Examining Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s Work Through a Literary Lens

Columnist David Dennis argues Kendrick Lamar’s work is thematic on the trauma of travel for African Americans.

Since its inception 40 years ago, Hip-Hop has been populated with rappers speaking truth to power from the street-level perspective. These so-called street poets shined light — often controversial and sometimes inflammatory — on the dark recesses of life and society for black Americans. Groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Public Enemy, N.W.A. and Outkast addressed issues faced by African American and inner city communities.

Today Hip-Hop has a solo artist who carries on that tradition; Kendrick Lamar. Lamar is a young man from Compton, California in Los Angeles County. With just two major albums to his name thus far, a theme is already emerging in his work, i.e. that traveling, uprootedness, and forced relocation has created lasting and irreparable instability for Black Americans. That’s the argument posed by Detroit Today guest, David Dennis, a columnist and commentator with Bossip.com.

Here is a segment from Dennis’ piece, “Kendrick Lamar’s Music Reflects the Trauma of Forced Relocation of Black People“:

“The acts of traveling and forced relocation have impacted the Black community from slavery to Compton, and Kendrick holds on to these themes in his music. These themes of relocation’s impact play themselves out in the way Kendrick treats methods of travel in his music. He pours every lyrical sin and fault into the act of traveling — thus cars and hotel rooms are presented as versions of Hell that he can’t escape from. In Good Kid, Maad City, the now-iconic van represents a metaphorical Sodom and Gomorrah where he indulges in sin and transforms into an immoral, worst version of himself. In To Pimp A Butterfly, his car becomes a literal Hell; the one thing keeping him from coming in contact with God. And hotels, airplanes and the separation from “home” are all used to symbolize his distance from happiness and Heaven itself. Sin and turmoil are all represented in the vessels Kendrick uses to travel in his music, and this literary tapestry is woven throughout the stories he tells in his albums.”

Listen to Stephen and David’s conversation above.