, at least. But the reality is that for a genre that was once the road to opportunity for anyone with rhymes and a flow, success is now being defined and enjoyed only by an established few.

ItstheReal’s Jeff Rosenthal once joked that the same six rappers are on every song nowadays. He wasn’t far off. Hip-hop, that rebellious, proletariat anti-culture made by and for the masses, is in many ways no longer. What’s replaced it is what you see everywhere else now, from music to politics to the economy: a small, rich clique helping each other get richer on the backs of the people and streets they long ago left and mostly forgot about.

Kendrick grabbed hold of that reality and threw it in everyone’s face. He tapped into mainstream hip-hop’s lingering guilt; embraced that elephant in the studio trumpeting that hip-hop gave up a bit of its soul in pursuit of its profits. That success made it lazy. That it focused too much on bettering individuals at the expense of bettering hip-hop culture as a whole. That, after climbing to the pinnacle of music, it pulled up the ladder, closed the hatch, and left the up-and-comers behind.

Why else could he come in and just take the crown as King of New York? Why else could he name-drop 11 rappers with no fear? Why else would a simple battle rap tip the hip-hop world on its axis?

This was the wakeup call that hip-hop needed. The hope is that rappers will heed it. Because, realistically, one great verse isn’t going to hit their pockets. Drake can still make a mil off talking about how he’s catching bodies, though it must’ve been hard to do all that killing in between rehearsals for Degrassi. Big Sean can still talk about how he “really raps,” even though he knew before anyone how hard Kendrick came on “Control” and still ran out of stuff to say at the end of his own verse. Jay Electronica can still drop one song every three years like that’s an acceptable thing to do. Nobody’s bank account or popularity will suffer if they don’t respond.

But you would hope that they all have more pride than that. Hip-hop’s stars have a greater duty to both honor the culture’s past and make its future better, and it’s one they’ve failed to take on so far. The pressure is on now for them to step up and prove that hip-hop under their stewardship hasn’t just devolved into big talk carried by a nice EDM beat.

And the pressure is on us now, too. We have to demand more than a bass-heavy dance track every few days. We have to seek out the best; the kings of New York, of the West Coast, of the South and the Midwest, like we did before industry A&Rs beamed the throwaway song of the day directly into our inboxes. Rappers have to prove they can really rap. We have to prove that we really like rap, and not just big talk carried by a nice EDM beat.

So that’s the challenge. A few rappers have stepped up so far, but none of the 11 have dared emerge yet. Cassidy reminded everyone he’s still a born natural punchline rapper, Astro showed his potential and even Papoose came out of hiding to drop an otherwise solid diss track derailed by a rare combination of lyrics that were at the same time anti-feminist, xenophobic and homophobic. But the hunger long missing from hip-hop was there. They were punching up, and doing so furiously.

The next few weeks will teach us a lot about the state of hip-hop. It’s a chance for us to conduct a sort of recalibration of the ranks, a correction from the this-should-be-good-enough era. Kendrick reset the bar, and we’ll soon find out who’s suddenly too short to reach it.

Adam Cancryn is an editor and co-founder of the sports blog Began in ‘96.  

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The Death of Radio: The Liberating World of Hip-Hop Outside of the Airwaves

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Every once in a while, I resort to tuning into the radio in the car.  My iPhone is dead and, God forbid, the Usher “Confessions” album is skipping through my favorite verse of “Burn.”  Or maybe I just feel like partaking in a bit of brainwashing on my evening cruise–Hear the same five songs on repeat, start learning the words, jam out to a Kei$ha sing-a-long–It’s a slippery slope, that radio dial.  The music ain’t bumpin’ like it used to, and we should let it burn.

Modern-day disc jockey are shameless puppets of radio executives, plugging in pre-made playlists that repeat five or six songs on an hour cycle because they’re told such.  Your request is only honored if it plays into the game plan.  Some rich white guy approves of your song choice, because it perpetuates a societal stigma or stereotype.  He’ll just love it if you’re itching to hear songs that portray diamond laced black men bragging about their money and hoes.  He’ll make sure the volume at the main station is “turnt up.”  Oops, I didn’t mean to get that political.  Who knows if he’d block this article if it was published on a mainstream website.

And still, plenty of artists rely on radio play to propel their album sales.  Top billboard spots are the product of some bizarre, controlled popularity contest.  I find myself asking: Do I really like this song, or are “they” telling me what to like?  Of all things, we let “them” control our music, perhaps the most potentially influential sphere of our culture.  The business of radio maintains a stronghold on an art form that was created and harvested from a yearning for individual expression.

Luckily, it seems as if hip-hop has had enough. Utilizing a strong network of music blogs and well-connected fan bases, today’s rapper is far less dependent on the radio than the Nelly’s and Ja Rule’s of the last decade.  We’ve reached a point where radio play and hit singles are more burdensome than they are rewarding.   I discover new hip-hop talent by browsing hip-hop blogs and taking recommendations from friends with trusted taste.  Why would I rely on some faceless radio robot to tell me about the “hottest tracks out there.”

We’ve heard rappers bash the radio industry for years, but their tenuous relationship has certainly evolved.  Whereas hip-hop used to have a rebellious, “we can get rich and famous without your spins” attitude, present day artists treat the radio as less of an obstacle and more of an obsolete medium that has driven itself into irrelevance.

Gone are the days when rappers released hit singles to propel their upcoming album.  Instead, we have online releases from their personal websites and twitter-feeds.  We have six-track mixtapes and bonus tracks and, as of last week, worldwide video projection on inner-city buildings (thanks, Yeezy).  Artists like J. Cole release their music directly to fans, and Wiz Khalifa makes us feel like we’re hearing tracks as soon as they’re recorded in-studio.

In 2004, for example, Kanye rapped on “Jesus Walks” about radio’s barriers:

That means guns, sex, lies, videotape

But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?

Well if this take away from my spins

Which will probably take away from my ends

Nine years ago, radio’s censorship controlled rappers’ “spins,” which ultimately affected their “ends,” their monetary income.  Almost a decade later, Kanye is releasing his next album without a pre-order or hit-single.  His only leaks stem from his world-wide video projections and a live SNL performance.  He has essentially created a worldwide concert audience to spotlight radio’s recent insignificance, and he isn’t alone.

Hip-hop has had a liberating realization that a world without the radio means no censorship, no contract disputes, and no more rich white men telling us what music to listen to.  Giving out music for free is more beneficial than selling your lyrical soul to the industry.  Now, we hear rappers bragging about how much money they make off of a show or appearance, rather than how many times they’ve gone platinum.  After all, they’re making much more money proportionally from concerts and merchandise than from album sales.  A ridiculous portion of album sales go directly to the same rich white men who control the radio.

It gets better.  The internet movement allows us to discover new artists like never before.  As much as Wiz Khalifa still uses the radio to promote albums, he relied on a grass-roots twitter movement to gain fame.  Curren$y left Young Money because he was tired of record label nonsense, and harvested his own fan base through internet streams and free mixtapes.  In the early 2000’s, Curren$y would’ve just been that guy we heard on “Where Da Cash At” and never saw again.  Wiz Khalifa would probably still be in Pittsburgh, still smoking blunts.  One of my earliest posts on this blog discussed how Kendrick Lamar used the radio to trick people into hearing a socially conscious message, masking lyrical relevance with a catchy hook.  He is one of many rappers who still release radio singles, but have figured out how to use it to their advantage.

Artists who continue to rely solely on the radio are behind the times, and it’s evident. Lupe Fiasco, for example, hasn’t figured out how to escape the limits of radioplay.  His most recent albums have painfully driven by a mainstream sound to garner “spins,” and the socially-conscious that made all of us fall in love with Lupe has dissolved into a muffled corniness.  He also started beef with a popular hip-hop blog, 2DopeBoyz, for leaking his song prior to his album release.  I’ll refrain from taking sides on music ownership and sales, but Lupe certainly lost the battle with the internet.  2DopeBoyz refuses to post about his music, cutting off Mr. Fiasco from a large database of hip-hop fans.

Taking this recent movement into consideration, I’ve learned to take radio for what it is: a monotonous stream of one, decade-old joke.  Listening in is certainly funny at times, if I need my fix of censored hooks like “A long-bad-b- is not my, not my problem/and yeah I like to—I got a—problem” (Yes, it certainly sounds like you have a problem, A$AP.  You shouldn’t let the radio get a hold of your tracks.) But usually, I like to stay away from the dial, even if it means I have to clean my  “Confessions” disc every so often.

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Swimming Pools (Drank): The Recipe for Radio Play

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Given the title of my blog—a reference to the sixth song on Kendrick Lamar’s second studio album good kid, m.A.A.d. city—a post about KDot seems appropriate for a debut essay (I hope you weren’t expecting a review of the 1993 Tupac Shakur drama/romance).  GKMC presents several talking points for the issues prevalent in present-day hip-hop.  Here, I’ll focus on the rapper’s ability to garner billboard success with a socially conscious album, by means of Kendrick’s radio hit “Swimming Pools (Drank).”

Early on in his career, Kendrick’s lyricism earned him great promise as a young artist.  In his premier album Section 80, the Compton rapper confirmed that he wouldn’t follow the typical path for young rap artists who sign to major labels: he refused to give up his conscious lyrics for the sake of commercial success.  With Section.80, Kendrick built on his foundation, adding a collection of soulful tracks that put his ambitious vision of success in the spotlight. Alas, the album received no mainstream attention, didn’t manage to break the Billboard 100, and produced no radio hits. Kendrick was forced to rely on his underground fanbase and a strong group of followers in the blogosphere for quality reception. As of 2011, few in the mainstream audience were familiar with KDot.

One year later the first single from GKMC, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” was released with an accompanying video, and completely different sound than Kendrick had produced prior. Upon first listen, the song might sound like a typical radio single party anthem.  The distorted “Pour up, Drank” call and answer precedes a sing-song hook about diving into a pool full of liquor. You can picture a private pool party  where the “girls wanna play baywatch,” and Kendick diving off the rooftop. But is that really the song’s subject matter?

Let’s close read the song’s first verse:

Now I done grew up

Round some people living their lives in bottles

Granddaddy had the golden flask

Back stroke every day in Chicago

Some people like the way it feels

Some people wanna kill their sorrows

Some people wanna fit in with the popular

That was my problem

With a closer look, the song’s hook is only a magnified example of the dangers of peer pressure and substance abuse. Kendrick discusses his childhood, growing up around his grandfather’s “golden flask.” Kendrick becomes a victim of peer pressure, succumbing to requests to binge drink to “fit in with the popular, that was my problem.” The “swimming pool” is not a symbol of the party lifestyle, but rather the deadly, drowning effects of alcohol abuse.

In the song’s second verse, Kendrick’s conscience voices a final plea:

(Okay, now open your mind up and listen to me Kendrick

I am your conscience, if you do not hear me

Then you will be history Kendrick

I know that you’re nauseous right now

And I’m hoping to lead you to victory Kendrick)

If I take another one down

I’mma drown in some poison abusing my limit

Begging Kendrick to halt the peer pressure, his conscience asks him to put down the bottle so he can “lead you to victory Kendrick.”  Listening to his conscience, Kendrick comes up for air before he “takes another one down” and “[drowns] in some poison].”  Kendrick uses his conscience to show how he had to look within himself to rise above peer pressure and avoid a dangerous lifestyle of alcohol abuse.

The lyrics aren’t particularly encoded—if you listen even remotely carefully, the song’s message is clear—but the song’s catchy hook was enough to gain substantial radio play and earn much deserved hype for his album.  Kendrick disguised the song as a party anthem, essentially tricking the mainstream into listening to a radio single that is really about the dangers of substance abuse.  Moreover, the song was KDot’s demo test to his new listeners: if they found the song catchy enough to play on repeat, could they also appreciate the deeper meaning to his lyrics?

We’ve seen the demise of several rappers– i.e. Wiz Khalifa, Wale, Plies, and Flo Rida–when they surrender their lyrical soul to make radio hits.  On the other side of the coin, some of the best lyricists in hip-hop have yet to reach billboard success.  Artists like Common and Talib Kweli stand firm that the lyrical quality of their music will always trump commercial fame.  Yet, in an industry where radio play stands as the only source of mainstream recognition, temptations to make radio hits come frequently. Few artists find the recipe to produce socially conscious hits that can also earn radio spins; Kanye West, OutKast, and Lupe Fiasco are scarce testaments.  I argue that Kendrick Lamar deserves to be on the short list. By camouflaging his radio single as a party anthem, Kendrick tricked listeners into appreciating a socially conscious message.  “Swimming Pools (Drank)” effectively gained radio success, building a solid groundwork for the billboard success of GKMC.  While the entire album deserves legitimate lyrical analysis, his radio single alone is proof that KDot has found the recipe to maintaining his lyricism in an industry littered with sell-outs.

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