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How Kendrick Lamar Achieves Mainstream Appeal with a Complex, Innovative Approach

One of Kendrick Lamar’s greatest benedictions as an artist is his ability to connect, which, on the surface, seems strange, because his stories are so personal and uniquely his own.

Whether he’s describing the burger spot where his uncle was murdered or his father’s near-violent run in at KFC with Top Dawg’s head honcho, his lyrics are vivid and intimate descriptions of his own lived experiences. Yet, there’s always a thread that could apply to any of us and our own lives. Lamar invites us in with his words, his masterful flow, and his vision, taking us somewhere that feels familiar, no matter how foreign it may actually be.

Intrigue from the Start

Long before Kendrick Lamar was a hip-hop superstar performing at the Grammys and meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office, he was putting out mixtape after mixtape, solidifying his stance as Compton’s newest hometown hero. After years of honing his craft and catching the eye of the West Coast’s biggest rap moguls like Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, Lamar finally released his major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city (GKMC), to critical acclaim and massive mainstream success.

It was essentially a record full of critic-proof bangers — from the braggadocious “Backseat Freestyle” to the heavy-hitting “m.A.A.d. City” to the club-ready “Swimming Pools (Drank).” The album crowned Lamar as a virtuosic lyricist and vocalist with a brilliant mind capable of reaching millions. Despite his complex character, the album’s songs were largely accessible on a surface level and relatively devoid of experimental or obscure musical ideas.

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GKMC did, however, give us various glimpses of Lamar’s elevated sense of artistic experimentation. On one of the album’s most popular songs, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” there’s a section where Lamar’s conscience is speaking to him in a hazy, pitched-up voice:

Okay, now open your mind up and listen to me, Kendrick
I am your conscience, if you do not hear me then you will be history, Kendrick.

It’s a brilliant use of vocal effects, displaying a call and response conversation with his voice of reason as it sinks into the sludge of intoxication. In fact, Lamar wrote “Swimming Pools (Drank)” to describe his own tribulations with alcohol and substance abuse. Yet, for most listeners who are engaging with and dancing to the song in a loud club setting, it’s simply an ode to drinking and getting high.

If you’ve seen Lamar perform the track live, he happily embraces the track’s party-anthem qualities. It’s an example of his powerful ability to create a dialogue about the harms and struggles of substances while still finding a way to allow his audiences to enjoy the partying culture.

After all, hip-hop glorifies partying, which is a frequent criticism of the genre, but Kendrick himself is sober. Still, he frequently references the use of drugs because of his upbringing in Compton — infested with gang culture, drugs, and violence. He understands the nature of drug culture within the genre and lifestyle, even if he doesn’t partake in it. He navigates the greater story of substance abuse and how it plays a role in our lives as an illness and a social lubricant for celebratory causes. Hip-hop, here, is both the message and the platform for sending the message.

Other GKMC cuts like the 10-minute “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” show us Lamar’s more pensive, self-loathing side, unafraid of sacrificing mainstream appeal in order to connect with a greater creative cause. The song follows three characters through gang violence, prostitution, and suicidal thoughts — a set of themes not often found amongst the top charts on the radio or rattling in clubs across the country. Lamar finds a way to make us reflect, even within his infectious lifts and hooks.

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Turning It Up a Notch… or 10

Lamar’s sophomore major-label release To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) changed the trajectory of hip-hop, challenging the status quo, honoring the past, and reaching forward to the future with complex discussions on race, identity, and society’s political disarray. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, Lamar revealed that TPAB was the album he wanted to make for his major-label debut, but he lacked the confidence.

This is an interesting notion, because GKMC essentially launched Kendrick into the spotlight as the greatest rapper alive with enormous pop appeal. Often when an artist finally gets that spotlight, their follow-up album winds up sounding even more mainstream in order to further propel themselves to the top of the charts. An example would be The Weeknd evolving from his dark and eerie indie debut album House Of Balloons to writing low-risk pop anthems like “I Can’t Feel My Face” with Max Martin. But Lamar looked even more inward and coaxed out a sprawling, dense album of pure poetic discourse — tackling his greatest demons and fusing deep-groove funk with swanky jazz and harrowing dissonance.

There are certainly some radio-friendly bangers on TPAB, such as “Alright,” “King Kunta,” and “These Walls,” but they’re the minority. With abstract jazz instrumentals and deeply dark and painful lyrics, Lamar still managed to debut at number one on the Billboard and, at the time, break the record for most streams in a day, racking up 9.6 million spins, dethroning Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.

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Lamar’s achievements are similar to Radiohead’s plunge into the world of abstract music while retaining the highest levels of fame. Radiohead’s first three albums solidified them as one of the most important bands in the world, and when it came time to release their fourth record, they made it for no one but themselves. Kid A — an experimental art album with esoteric instrumentation and hook-less songwriting — debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, received a Grammy Award nomination for Album of the Year, and even won the award for Best Alternative Album. How the heck did an avant-garde album with no decipherable radio hits reach so many people?

Perhaps it was Radiohead’s more conventional songs that came before — “Creep,” “Karma Police,” and “Fake Plastic Trees” — that gave them the platform to experiment on a grandiose scale. They had the world’s attention, and when they delivered an artistic epic, people actually responded to the more experimental-leaning electronic songs like “Everything In Its Right Place” and “Idioteque.”

Did the same happen to Kendrick Lamar? Without “Swimming Pools (Drank),” could there have ever been “u” or “FEAR.”?

Lamar knows how to make a hit, and, in many ways, he uses that power to invite the listener to enjoy styles of music that aren’t often represented in the pop landscape. He draws us in with comfortable ideas and then flips them upside down, leaving us confused but curious.

His newest record, DAMN., creates that exact experience. Lamar starts the album with arguably the fiercest banger of his career, “DNA.” Propped up by a Mike WiLL Made-It-produced trap beat, Lamar goes bar for bar with himself, spitting venomously with a fiery flow, leaving the last bar off his tongue in a pile of bass-booming ash. Next is “YAH.,” a hazy, downtempo instrumental with a somnolent Lamar nasally singing, “Yah, yah, radars is buzzzzzzzing.” He quickly ascends from radio gold to another universe where the radio is nothing but a static signal of hallucinogenic jazz and space.

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Deviating from the Path

Kendrick Lamar is a puppetmaster, knowing just how to please us with the familiar and challenge us with the unknown. DAMN.’s standout pop track, “LOYALTY.” featuring Rihanna, is an R&B-meets-rap banger. But Lamar isn’t going to keep us in this safe place for long, which is why “PRIDE.” immediately follows. Chorus-effected guitar slowly marches as Lamar’s voice pitch shifts from a low growl to high chipmunk singing, “I can’t fake humble just ’cause your ass is insecure.”

“FEAR.” is a seven-minute epic with an instrumental so skeletal and bare, only a voice as dynamic and compelling as Lamar’s could keep it from growing dull. But before Lamar begins to spit, his voice is played in reverse, signaling a hidden message.

It’s also important to note that Lamar’s peers typically don’t challenge the listener quite as much, nor do they delve into complex artistic expression and musical stratospheres that commercial radio wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. For example, Lamar’s biggest rival, Drake, releases albums full of hits and radio royalty. Drake has certainly evolved as an artist, but his core sound of rap-sung-R&B-meets-hip-hop is still very much intact. His albums are not widely thematic, nor do they feature layers of complex genre crossing.

Another one of Lamar’s rivals is J. Cole, who, like Drake, largely stays in line with the sound and lyrical approach that made him popular. Cole is a great storyteller and rapper, but most tracks feel safe for Cole and his fans. Future is one of the godfathers of today’s popular trap sound, but if you skim through his past four or five releases, you’ll begin to notice a pattern of him using the same trap-pop formula you hear on the radio and in clubs.

Similarly, Big Sean is on the rise to become one of rap’s greatest stars, but when he and Lamar find themselves on a track together — whether on the industry-shattering “Control” or DJ Khaled’s “Holy Key” — Lamar steals the show.

This isn’t to say that Lamar is outright better than his peers; rather, he takes more risks, from innovative production techniques to lyrical topics to vocal performances. He works diligently to plant hidden, puzzling ideas deep within the music. Speaking with Zane Lowe about DAMN., Lamar said, “I want it to live for the next 20 years. So you have to listen to it over and over and over again to fully understand the direction and the message I put in there and the execution of it.”

On another note, rappers like Killer Mike and EL-P (Run The Jewels) are deeply political, conceptual, and embrace their radio unfriendliness with aggressive instrumentation and socially-progressive lyricism buoyed by swagger and personality. But Run The Jewels don’t move units comparable to Lamar. On the TPAB cut “Hood Politics,” he rapped about the Atlanta MC, saying:

Critics want to mention that they miss when hip-hop was rappin’ Motherf*^#er if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum.

He goes on to further condemn the critics:

Y’all priorities are f*^#ed up, put energy in wrong sh*^.

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In addition, other rappers like Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, and TDE label mate Ab-Soul put experimentation and impressive wordplay at the forefront of their music, but none of them are headlining Coachella. Even hip-hop legends like Talib Kweli and Atmosphere never reached the mainstream success of Lamar.

He’s able to teeter between such contrasting roles of being an artists’ artist, and also a mainstream pop star. Much of Kendrick Lamar’s allure comes from his visceral approach to music and his magnetic vulnerability. His thoughts, emotions, and message are meticulously emphasized in ways that are both human and transcendent. He’s put in the 10,000 hours of work on his craft. He creates for his family still in Compton; his friends behind bars, trapped in cycles of poverty and crime; his profound respect and love for hip-hop — a genre that illuminated the dark path Lamar may have fallen down if it weren’t for music.

“I’m not doing it to have a good song or one good rap or good hook or good bridge. I want to keep doing it every time, period. And to do it every time, you have to challenge yourself and you have to confirm to yourself, not anybody else, confirm to yourself that you’re the best, period.”

I guess from here, we’ll leave it to HOT 97’s Rosenberg to take us out.

 

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Sam Friedman
Sam Friedman

Sam Friedman is a Brooklyn-based electronic producer and singer-songwriter, creating under the moniker Nerve Leak. Praised by major publications such as The Fader and Bullett Magazine, his unique blend of experimental and pop music has earned him hundreds of thousands of streams across the web. An interdisciplinary creative, he also works as a journalist for music publications such as Sonicbids, ReverbNation, Samplified, and Unrecorded.

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