It’s Wednesday, two days removed from the Grammy Awards. Yet much of America—black America, specifically—is still recovering from the hangover induced by Kendrick Lamar’s sublime performance Monday night. His explosive mashup of “The Blacker the Berry,” “Alright” and a yet-to-be-titled new track referencing Trayvon Martin was equal parts brilliant, bold, ebullient, boiling and unapologetically black. In fact, this brilliance, this boldness, this ebullience and this boiling is inextricably linked to King Kendrick’s brand of unapologetic blackness.
From the title and chorus of To Pimp a Butterfly’s lead single (“I Love Myself”) to the soul-stirring refrains of “Alright”—a track that Slate’s Aisha Harris even suggested could be the new black national anthem—his blackness bona fides are littered throughout his music. And he doesn’t just express a love for blackness and black people. On the brash and powerful “The Blacker the Berry,” he turns this love into a taunt, inverting qualities often considered negative into positives and daring the listener to disagree:
I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village
Pardon my residence
Came from the bottom of mankind
My hair is nappy, my d—k is big, my nose is round and wide
You hate me, don’t you?
You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture
You’re f—kin’ evil
I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey
It being Wednesday also means that we’re dead in the middle of another week of Kanye going Peak Kanye. I have not checked Twitter since I began writing this, so I do not know if Kanye has gone on another tweet rant today. But I would not be surprised if he did and if, during the rant, he announced his plans to produce and direct a biopic about Ray J.
Or if he officially changed his name to semicolon. And not the word “semicolon” but an actual semicolon. Or if he revealed that his $53 million debt is due to porn memberships. Or if he dropped another link to another version of The Life of Pablo. Or if he changed the name of The Life of Pablo to Gluten-Free Lettuce Wrap or Waiting for a Megabus in Albany. Or if he vowed to never tweet again, deleted his Twitter and actually meant it.
His recent behavior on Twitter—maddening and maniacal; scattered and just barely sane; frustrating and littered with occasional specks of feckless lucidity—synopsizes his pattern of perplexing behavior over the last half-decade. His music, once the soundtrack for post-bougie black life, has become progressively esoteric and inaccessible. His obsession with fashion and mainstream validation vacillates from merely annoying to downright destructive. He has been messy, unapologetically narcissistic, occasionally mean, consistently misogynistic and, now, kin of the Kardashians.
Also, related, he is not Kendrick Lamar. Nor would he ever have been. Or needed to be.
This distinction seems unnecessary. After all, Kanye West is Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar is Kendrick Lamar. They are both rappers. Both black. And both have names that start with “K.” However, they are not the same person. But Kanye’s recent behavior and musical output have made many compare his current status with Kendrick’s. Monday night, Daily Show host Trevor Noah tweeted a thought that seems to encapsulate this juxtaposition:
Admittedly, this is a natural (and clever) approximation of their respective trajectories—creatively, culturally and even racially. Kanye’s first three LPs spoke to and spoke for black people the same way To Pimp a Butterfly does now. While their sensibilities are decidedly different—Kanye has always vacillated between quasi-bougie and über-bougie, while Kendrick has always been the hood-adjacent nerd with a knack for storytelling; Nas in Compton, basically—the love for black people and blackness was equally palpable. And it’s not difficult to imagine a 2016 in which Kanye evolved to a place where he’s inciting the same type of racial pride, passion and fury that Kendrick currently does. A place where his mom’s death didn’t spiral him into the waiting arms of Kim, the Famous Negro Destroyer.
Except it’s wrong. On every level.
First, regardless of how you feel about Kanye today and regardless of how you feel about Kim Kardashian, one thing remains true: Kanye is a grown-ass man. His behavior—however erratic it’s been—cannot be blamed on his wife. Or any woman. Or any person, other than Kanye. Doing that infantilizes him and removes accountability. And, as The Root’s Danielle Belton pointed out earlier this week, it removes the possibility that his behavior is the sign of mental illness.
Also, Kim is not a witch. She does not have that power. In this context, she’s just a woman who married a grown-ass man and bore his children. And probably, like most of us, just wishes he’d delete his Twitter account.
Most importantly, both “Kanye could be Kendrick” and “Kanye thinks he’s doing what Kendrick is doing” minimizes who they both are and who they’re both aiming to be. Kanye has actually attempted to infuse some racial consciousness and cultural poignancy into his music recently. Both “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” off of Yeezus were as racially antagonistic as anything from To Pimp a Butterfly. But—and this is a very important distinction—Kendrick succeeded where Kanye fell short because Kendrick is just a much, much, much better rapper. His lyrics are more powerful, his words are clearer and more precise, and his flow is much more technically adroit.
Even when Kanye rapped more on his rap albums, he was never a great rapper. He was never even a good rapper. He was—and still is—an “eh” rapper with occasional streaks of clarity and cleverness. He just happens to be such a great musician that he was still able to craft great albums and songs. But he could never, ever, ever, ever have written and rapped a song like “The Blacker the Berry.” He just never had it in him to create something that lyrical.
He also never really seemed to desire to.
Although it’s easy and fun to rock our nostalgia goggles and pine about who Kanye West the rapper used to be, he has always—always (!)—been obsessed with fashion and sex. He spent his entire first album name-dropping labels. He called himself the Louis Vuitton Don, for Christ’s sake. He has always peppered his albums with clever and consistently sexist odes about certain types of women. “Gold Digger,” “The New Workout Plan,” “All Falls Down,” “Drunk and Hot Girls”—some of these songs have been around for over a decade. The only real difference between the music of Late Registration Kanye and Yeezus Kanye is soul samples and allusions to Deltas.
Also, he has always been a tireless advocate for art and artists and for advancing art and artists. Always. Finding a solution to this creative angst—not racial empowerment, not providing a voice for bougie black people—has always been his main objective. His label is called GOOD Music, an acronym for Getting Out Our Dreams. He concludes The College Dropout, not with a song, but with a 10-minute-long explanation of how difficult it was for him to get signed and get people to take him seriously.
His music today—described earlier as esoteric and inaccessible—is his attempt to expand what hip-hop can be. How hip-hop can sound. Just as The College Dropout did. (And I believe he’s been successful.) Even his infamous MTV Video Music Awards interruption of Taylor Swift’s speech was due to his belief that the art created by Beyoncé was superior. And while Kanye’s tactics have, um, well, changed a bit in the last decade, he’s still a tireless advocate for art and artists and for advancing art and artists. And there is a need for a person like that as much as there is a need for someone like Kendrick.
We shouldn’t want and definitely don’t need Kanye to be Kendrick. We just need Kanye to be a better Kanye. And, if Danielle Belton is correct, that could mean therapy. That doesn’t, however, mean that he needs to be someone he never was.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at email@example.com.