Thursday, April 2, 2015

Kendrick Lamar, and other news from Compton

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is a confounding album. Profound and puerile in equal measure, it finds the rapper tackling poverty, depression and race relations while still finding time to eulogise his girlfriend’s vagina. Not that I’m judging. Who hasn’t written a Valentine’s card like that?

Throughout the album, Kendrick stakes his claim to Kanye’s throne by becoming his negative image. Where Kanye is all ego, Kendrick is wracked with self-doubt. Where West pushes the boundaries of music, Lamar delves into its past, co-opting jazz, funk and psychedelia into his restless, constantly-evolving songs. Never before has a hip-hop album contained so much clarinet.

It’s not an easy record to digest. And it’s at least 20 minutes too long. But one of the most accessible tracks is King Kunta, accurately described by Pitchfork as “G-Funk with the screws loosened”.

On first impression, it’s a swaggering “I'm top dog” diss track - as Lamar drawls “I was gonna kill a couple rappers, but they did it to themselves." But there’s a tension in the lyrics, as the star questions whether he even wants to be hip-hop's top talent.

Even the title, King Kunta, is an oxymoron. Kendrick is calling himself dominant, like a king, while comparing himself to Kunta Kinte - an heroic 18th Century slave, who fought to maintain a sense of freedom and cultural identity despite having his foot cut off to prevent him escaping the plantations. It’s a theme that’s echoed throughout the album – as a successful black man in America, Lamar is simultaneously powerful and powerless.

Anyway, this is turning into a thesis rather than a preamble to a music video. So let’s get on with it. The promo clip finds Lamar back in his hometown of Compton, sitting atop a gold throne in the driveway of his home, and hanging out at famous landmarks in the LA suburb with his “crew”.

At times, it looks like the whole city has turned out to watch, as Lamar declares: “Stuck a flag in my city, everybody's screamin' ‘Compton’ / I should probably run for Mayor when I'm done, to be honest.”

You can see it below.

Kendrick Lamar - King Kunta

With apposite timing, the video for King Kunta went live at the same time as the trailer for Straight Outta Compton, the forthcoming biopic of Gangsta Rap godfathers NWA.

Despite the incendiary soundtrack, it looks like the film will stick to the bog-standard rock drama template, only with added guns and Paul Giamatti in a terrible wig.

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