GUEST POST!!!! : "Conscious dissonance": an examination of trojan horse messaging in conscious rap (very long read)

What's good, y'all...Long time no hear.
I have a special guest, NODOTWON, from Oakland, California...An MC, writer, and social activist.
He has a few words he'd like to share with y'all:

I had a great conversation earlier today with a good friend about the importance of perspective/narrative voice in Hip Hop writing. The main subject of our discussion was Kendrick Lamar but frankly this conversation has a very broad application to rappers who make music that is labelled "conscious".

Some background info about myself is that I'm a young black man from the Bay who has been writing lyrics and rapping for almost a decade, I ate and breathed anything Hip Hop I could get my hands on ever since I can remember. My friend shares the same background except he's from Sacramento and doesn't rap. Whenever Kendrick's name comes up in a conversation we have I often express that Kendrick's music after GKMC does not resonate with me. Kendrick's lyrics on To Pimp A Butterfly largely did not move me and today I narrowed down the reasons why that is.

Before TPAB, Kendrick has always had a penchant for storytelling tracks ranging from personal anecdotes like "Average Joe" to stories with multiple characters/perspectives like "Sing About Me". GKMC was chalk-full of personal anecdotes and moments which were used to drive the album's narrative concept of painting the picture of Kendrick's childhood in Compton. TPAB on the other hand does not draw its narrative from personal anecdotes; in fact, it is decidedly not a personal nor story driven album at all. It is an album that looks outward at the political climate of America at large and specifically at where the black man in America fits into that climate. He still references Compton and its people throughout but mostly as a proxy for "the struggle".

In fact, the album paints in very broad strokes throughout in the effort to touch on different aspects of the black experience in America. He touches on a huge variety of topics from police brutality to the over-sexualization of black men and women to the double-edged honorary white status that black entertainers often experience and more. Knowing this, it is understandable that many of the lyrics are more reflective than introspective: TPAB is primarily concerned with examining the ways that America continues to fail black people physically and mentally.

This is exactly where the album falls short. To be more specific, this is exactly where the album fails to spark new insights and new conversation from the listeners about its topics. At its best, it captures Kendrick's own paranoia that he is not being true to himself which is likely the most resonant theme on the entire CD. At its worst, TPAB un-ironically employs unrealized caricatures of black struggles to solicit the listener's agreement that black people struggle in America. More often than not, it fails to solicit the listener to develop a greater understanding about how that struggle uniquely impacts the black individual.

Let's look at the lyrics of one of the album's lead singles (i), specifically the bolded passages:

I done been through a whole lot
Trials and tribulations, but I know God
Satan wanna put me in a bow-tie
Praying that the holy water don't go dry, yeah yeah
As I look around me
So many motherfuckers wanna down me
But ain't no nigga never drown me
In front of a dirty double-mirror they found me

And I love myself
(The world is a ghetto with guns and picket signs)
I love myself
(But it can do what it want whenever it wants and I don’t mind)
I love myself
(He said I gotta get up, life is more than suicide)
I love myself
(One day at the time, sun gone shine)

Everybody looking at you crazy (Crazy)

What you gone do? (What you gone do?)
Lift up your head and keep moving (Keep moving)
Or let the paranoia haunt you? (Haunt you)
Peace to fashion police I wear my heart
On my sleeve let the runway start
You know the miserable do love company
Fuck do you want from me and my scars?
Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence
How many times our potential was anonymous?

How many times the city making me promises?
So I promise this


They wanna say there's a war outside and a bomb in the street
And a gun in the hood and a mob of police
And a rock on the corner and a line full of fiends
And a bottle full of lean and a model on a scheme, yup
These days of frustration keep y'all on tucking rotation
I duck these gold faces, post up fee-fi-fo-fum bases

Dreams of realities peace
Blow steam in the face of the beast
The sky can fall down, the wind can cry now
The strong in me, I still smile


I went to war last night
With an automatic weapon, don’t nobody call a medic
I'mma do it 'til I get it right
I went to war last night
I've been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent
Duckin' every other blessin', l can never see the message
I can never take the lead
, I can never bob and weave
For my nigga that be letting ‘em alienate me
And the sound is moving in a meteor speed
From a 100 to a billion lay my body in the street
Keep my money in the ceiling let my mama know I'm free
Give my story to the children and the lesson they can read
And the glory to the feeling of all of y'all scenes
Seen enough, make a motherfucker scream, "I love myself!"

I lost my head, I must've misread what the good book said
Oh woes keep me, it's a jungle inside
Give myself again 'til the well runs dry

The song's intro bars and hook describe Kendrick's struggle to be in control of his own self-conception. The first verse re-states this point by posing rhetorical questions to the listener as well as to himself about how far he'll have to go to preserve his self worth even while his self worth is constantly attacked by Compton's (and America's) low expectations of its black citizens.

The second verse veers away from Kendrick's self image and instead moves to Compton's self image: he goes on to describe a city that is repeatedly defined by drug addiction and gang violence and especially by outsiders.

On the third verse, the perspective appears to switch back to Kendrick. However, it is clear from the content of the verse that he is not talking about himself and is instead using his voice as a vessel for a deceased gang member. The gang member is not given a name nor do we know his connection to Kendrick; he is only given Kendrick's voice which is clearly not his own. We are not given any personal details about the gang member other than his "depression ever since an adolescent/Ducking every other blessing, I can never see the message/I can never see the lead..." In other words, we are given nothing that authenticates the voice of the dead gang member actually belonging to the dead gang member. Did the gang member truly "never see the message"? Could he truly "never take the lead"? The conclusions that we are enticed to draw from this verse are more than likely not the gang member's own. Kendrick effectively acts as a ghetto oracle, speaking the "truths" of a slain black man whose life he did not live while authenticating the dead man's story with his own voice. Kendrick is the ventriloquist and the dead gangster is one of a number of black struggle puppets that make an appearance on the album.

As a black man, Kendrick has a voice to paint his own black American struggle and how his life,his family and his friends have been affected by it. Why, then, does Kendrick insist on employing nameless, faceless black puppets (angry black golddigger, depressed black gang member, etc.) to embody what is first and foremost his point of view? In his attempt to subvert familiar stereotypes of "black pathology", he himself reduces what are in reality black individuals with their own black thoughts to political chess-pieces in a familiar game of passing the blame. Instead of soliciting the listener's attention to recognize America's cruelly impersonal perpetuation of institutionalized racial outcomes on unique black individuals, families and communities, it is instead suggested to the listener that "black pathology" is the real living and (formerly) breathing creation of said institutions.

On more than one occassion, TPAB (and Kendrick) somehow manages to validate the idea of black pathology despite decrying the institutions that function entirely on non-black Americans buying into the idea of black pathology. And frankly, so do a lot of "conscious" rappers these days.

Want to know what I think? At the heart of the cognitive dissonance that a lot of the newer (and often middle-class) generation of so-called conscious rappers display is that they have been brainwashed to accept black pathology as the authentic voice of Hip Hop. They see the institutionalized black male as the Holy likeness of Hip Hop itself... The problem is they themselves do not resemble that image and therefore their own voices are not fully "authentic". How, then, can they strive to be authentic representatives of a culture that they themselves feel they fundamentally do not resemble? Simple: they speak for and in support of the institutionalized black male and by extension they are speaking for and in support of the culture.

they, though? Are they really? Are they really repping Hip Hop culture right by championing the 'noble struggle' of black pathology? That's the question I want to end this piece on.



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