On the heels of Compton MC Kendrick Lamar’s new video for his single “Poetic Justice,” Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books how the young artist channels the legacy of black storytelling that she says many people didn’t even realized we’d lost.
A few months ago, when Kendrick Lamar released his album good kid m.A.A.d city, it excited all of the critics who get paid good money to not get too excited. They were mesmerized by the album’s narrative arc and the power of Lamar’s storytelling. The cosigns and cameos Lamar had received from his Compton godfathers Dr. Dre and MC Eiht impressed them. Lamar’s first major label release wasn’t just good — it also had the strange fatalism of a plaintive, grave, 25-year-old man-child unafraid to sound all Septimus Smith with his anxieties, to break open the status quo’s “laconic surface” with his youthful vulnerability. He is young, but also old enough to know that nothing in life is promised for men like him except death. So, on the album’s strongest song, he asks for only one thing and it recalls the blues elegies of Son House and Robert Johnson: “When the lights shut off, and it is my turn to settle down, promise that you will sing about me.”
I could easily tell you that Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” is one of the best songs to come from hip-hop in the last few years, and since I like grand statements, I might even give him the decade. Lamar’s style is uncanny: at times when he raps it sounds like a Congo Square bamboula, fueled by inflated tears. His lyrics deal with his mortality, his fears, and the futility of street life, and his phrasing is such that he seems to both pause and dervish over his well-selected beats, but that is not what makes Kendrick Lamar’s work important. What makes him important is the way in which the autobiographical good kid m.A.A.d city is so novelistic and so eloquently anchored in the literary blues tradition of which Ellison wrote. Lamar is equal parts oral historian and authorial presence, and more than many authors writing today, he has captured all of the pathos and grief of gun violence, poverty, and the families who carve their lives out amidst all of that chaos. Lamar has offered up his hymnal for a lost generation, a defense for the black family, and in his jumpy prosody, his shell-shocked sensitivities, his clipped memories, and recorded conversations, he has produced “a novel from life” that single-handedly revives the long lost, suppressed literary tradition of young, working-class black boys on fire, with pens smote in hell, telling us how they become gifted, tenderhearted, black men — something we have been missing even though no one seems to notice it.
Read Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s entire piece at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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