Good Men, Mad Industry:Kendrick Lamar and Black Male Storytelling
2012 is almost over, and it has been a pretty good year for music. Frank Ocean, Flying Lotus and Nas released some of my new favorite albums this year, but the best new edition to my iPod this year has to be Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. I had read the buzz surrounding this album in reviews and on the Twittersphere, and I was reasonably skeptical of the comparisons to Illmatic by Nas, one of the best hip hop albums in history. What makes this album so remarkable is that it is a complete, conceptual hip hop album, something that in the single-oriented climate of major label music, is a rare find.
GKMC is not conscious hip-hop. Rather, it’s self-conscious hip-hop. It tells a story of black male adolescence, marked with universal themes of chest-puffing, sexual discovery, peer pressure, and loss. Any of the songs on GKMC could lose their impact as singles, but as a narrative, they are wonderfully complex. By the time you get to “Backseat Freestyle,” when you hear young K.Dot exclaim, “Damn I got bitches/damn I got bitches/damn I got bitches/Wifey, girlfriend and mistress,” you know that the high school sophomore who is borrowing his mother’s van no more has a binder of women than he has a sport car. As my beloved so eloquently put it, hip-hop is black male fiction. Like romantic comedies and supermarket paperbacks are to some women, hip-hop is fantasy for the disenfranchised man and escapism for the privileged of all races. Kendrick’s boasting is not a dig at women so much as a claim to the top of the oppression pyramid, the same one that simultaneously robes men of color of their economic and culture power, while making them ignorant of their own power to oppress others, especially women.
I think about this because even though some hip-hop music has marginalized women of color since its inception, I don’t feel that censorship is the answer. 2 Live Crew had lyrics that would make artists like Two Chainz look like Cliff Huxtable (as a sidenote, like many hip-hop artists, Two Chainz is more of a family man than his lyrics would suggest), but there were other acts to balance their message. Furthermore, people often point to A Tribe Called Quest as a nod to hip-hop’s more conscious days, but what’s conscious about Electric Relaxation? Let’s take a look at these female positive lyrics, shall we?
“Honey, check it out, you got me mesmerized
With your black hair and fat-ass thighs”-Q-Tip
“Take you on the ave and you buy me links
Now I wanna pound the putang until it stinks”-Q-Tip
And my personal favorite…
“Let me hit it from the back, girl I wont catch a hernia
Bust off on your couch, now you got semens furniture”-Phife Dog
Not only did the members of Tribe want to penetrate a woman with so much zeal that her privates would smell bad, but they weren’t even “conscious” enough to keep their emissions from staining the woman’s couch. It’s funny to hear hip-hop heads my age and older scoff at songs like “I Beat the P*ssy Up,” when Q-tip’s lyrics were very similar. However, Tribe didn’t have to craft their message with a series of singles. They were allowed to make full albums, covering a range of the black male experience.
It is my belief that not enough hip-hop artists on major labels are being encouraged or allowed to paint full pictures. There is more to the black male experience than the pursuit of sex and violence. Songs like “The Birthday Song” by Two Chainz not only fragment the black female body, but the black male experience as well. Record labels are corporations, and corporations only have to be profitable, not fair or balance, or even moral, unless the customer demands that they are. The success of GKMC is proof that there is still an audience for complete, complex narratives featuring men of color. This video by FAAN (Fostering Action and Alternatives NOW) is also proof that there is a growing group of people who will no longer accept these fragmented as business as usual.
In the comment section, let me know what you think about hip-hop and the complete black male narrative, and whether there’s room for it in the major label music industry.