Matthew Williams | Thursday, April 6, 2017
Last week, Kendrick Lamar released the music video for a song titled “HUMBLE.” The video has racked up millions of views because of its satiating cinematography, but there’s more to this new song than meets the eye. Buried beneath its poetic vocals lies a clear challenge from Kendrick to the whole hip-hop community: be better.
This isn’t the first time that Kendrick has issued such an order, but with each repetition its saliency seems to grow. When he originally called out his fellow artists, on a single verse from Big Sean’s 2013 single “Control HOF,” the rap world practically buckled at its knees. It was the first time since Makaveli and Biggie that a hip-hop artist had so directly dared their competition, and to make things even more monumental, it had worked.
Consequently, rappers from coast to coast hit the drawing boards to plot how they would respond to Kendrick’s cry for better competition, and, in my opinion, the quality of American hip-hop improved as a result. Now, as HUMBLE. once again prods what is becoming a consistently raw bruise (at that soft spot right in between the hubris and seeming superiority complex of almost every hip-hop artist), it is worth taking a moment to reflect on why and how Kendrick ceaselessly manages to challenge his competition.
To start, it’s helpful to note that in a recent interview with Rick Rubin, the eclectic co-president of Columbia Records, Kendrick said that the reason he writes and raps is to challenge himself, his listeners and his competition. In the same interview, Kendrick claimed that artists and producers are often told to assume that the consumer is dumb, and as a result, they tend to compose music that is out-of-touch with the world that most of us live in. Kendrick believes we deserve better, and he’s on a mission to see that we get it.
It is this conviction that prompts him to go to bat for us, and when he does, like in HUMBLE., the response is something that neither a rapper nor listener alone could rouse. What I mean by this, is that nothing would happen if either you or I were to call out Drake, Nos, Big Sean and Co. At the other end of the spectrum, rappers themselves are often coy about calling each other out, because they are well aware that any claims they try to make to the throne will be illusory and egotistical, and thus by doing so, they risk receiving backlash from the rest of the hip-hop community. With one foot in each world, however, hip-hop’s most promising protagonist and Compton’s “good kid,” Kendrick Lamar manages to do what no one else can.
To see what I mean, consider some of the imagery in the HUMBLE. music video. During the first part of the chorus, which is essentially a hypnotic reiteration of the phrase “be humble,” Kendrick orates as he stands immersed in a sea of bobbing bald heads. He raps the lines with his face down and sends a strong message that he is still a part of the masses. Then, for the second half of the chorus, Kendrick’s call comes from the middle seat of a recreated rapper’s Last Supper, based on da Vinci’s iconic tableau. His central positioning reflects that he is seen by many as the best rapper alive, but when the rapper adjacent to him abruptly attempts to stand up, Kendrick humbly remains seated and strongly urges his peer to sit back down.
Taken together, the imagery demonstrates Kendrick’s identity as that “rare breed of rapper who simultaneously comes off as fan and student and practitioner.” He can’t help being the best, but he won’t use this position to berate or belittle his competition. Rather, he remains as much like the rest of us as possible, and he uses his earned authority to humbly bring the competition up to his level.
Keeping this in mind, what can the rest of us learn from Kendrick’s example, or perhaps the better question is, how might society benefit from Kendrick’s constant challenging in realms beyond hip-hop? Imagine if we applied this idea of holding each other accountable to all parts of society, allowing the best person in each area to bring everyone else up to their level and benefit the whole community by doing so. Star students could hold their classmates accountable for doing the required readings, or a priest could request that his laypeople actually practice the faith that he preaches. This could even extend to little things, like an ecologically-educated student challenging peers to recycle, or the kindest person on campus refusing to tolerate un-warranted negativity.
In my opinion, one reason we struggle to practice the humility needed for this, why we refuse to let our guard down and allow leaders to challenge us, is that we worry doing so will lead to feelings of inadequacy and unimportance. This reaction is reasonable for a society that tends to be more worried about literally competing than about actually winning. I once heard that someone who wants to win will look forward to the finish line, but someone who is more concerned with competing will be too busy looking right and left. To open ourselves to the idea of becoming humbler, it would help to begin by reorienting our gaze on the goal ahead.
This is exactly what Kendrick does with Control HOF and HUMBLE. He urges his competition to worry less about their location on a leaderboard, and instead to work on becoming the best artists that they can be. That’s all that Kendrick has done, and so far, it’s worked out pretty well for him. So, rather than requesting humbleness to be synonymous with silence, let’s allow our leaders to speak up and keep the rest of us accountable. By doing so, we will make the whole world a better place, and simultaneously make the experience more enjoyable in the process.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.