The King’s Madness

On Kendrick Lamar’s God Is Gangsta

By Marvin Darkwa

Truth is a relative outcome. It conforms, contorts, connives all for one solid reason… Identity. “It” (truth) moves us, despite the fact that “it” (truth) can be a very alarming and disheartening thing. We survive in this thing called existence being denied truth, denied certainty, denied fact. Identity and truth are one and the same. If only because they both bridge the gap between self-expression and, as the following visionary would put it, the need to “be humble (!)”. Despite this we’re all ultimately gluttons for punishment; because when truth does indeed reveal itself (in whatever form), we drink it in, hoping that it won’t hurt/unveil as much as it does. It’s a sad dichotomy to be sure: to reject reality but want truth. Renege realism but want identity. Rebuff the real to escape into fantasy… Fuck it all. Truth really is stranger than fiction. Enter Kendrick Lamar Duckworth: Rapper. Social Activist. Poet.                             

When “K-Dot” launched his critically acclaimed record, To Pimp a Butterfly, it set the world aflame. Who was this “dreadheaded” trotter of ebony-justice? And how DARE he appropriate Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird for the pastiche-drenched aggrandizement of a “rap album”? And moreover, the question permeating those of charcoal-skin at the time: were we all truly “gonna be alright”? This onslaught of questions continued to be begged, beckoned, and bellowed by the masses. Like a drifter pleading for a home.

The brilliance of the Kendrick Lamar project, To Pimp a Butterfly, and its accompanying adaptation, a short film (entitled God Is Gangsta) is that it finds a comforting “unity” amidst division. At this rap narrative’s heart is the internal struggle lying in the heart of Blacks. And that is the struggle to be free, to be free, to be free… This sane-lunacy is dormant in all those of obsidian-skin. And it drives us.

At this rap narrative’s heart is the internal struggle lying in the heart of Blacks. And that is the struggle to be free, to be free, to be free

Lamar brilliantly hurdles past the pitfalls that come from adapting something, in this case a “rap album”, by simply moving “through” the narrative and not “around” it. There are limitations to the audio format (passivity, the chance for distraction, the lack of full immersion) which Lamar passes through, full steam ahead, with the hodgepodge of euphoric images that make up God is Gangsta. Elements that were lacking in the other medium, such as the opportunity for visceral, visual implantation, now Pop! Sizzle! Crackle! with new life. The short film employs a “Louis C.K.-ish” use of vignettes to tell the narrative, which invites the viewer into the mind of clearly disturbed individual grappling with the trappings of success.

If you take a look at the “mise-en-scene” (film school term bitches!!!) you will notice in the first vignette that there is a mirror; however Lamar himself is not seen in it… On a table, a bottle is spinning briskly in perpetual motion, as Kendrick drunkenly spits bars. However, K-Dot seems oblivious to this and the aforementioned mirror, which might suggest that Kendrick is in a cycle of avoidance… Of growing up. Of maturing. Of aging. The bottle (alcohol) is often seen as a symbol of emerging adulthood.

Kendrick is at a crossroads in his life (clearly) and by letting the bottle spin, it means he can avoid making a choice, and facing said choice in the mirror. Further on, we catch Kendrick presumably at the club. But this is not the club portrayed by oughts-era “gangsta” rappers G-Unit. No… this club is one of the Devil’s constructions (“Lucy” as Kendrick calls “her”). The club is drenched in holy/Christian imagery; someone is baptized (to wash away the sin/evil Kendrick feels plagued by), red lighting depicts Satan “herself”, and temptresses surrounding Lamar (as Eve did in the Bible). The scene’s depiction of evil is utterly breathtaking and shows that Kendrick himself can’t face himself after abandoning his homies for his ambitions. Lamar has, at his heart, always been a storyteller.

And the slightly more eccentric elements of the record’s narrative, the grandiose undercurrent of Afro-empowerment, the concept of “self-love”, and the alienation that lies in paranoia, come out brilliantly in the accompanying film. God is Gangsta adapts the album’s simple thing, like how uses of the “N-word” in the album can become instances of the colour Black in the short (Afro-empowerment), and its larger themes, the ironically comforting losses found through intercourse (self-love), and always the runaway fantasy that is loneliness. The genius in these ideas lies in that they come together to create a cohesive whole. 

Indulging in the world of an “entertainer” is always intriguing, especially here, where our entertainer merges Afro-leftist ideology with magical realism. It is odd. It is surreal. It is bizarre. However, this vantage point is a universe all in the mold of Lamar: demons, deities, and Devils. In a sense, the record is a recorded diary of spoken-word poetry that delves into the tormented-reprieve of the Black experience, like indulging in self-destruction because you feel that you don’t deserve happiness. The film is a concise odyssey showing the naked humility of those of obsidian skin. Our power. Our voice. Our truth… 

The utter banality of existence is interesting. At once captivatingly trivial but also drenched in a sea of disenchanted importance.. Through the record the listener is presented with an aural-shower of concepts, flows, and stories set to post-modern jazz-rap meets G-Funk soundscapes. The short film includes all these elements, but also creates a visual-world that begs the viewer to ask just what is right (and wrong) with the auteur in question. The short, in essence, shows a magical-realist world grappling with atrocity, and Lamar as the saint of said world who must go through Odyssey-like trials to make “it” (saving “our” race) happen. This can be seen in the partiers, the cacophony of sounds, Lamar’s seeming apathy despite the endeavour he has undertaken before him; to banish all the evil/sin surrounding him. 

This is not the club portrayed by oughts-era “gangsta” rappers G-Unit. No… this club is one of the Devil’s constructions.

The thing about “high art” is that you are never sure how “it” will be interpreted. So, with that, the artisan sculpting their vision must create varying routes to the concept in question. In To Pimp a Butterfly Kendrick has sculpted a piece of art that tells the story of the tortured and the torturer, the oppressor and the oppressed, the powerless and the powerful. The accounts are half-remembered and slurred out in frantic high-pitched drunken (literally in one song) raps. Doing this creates a road that is worn but also fresh. It is a thing of beauty… 

“We” cry to the heavens that one day they “our” plight will be heard. The chosen ones. The regal ones. The ancient ones. The people of obsidian skin… Saying “our” real thoughts is a contrary-truth, but a necessary -action. By showcasing the ugly side of truth (i.e. the things that need to be done to get there) K-Dot depicts himself as a hero, a savior, a “mortal man”. A disciple that is just as down to get with Pac as they are with Jesus (seen in the constant flashes of prophetic words in the short film). So, with that, in mind there is a thematic/dramatological structure to To Pimp a Butterfly that invites the marginalized to universally express themselves in both rivers (the musical record and the short film).

Unchaining oneself from white supremacy is the dominant reflection throughout these mediums and this essential point unites the fragments into a cohesive whole.  In To Pimp a Butterfly Kendrick Lamar has concocted a shining-Black-beacon in the guise of misplaced hatred for the negro. Showcasing that, if anger is a stone cast on “us”, it reflects their hatred for one’s own loathing of identity. Kendrick and his team of world-builders and sonic-artisans have crafted an elegant, beautiful, and tragic allegory about the pitfalls of oppression. Harper Lee would’ve been proud.

By Marvin Darkwa

“Don’t tell anybody anything. If you do you just start missing everybody”. – J.D. Salinger