Sitting down and being humble: Reflecting on the scope of art via Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar
Nastia Voynovskaya/File

“Now I done grew up ‘round some people living their life in bottles / Granddaddy had the golden flask / Backstroke every day in Chicago.”

I almost shiver as the words wash over me. Almost, but not quite — it’s not that kind of performance, and I’m not in that kind of mindset. Lights are flashing, and I’m having a great fucking time.

Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the Staples Center isn’t so much of a culmination for me as it is a milestone. A significant one, at that; it marks an elevation of my own ability to appreciate artistry.

“Okay, now open your mind up and listen me, Kendrick.”

The words spill out of my mouth as they shoot out of his. My performance is superimposed over his, under his.

Five years ago — it was five years ago that I first heard the song. Then, as I sang the hook in the shower, hummed it in my mom’s minivan, tapped its rhythm in class, I wasn’t really hearing it. “Good shit,” I would tell myself, rocking back and forth as the synth swelled and faded. “That’s some good bass.”

“Good bass” was literally the extent of my scope of appreciation back then. At Staples, there’s plenty of “good bass” to go around; every 808 kick, every Thundercat riff (God bless the dude), every single thump and whomp envelops me. But there’s more now; I see a bit more deeply.

“’Good bass’ was literally the extent of my scope of appreciation back then.”

It was his triplet flow on that second verse of “Swimming Pools (Drank)” back then that piqued my interest. I had always been so disparaging of the device when other rappers used it: “Oh, look at me, I am a rapper and I can rap in a different way now because I am a good rapper, look at me,” the flow seemed to say. Snoop Dogg roasted it; that was good enough for me. And yet, there was something undeniable about Kendrick’s usage of that flow. It sat just ahead of the beat, propelling the song onward. It had a purpose. It expressed agency.

Years later, I rediscovered Kendrick after he dropped untitled unmastered. I had the album on repeat for the entirety of my freshman year. The scene is branded into my mind: “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014.” in the background, staring out my room window, gray skies, drizzling, a slight chill. The swirling jazz influences were familiar enough, I think, that I could actually absorb the rest of the album; I saw enough of myself in that album to expand what I considered beautiful art.

Here was I, a classically trained, traditionally oriented musician — here was I, an outsider to the vernacular, the culture, the message — but it resonated. I started to see the distinct facets: the stadium banger Kendrick, the sit-in-a-room-and-chill Kendrick, the “Rigamortis” Kendrick, the “untitled 06 | 06.30.2014.” Kendrick. Flow, bars, tone — these became indistinguishable from formalized structures. Who was I to say that a well-placed slant rhyme was less important or took less skill than three key modulations? Who was I to say that political abstraction didn’t trump counterpoint?

During this time, I started watching interviews with Kendrick’s producers, hoping to dig into his creative process — both to mine it for myself and to get just a bit more insight, just a bit more exposure to that creative space. Seeing Sounwave say that he and his team could’ve “easily” replicated earlier work yet discarded the notion in favor of “pushing (themselves)” delighted me. Skeptical as I am, I was initially a bit miffed at the thought that something so complex could be written off like that. But that concept was followed by story after story of process, machination, gritty and raw creation. There it was: artistic choice on full display. That hooked me.

Now comes “LOYALTY.” I had always thought it was the weakest link of DAMN.; even Sounwave’s backstory regarding Rihanna’s feature couldn’t shake my feeling that it was far too “pop-y,” especially after untitled unmastered. I wasn’t sure how to reconcile “selling out” to a mainstream sound with the complexity that drew me in at first. But there’s something about this live performance at Staples: Kendrick weaves his words together, lets the playback roll for a bit, switches a line, drops a line. It feels like a freestyle handcrafted for this very moment. There it is — the expression, the rawness that I feared would be lacking. I want more than just deliverance of lines onstage. I want a charged power, and I just found it. The interpretation sold it for me.

I found To Pimp a Butterfly, occasionally shortened to TPAB, after untitled unmastered. That could raise a few eyebrows, given that the latter album is composed of pieces that didn’t make it into TPAB. Even so, this anachrony of listening didn’t lessen TPAB’s impact; if anything, it created for me a more rounded picture, priming me first for what TPAB isn’t.

“They weren’t loaded with archaic diction, convoluted syntax or wildly whimsical tangentials. But they felt real. I was moved.”

Neither album really fit into my preconceived notions of artistry. They weren’t loaded with archaic diction, convoluted syntax or wildly whimsical tangentials. But they felt real. I was moved.

“Sit down … / Be humble.” My friend had been a bit disparaging about this track; similar to my sentiments regarding “LOYALTY.,” he felt that “HUMBLE.” was too much of a deviation from Kendrick’s style that had been developed up until that point. Again, though, the live performance at Staples erases these doubts. The breakdown in the second verse is chopped up, aspirated and articulated, shortened to bullet point 16th notes instead of straight 8ths to maintain bounce and energy. Nice.

Kendrick stops between songs to rhapsodize about the significance of the moment; how we are the true fans who were with him from the start; how he feels that he made it, being where he is. I know he’s speaking to others, people who were around when he first debuted with Section.80, people who relate to his experience, people who feel more. I can’t say that I grew alongside him. I can say, though, that I grew because of him.

Contact Arjun Savel at [email protected].