Politically charged Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar nearly made history this week by scoring eleven Grammy nominations, placing him second only to Thriller-era Michael Jackson, who got twelve in 1984. Lamar’s progressively-minded single “Alright” got recognized in four categories, including Song of the Year and Music Video of the Year, while his album To Pimp A Butterfly is up for two awards including Album of the Year. “These Walls,” his most recent single, got one too. This is all great news, especially for those of us who like musicians that aren’t afraid to talk politics.
Lamar has opinions. Lots of opinions. “Having the last word is so far from his interests,” Dan Weiss wrote last March in an insightful Spin review. “He doesn’t want anyone to have the last word. The last word means people will stop talking, and — on the evidence of his bled-out magnum opus — that’s one of the many, many things he’s afraid of.”
To Pimp A Butterfly is a sprawling album, a relentless, restless 79-minute opus that includes elements of free jazz and samples drawn from Sly Stone and Sufjan Stevens. One day after last year’s Grammy ceremony Lamar dropped the lead single “The Blacker The Berry,” a song about what it takes for black people to love themselves. Elsewhere on the album, the rapper simulates a conversation with Tupac and beats himself up for being too busy to say goodbye to a dying friend.
“King Kunta,” one of the album’s highlights — inspired by Kunta Kinte, the African slave from Alex Haley’s Roots — mixes bouncy funk melodies and a dancing-on-the-streets-of-Compton video (above) with an ominous guitar sample and the disturbing refrain, “Everybody wanna cut the legs off him!”; a possible allusion to Roots scene where Kunta gets his hobbled for his repeated attempts to escape.
On another song, “How Much a Dollar Costs”, Lamar meets a homeless man who may or may not actually be God. If that sounds peculiar, remember that Lamar’s mainstream breakthrough”Swimming Pools” was a club banger about the dangers of alcoholism (video below).
It makes sense that Grammy voters would like Lamar. He’s the rare, socially conscious, high-selling rapper that isn’t afraid to share a video with Taylor Swift, a track with Lady Gaga or a Grammy stage with Imagine Dragons. In fact, two of Lamar’s eleven nominations are for his work with Swift on “Bad Blood”, and he also made the cut for Best Dance Recording category with Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me”. Meanwhile, he’s competing with himself in Best Rap Song thanks to a credit on Kanye West and Paul McCartney’s “All Day”.
Michael Jackson ended up going home with eight Grammys in 1984, adding to Thriller’s legacy as the best-selling album of all time and a breakthrough hit which enabled pop-singers of color finally to get serious play on mainstream radio. If Kendrick Lamar scores nine Grammys, he will forge a new legacy, one that champions the political power of the Black voice while upholding the value of creative collaboration among pop-contemporaries.