When Kendrick Lamar introduced himself to the bulk of the hip-hop world with Section.80 way back in the summer of 2011, there were more than a few people who acknowledged that he was on to something special. Whether it was the lyrical intelligence, the world-class flow, or the uniquely raw perspective on what was happening in the streets around him, it was clear that the Black Hippy standout was destined to become the much-needed new face of the Compton rap scene.
With every subsequent release, Kendrick’s stature grew both in the hip-hop scene and in mainstream culture. Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City — along with his verse in A$AP Rocky’s unavoidable hit “Fuckin’ Problems” — brought the artist formerly known as K-Dot into the mainstream eye. While tracks like “Money Trees,” “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Swimming Pools (Drank)” might be the ones that defined the record’s legacy, arguably Lamar’s biggest accomplishment was giving Drake a glimmer of legitimate street cred on “Poetic Justice.”
By the time To Pimp a Butterfly came out a couple years ago, Lamar was primed to become one of the biggest artists of his generation. Needing a major song or two to re-establish his place atop the rap world, tunes like “Alright,” “I,” and “King Kunta” showed that not only was King Kendrick ready to return to his rightful hip-hop throne but also that the Grammy-winning rapper could redefine the genre while appealing to a wide variety of fans young and old.
As the world turned over and so many of us watched with horror as America’s most esteemed Kendrick fan prepared to leave the Oval Office and a bigoted troll marched in, To Pimp a Butterfly became one of the most intricate soundtracks of the resistance. As an unapologetically political record addressing social and racial injustices on both national and international levels, the 2015 album spoke truer with every passing day in the increasingly hostile environment of Trump’s America.
But just when it seemed as though To Pimp a Butterfly would be Kendrick’s sole offering for the first portion of the tumultuous Trump presidency, Lamar came back with an even more scathing and straightforward political attack with Damn. Although nothing on Damn is quite as direct as YG’s “FDT” — nothing could ever be more direct than “FDT” — the shots fired at everyone from Fox News and Trump to the unspoken issues in the rest of the country on Kendrick’s latest record are every bit as insightful and poignant as any protest lyric penned by the likes of Ice Cube, 2pac, Bob Dylan, or John Lennon.
Although the legacy of Damn will undoubtedly grow over the coming years and months, it’s already been undeniably the most impactful record of its five month life. “Humble,” “DNA,” and “Loyalty” have all become essential anthems of the year’s hip-hop scene, and you’re just as likely to hear the entire record spinning in an Uber or a rich white neighborhood as you are on the streets of Inglewood, Long Beach, or Compton. As the nation’s racist fears are realized more and more everyday, Kendrick’s music stands above all others as the modern poet giving a singular voice to the masses speaking against injustices in America and beyond.
That’s not to say there aren’t other artists making excellent beacons of protest these days, there just isn’t anyone else with Kendrick’s reach who’s willfully throwing themselves on the front line. While artists like Drake and Taylor Swift remain apolitical in the name of calculated album sales, Adele stays true to her loveable self, and Beyonce focuses her efforts on empowering rather than attacking, Lamar is easily the biggest current musician shooting back against the current oppression and he’s doing a better job of it than the world probably deserves these days. To put it in other words, even my punk rock-loving former hippy of a dad said he couldn’t help but feel the emotion and appreciate the grittiness, bloodiness, and profanity of the video for “Element” that Rolling Stone’s mailing list sent to his inbox.
From a young Compton kid rapping about the city around him to an international superstar connecting with people of every age, race, and creed, the evolution of Kendrick Lamar from local rapper to modern-day prophet seems damn near complete. So when you’re lining up to see Kendrick headline the second annual Day N Night festival on Sunday evening (fittingly after a YG performance), remember that you’re not just seeing the best rapper of the generation. You’re also seeing arguably the most prolific political artist in recent memory fire his sharpest attacks directly at the targets in the midst of the most divisive American political debacle since the Civil War. The 2017 version of America is plenty fucked up, but if Kendrick got us, then we gon’ be alright.