Kendrick Lamar is the latest in a long line of talented rappers ‘Straight Outta Compton’ but ‘Kong Fu Kenny’ was a straight-A English student who never really joined the street life of his forbearers and peers. Born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, Lamar began writing stories and poems at a young age, then progressed to lyrics.
Impacted by the street life that affected many of his friends and family, Lamar turned to music as an outlet. Dropping ‘Duckworth’ from his name, he then started rapping as ‘K-Dot’, circulating a mixtape before he turned 20.
These days, he headlines festivals such as Coachella and is friends with former US President Barack Obama.
While Lamar’s music is not commercial, his image is less aggressive than many of his contemporaries. His music even forms the basis for some mainstream movies, such as Marvel’s Black Panther and the Divergent series.
It is this accessibility that helped him become one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year in 2016.
Some songs such as ‘Untitled 02 | 06.23.2014’ from the ‘Untitled Unmastered’ album do cover traditional rap subjects such as the dark side of the American dream but never seek to glamorize the lifestyle he grew up surrounded by. There is still a preoccupation with wealth and status, and Lamar is honest about enjoying the high life his fame has afforded him.
At the same time, his lyrics seek to reflect truth and must be relatable to the man on the street. It is this ’21st-century troubadour’ feel that led to Pharrell Williams labeling Lamar ‘This Era’s Bob Dylan’.
Lamar is relatable because his lyrics are based on what he, like many other Americans, have experienced and encountered throughout life. His song ‘Vegas’ blends the topics of relationships and gambling, something the majority of people are aware of. Lamar uses gambling, specifically blackjack and twenty-one, as a metaphor for a relationship. While Las Vegas may be ‘America’s Playground’, online casinos are making gambling ubiquitous in states across the US. Play Tennessee is just one of a growing number of sites that have increased the accessibility and popularity of online gambling to millions of Americans. As such, casino language slips seamlessly into Lamar’s lyrical blend and connects with his audience.
At last count, Lamar had won 160 awards from almost 400 nominations, including 13 Grammys. But his biggest impact is arguably creating a soundtrack to a time of huge political and social unrest.
‘Alright’ from 2015’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, became a protest anthem with a group of activists chanting the lyrics through the streets of Cleveland.
Lamar even sampled soundbites from Fox News presenters criticizing ‘Alright’ on ‘BLOOD’, a song on his next album ‘DAMN’.
Named ‘The Greatest Rapper Alive’ by Rolling Stone Magazine in 2017, Lamar’s stock continues to rise. He has been announced as one of the 2022 Super Bowl half-time performers among a star-studded lineup that includes Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and Mary J. Blige, celebrating the return of the Super Bowl to Los Angeles for the first time in almost 30 years with three of its famous sons.
Now 34, his lyrics seem to transcend age and background, tapping into the human experience, the struggle against injustice, and the quest to find our place in the world.