Bard of the streets Kendrick Lamar hits South Africa for one concert
As one of the most influential artists of his generation, Kendrick Lamar, aka ‘King Kendrick’, is worth seeing and experiencing live on stage.
Kendrick Lamar, the most critically acclaimed and one of the most commercially successful rappers of all time, returned to South Africa for a one-off concert in Pretoria on 9 December.
Already attaining industry prominence with his sophomore release Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City in 2012, Lamar’s ascension to rap and hip-hop great was swift and incendiary. The album quickly nestled into the American Billboard Hot 200, remaining there for a full decade, the only rap album to date to do so.
Follow-up albums To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) and DAMN (2017) both received the Grammy for Best Rap Album of the year. By 2020, three of his then four albums were included in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Born on 17 June 1987 in Compton, California, to father Kenneth Duckworth, a gang hustler, and mother Paula Oliver, a hairdresser, Lamar’s teen years were spent flirting with and avoiding gang culture, and overcoming a significant stutter.
Lamar is undoubtedly the most musically adventurous and linguistically audacious of his peers.
The discovery of and a period spent creating poetry led to an epiphany of self-expression through symbolism and metaphor, also igniting his keen future sense of sophisticated lyrical rhythms and wordplay.
From its origins in the early 1970s through spoken-word jazz-based artists like Gil Scott-Heron, rap has been highly politically conscious and explorative of the African-American experience and social plight.
Though rap’s various subgenres and tributaries cover a kaleidoscope of styles and approaches, from experimental and lo-fi to metal and highly cerebral, Lamar is undoubtedly the most musically adventurous and linguistically audacious of his peers.
With his globally lauded third album, the masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar entered his most avant-garde and musically and lyrically innovative period. Stylistically rich, the opus features a stellar cast of guests including bass monster Thundercat, Snoop Dogg, Bilal, the psychedelic Flying Lotus and founding father of funk George Clinton.
As someone who both acknowledges and embraces contradictions and irony, Lamar often turns to the spiritual mirror, investigating and interrogating his own demons.
Drenched in brassy, raw jazz and sinuous funk, the album is highly sociopolitical, traversing both the psyche of the African-American experience in contemporary America and Lamar’s own complex interiority. Though exploring issues like police violence and institutional racism, To Pimp a Butterfly also acknowledges the problem of black-on-black violence and xenophobia in the black community through tracks like The Blacker the Berry and Mortal Man.
As someone who both acknowledges and embraces contradictions and irony, Lamar often turns to the spiritual mirror, investigating and interrogating his own demons. These include experiencing survivor’s guilt after three close friends were killed in gang-related violence in Compton, a feeling of betraying his community by chasing financial success and fame without truly giving back, as well as a sense of having sold his soul.
But Lamar is also celebratory. On the track These Walls he posits the curative powers of sexual love. Elsewhere he stresses the possibility of transcendence; on tracks like Complexion (A Zulu Love) he flips xenophobia on its head to relish in the beauty of diversity through skin colour.
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Lamar visited and briefly toured South Africa in 2014, going to Robben Island, among other places, and has since said that he experienced a sense of homecoming from being in the country. The visit had a defining influence on the making of To Pimp a Butterfly, and redirecting it. Co-producer Sounwave said: “I remember he took a trip to South Africa and something in his mind just clicked. For me, that’s when this album really started.”
Lamar said: “I felt like I belonged in Africa. I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught. Probably one of the hardest things to do is put [together] a concept on how beautiful a place can be and tell a person this while they’re still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.”
A testament to its wide-ranging impact, To Pimp a Butterfly was also cited as a direct influence on David Bowie’s final album, 2016’s Blackstar.
Lamar followed up with 2017’s DAMN. More concise and restrained than his previous albums, both in subject matter and musical scope, it focused on internal strife in the realms of love, life and religion.
Regarding Lamar’s propensity for syntactically epic, fluidly tangled lines, Pitchfork reviewer Matthew Trammell states: “Lamar’s recitation is so effortless you wonder where he breathes, or if he does at all.”
For this album Lamar was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music, becoming the first musician outside the classical and jazz genres to win the esteemed prize.
Following a five-year hiatus, during which he executive produced and appeared in the acclaimed soundtrack to Black Panther, the double album Mr Morale & the Big Steppers was released in 2022, his fourth to win the Grammy for Best Rap Album.
Meditating on Lamar’s journeys through therapy, as well as exploring themes of fatherhood and family, the album features narration by the German spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. Unsurprisingly, Mr Morale & the Big Steppers is stylistically multifarious, bringing elements of trap, psychedelic jazz, blues and soul to Lamar’s unfailingly ambitious lyrical landscapes. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.