When Kanye West compares himself to past greats, he gets taken to task for it. When he compared himself to John Lennon at Bonnaroo, he got booed. When he compared himself to God, well, we all remember how that went over. There's a snarky listicle on Huffington Post titled “18 People Kanye West Has Compared Himself To.”
That's because Kanye scares people. He pisses people off, as any real rebel must.
When Kendrick Lamar compares himself to past greats — to Nelson Mandela, for example, or to Tupac, as he does so blatantly on To Pimp a Butterfly — he gets a pass.
They love him because he is not Tupac. Not even close. He is not a rebel. He is not the voice of any anti-establishment movement. At least not yet.
On first listen to To Pimp a Butterfly, you might think otherwise. The album is a treatise on blackness, and a very loud one at that. It's obsessed with racist imagery like “monkeys,” “mammies” and “master's chains.” “I need forty acres and a mule,” Kendrick raps, “not forty ounces and a pit bull.” He describes the etymology of the word “Negus,” which is a word for “African king.” Pharrell called the album “unapologetically black and amazing.” It's a political statement, or an attempt at one, and we should listen to it and judge it as such.
Ultimately the metric for judgment is thrown down by Kendrick himself: How does he stack up against Tupac?
The whole album is framed as a poem to his hero. Its last five minutes are Kendrick “interviewing” Pac, using clips of an interview from 1994 as responses. It's an ingenious, eerie experience that makes Pac feel very alive, an audio version of the hologram from Coachella.
Unfortunately for Kendrick, it backfires. Tupac is expansive in a way that Kendrick is not. When the elder rapper “tells” the young upstart that the poor will become so numerous that eventually they will rise up and swallow the rich in a violent rebellion, Kendrick reduces the conversation back to the personal. “Do you see yourself as somebody that's rich, or somebody that's made the best of their own opportunities?” he asks, as if seeking validation for his own decisions to align himself with corporate brands like Reebok and Apple.
Of course, Tupac also was part of the system, at least early in his career, when he too was on Interscope, the same label behind To Pimp a Butterfly. But Tupac eventually left Interscope for the then-independent Death Row Records. And he ultimately transcended the music industry because his politics were consistent. Many people in the mainstream hated Tupac, and Tupac recognized that hatred as a necessary burden to create change. He was condemned by the vice president of the United States, who demanded 2Pacalypse Now be removed from stores. He killed cops in his songs and in his music videos, and got sued by the families of murdered police officers. His songs caused parental uproar after parental uproar. But he didn't care. All the hatred only made him stronger. As he said at the end of the original “Holla If Ya Hear Me” video, before it was censored, “Revolution is the only way.”
Kendrick wants to transcend music, too, so he has become political. But his politics are empty. He's selling an image of himself as a pariah that just doesn't match up to reality. “You hate me, don't you?” he asks, over and over again. And though he's clearly trying to speak for all African-Americans, it begs the question: Who actually hates Kendrick Lamar?
Nobody. Everybody loves Kendrick Lamar, just like everybody loves TPaB. Not that they shouldn't. It is a very, very good album. From a creative standpoint, the first four tracks belong to the highest bracket of music currently being made. In fact, musically, Kendrick is probably more talented than Tupac. He's LeBron to Tupac's Jordan, a heavyweight freak who, despite limitless potential, can't figure out how to mean what the former meant.
Because no matter how good he is, Kendrick Lamar is not a revolutionary. He's no Tupac. Where Pac articulated a very clear voice for the disenfranchised, a specific call to action, Lamar gives us only beautiful vagueness.
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