From Alright to XXX: Revisiting Kendrick Lamar’s Best Political Lines
For us, music has always been inherently political, and has always a vital role in political moments in history. From giving the marginalised a voice to providing perspective or even momentary relief, music unites, liberates and motivates more than ever in times of political unrest. And, in the last few weeks, as the world has reckoned with the very clear systemic racism against black and brown bodies not just in the US but across the globe, many have turned to music for exactly these reasons.
One artist who has become synonymous with impactful, hard-hitting and brilliant politically charged music is the one and only Kendrick Lamar. Becoming a figurehead for the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight against racism in the United States and beyond, his music has always maintained a level of political criticism which has become more and more evident as his career has progressed. His last two albums in particular, To Pimp A Butterfly and DAMN., have seen him become the voice of a generation as he unapologetically hits back at the systems in place to keep black and brown bodies at a disadvantage, while also remaining a voice of optimism as heard in anthems like ‘Alright’.
With the most recent wave of protests, songs like ‘Alright’ have seen great surges in streams with many activists using these songs to soundtrack protests and movements in their cities across the world. It can be hard to cherry pick just a few Kendrick Lamar verses in which his brilliance as a writer and artist shine through as there truly are just so many, but here we have listed some of the particularly genius bars he has delivered from his most recent two albums.
‘I can see the baller in you, I can see the dollar in you
Little white lies, but it’s no white-collar in you
But it’s whatever though because I’m still followin’ you
Because you make me live forever, baby’
‘Wesley’s Theory’ kicks off Kendrick‘s revered To Pimp A Butterfly, perfectly setting the scene for what is to come. In this verse, he takes aim at capitalism in America, playing the creepy, demented Uncle Sam. Alluding to the theory that the US Government might be able to catch Kendrick in a tax-fraud scandal like Wesley Snipes, Kendrick details the damaging effects capitalism has on not only him as a person, but American society as a whole and delivers a blistering take.
‘We hate po-po Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’
The song that became synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. Brazen, unapologetic and straight to the point, ‘Alright’ is classic Kendrick. ‘Alright’ has been a key anthem in many, many protests since its 2015 release, and has seen a recent resurgence as the movement re-entered the global spotlight after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer. It’s a Lamar providing a message of hope while still acknowledging it’s not easy to remain optimistic in the face of police brutality and systemic racism. Kendrick amplified this message even further with his 2015 BET Awards performance which saw him deliver the song on top of a vandalised cop car. FOX News would air a segment following this performance in which presenters Geraldo Rivera, Eric Bolling and Kimberly Guilfoyle share their disdain for the set, and in a full circle moment, a snippet of this discussion (plus many other references) would appear on Lamar‘s next album, DAMN.
Complexion (A Zulu Love)
So I’ma say somethin’ that’s vital and critical for survival
Of mankind, if he lyin’, color should never rival
Beauty is what you make it, I used to be so mistaken
By different shades of faces
‘Complexion (A Zulu Love)’ is one of the many, many highlights in To Pimp A Butterfly. Also featuring a career-defining verse by Rapsody, the song serves as call to arms to be united rather than divided. In this particular bar, Kendrick shines a light not just on division of white and black skin, but also divisions within the black community for lighter and darker black skin as well. It’s an open invitation to his community to love each other as well as the skin they’re in too. He has examined this divide elsewhere, including on fellow TPAB song ‘Mortal Man’ and Section.80‘s ‘Fuck Your Ethnicity’, and wants his community worldwide to unite rather than focus on superficial differences.
The Blacker The Berry
The whole song
How can you choose just one part of ‘Blacker The Berry’? The whole song is one of Lamar‘s finest to date as he truly flexes his ability to create quick and impactful bars that carry his message. This song dropped the day after Kendrick won Best Rap Song & Performance for ‘i’ at the 2015 GRAMMYs, and has drawn comparisons to 2Pac’s ‘Keep Ya Head Up’, and personal comparisons to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Sharing a title with the novel The Blacker the Berry by American author Wallace Thurman, and totally flipped the script from 2014’s ‘i’. Although it drew criticism as well, there is no denying it is one of Kendrick Lamar‘s most politically-charged releases yet.
What kind of bridge did they burn?
Revenge on your mind when it’s mentioned
You wanna love like Nelson, you wanna be like Nelson
You wanna walk in his shoes, but your peacemaking seldom
You wanna be remembered that delivered the message
That considered the blessing of everyone
‘Mortal Man’ is the final song on To Pimp A Butterfly, and sees Kendrick looking to the big question hanging over him of “What next?” In this verse, he brings up Nelson Mandela and his decision to not seek retribution after he was freed from prison and elected as the first democratic president of South Africa. Instead, Mandela called for unity and for love and respect within the black and white communities of his country. All about leading by example, he uses Mandela as a way to show what some people are willing to do for what they believe in (in Mandela’s case, being imprisoned for 27 years). A message we must all heed now, this verse highlights the importance of not simply voicing your opinion on something being wrong (or in 2020’s case, simply posting a black tile), but to back it up with consistent action to make real change.
Interviews wanna know my thoughts and opinions
Fox News wanna use my name for percentage
My latest muse is my niece, she worth livin’
See me on the TV and scream: “That’s Uncle Kendrick!”
Yeah, that’s the business (Uno)
Somebody tell Geraldo this n**** got some ambition
Geraldo Rivera made headlines around the world when he openly criticised Lamar and his message in ‘Alright’, so Kendrick returns the favour on DAMN.‘s ‘Yah’. Clocking Fox News and Geraldo himself in the same verse, he criticises them for purposely misrepresenting him in the interest of getting ratings for their shows. But, in the same verse, Kendrick reveals he knows he is so much more than a quick and easy headline, citing his niece as an example of his family behind him who support him even when he is being openly demonised on television.
It’s nasty when you set us up
Then roll the dice, then bet us up
You overnight the big rifles, then tell
Fox to be scared of us
Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera
America’s reflections of me, that’s what a mirror does
‘XXX’ also taken from DAMN. sees Kendrick openly critisicing the hypocrisy of the US government labeling black men as gang members or terrorists while shipping weapons of war to other countries, thus facilitating terrorism internationally at the same time. Extrapolating on the message of how the US government sets up black men to fail that he touched on in To Pimp A Butterfly‘s ‘Wesley’s Theory’, XXX sees Kendrick Lamar return for round two. Also providing further criticism of Fox News which he touches on throughout this record, he checks the station for it’s dangerous coverage of black men in the US, telling its viewers “to be scared”.
I’ll prolly die anonymous,
I’ll prolly die with promises
I’ll prolly die walkin’ back home from the candy house
I’ll prolly die because these colors are standin’ out
DAMN.‘s ‘Fear’ is another example of just how brilliant of a writer Kendrick is. In this song, he examines three life-changing phases from when he was 7, 17 and 27. He first reflects on when he was seven years old, growing up with a strict mother. The second verse looks back at when he was 17 and his fears of dying young and “anonymous” because of either police brutality or gang violence. His voice significantly shifts in tone to reflect the depression he suffered at the time, and in this verse, he notes the very real fear he felt that he could die simply walking home because of what he’s wearing or what he looks like.