I get it—Kendrick Lamar is better than average at stringing together coherent sentences. Every now and then he’ll get fancy and use a five-dollar word—you know, the kind of word that you haven’t seen since you were studying for the SAT’s in high-school—but generally his lyrics consist of basic vocabulary masquerading as “sophisticated prose.” There’s only one small problem preventing the masses from seeing through Lamar’s veneer of intelligence. Generally speaking, the average Negro (ie. Lamar’s fanbase) can barely read beyond the eighth-grade level. In other words, when his listeners attempt to gain an understanding of Lamar’s music, even at the basic level, they presumably struggle due to their inability to grasp simple constructs of the English language.
It doesn’t help that Lamar often delivers his “rhymes” with the polish of a 1-year-old learning to speak his first words. If you have the patience to sift through his fast-paced gibberish, there’s a faint possibility of extracting substance, or at the very least, a message. For example, in his latest album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar renders his best impression of a civil-rights ambassador, lamenting the perceived “slights” forced upon the black community and other minority groups. He discusses police brutality (America’s favorite dead horse to kick these days), as well as mass incarceration and institutional racism, among other issues.
Granted, Lamar has, from the outset of his young career, dedicated portions of his three albums to shedding light on the undercurrent of bigotry and xenophobia in America, particularly as it relates to black people and others of color. In my opinion, he’s not faking the funk like many of his comrades in music have done in recent months (ahem, Beyonce). Nevertheless, in spite of his keen understanding of social injustice and American politics, Lamar’s perceived “lyrical genius” is a testament to the “shock and awe” people display whenever they encounter a Black man capable of articulating his thoughts in a coherent manner (beyond saying “yo” and “wassup”). Lamar belongs in the same category with Tupac, Jay Z, Nas, J Cole, Common, Andre 3000, Drake, and Wale — all talented in their own right, but hardly comparable to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou or Shakespeare.
As I write these words, I can’t help but hearken back to 2008, when then-Senator Obama wiggled his way into the hearts Black American voters. We were charmed by his effortless charisma and good looks, but what attracted us most to Obama was his Ivy League education and strong oratorical skills. He lit crowds on fire with his speeches and inspired millions to vote in what became the most lopsided presidential election in the history of American politics. In retrospect, however, Obama’s rapid climb to fame — and the Oval Office — was a result of this country’s unbearably low standards for Black men. Don’t get me wrong, the President is no one’s dummy (unless you’re a member of Congress). But one of the main reasons he became so popular so quickly was because the masses considered him to be a refreshing departure from the prototypical chain-wearing, pants-sagging, Ebonics-speaking Black male. In my estimation, Obama’s political success is a product of strong discipline and work-ethic, not superior intelligence. However, compared to the average “nigga,” Obama looks like the second coming of Einstein — that’s why we love him.
The same concept applies to Kendrick Lamar. He is, by no means, an idiot. But the public’s aggrandizement of his lyrical prowess is consistent with a general apathy for reading and the subsequent expansion of one’s vocabulary, particularly within the African American community. To put it in simple terms, if the majority of Black youth would pick up a book instead of a blunt (marijuana), they would likely be only slightly impressed by Lamar’s ‘aptitude’ for wordplay.
After reading this article, some might accuse me of trying to marginalize Lamar’s success. I can hear the voices now, “why are you wasting your time trying to bring another Black man down.” On the surface it may appear that I’m taking unwarranted shots at Lamar, his predecessors and his contemporaries. However, when I take into account the enormous shortage of education and structure within the Black community, especially among our youth, I’m reminded of how unique Kendrick Lamar really is.
Rather than attaching hyperbole to Lamar’s understanding of the English language, perhaps we should attempt to rewrite (pun intended) the decades-long history of our linguistic ineptitude.