Cover Photo: KanyeToThe.com; All songs mentioned as well as others are included in the playlist below.
Perception is everything, but even more so for some Americans than for others. There is a phenomenon called “double consciousness” that was first talked about in detail by W.E.B. DuBois almost 100 years ago. It is based around the idea that black people have to think not only about how they see themselves, but how the world at large will view them for their words, thoughts, and actions.
When it comes to those in the public eye (actors, artists, politicians, etc.), there is already a sense of double consciousness that influences their every move, so in a sense, black artists must be triply conscious. Regardless of one's level of success or the amount of unfiltered truth one brings to the table, if the media and consumer base don’t like the way a message is presented, it may be lost entirely. Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West are two of the most popular artists in rap today, and despite both achieving star status in their genre, one is given the key to his city while the other is derided as being insane, narcissistic, and “way out of control.”
Where Kendrick is seen as a poet, Kanye is often viewed as brash, loud, and to many, outright stupid. The truth is that both men are intensely introspective and offer insights about the way that our world works. Further, both artists push similar messages about cultural appropriation, racism, and life growing up in black America. Where they differ is their method of approach, which the media harps on and uses to paint one as a sinner and one as a saint. The differences between the two are, in a way, subtle, but they are exaggerated by factors beyond each artist's control.
Kanye, especially early in his career, spoke out heavily against materialism and other issues that kept him and people he knew doing whatever they had to do to get by. In one of his first hits, “We Don’t Care,” he tells white America that a lot of people in socio-economic distress are basically forced to sell drugs if they want to feed their families and clothe themselves. To further alert us to the prevalence of this problem, he starts the first verse with a warning to the uninitiated: “If this is your first time hearin’ this / You are about to experience something so cold.”
Kendrick Lamar, similarly, talks about the things that many in his hometown of Compton, California had to do to survive. “Poe Man’s Dreams (His Vice),” “Ronald Reagan Era,” and others off of his first studio album Section.80 hold harsh and direct lyrics about the sex, drugs, and death that have surrounded him his entire life. However, that was before he found mainstream success, so many people have never heard those words.
In almost every respect, Kendrick has much more explicit and bold lyrics, but his hits are the songs that have vaguely positive messages or can be easily misconstrued. From “Alright,” to “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Swimming Pools” (which we’ll get to shortly), Kendrick has seen his most eye-opening prose go virtually unnoticed in comparison to his bangers, evidenced by TPAB seeing roughly 350,000 in sales in the first week as compared to Damn. (a more “traditional” rap album) amassing close to 600,000.
As both artists became more popular they had to deal with an ever-growing number of people trying to use Kendrick or Kanye’s fame as a springboard for their own. And while each artist has come out against these leeches, the reception of their attacks has been drastically different. Kanye’s “Famous” is more infamous at this point, and Kendrick’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” has lead good kid, m.A.A.d city to certified Platinum.
The first verse of “Famous” begins with the notorious Taylor Swift line, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” This turned the world against Kanye West as both entertainment and “real” news stations picked up the story and flayed West for his lies and for continuously attacking poor Taylor Swift (frequently referencing the 2012 VMA debacle). Plot twist: Taylor actually was using the media’s desire to believe her and paint Kanye as a villain to play things up and increase her own popularity. It later came out that Swift knew full well about the line and also backed out of an agreement to reveal the elaborate joke so that people would continue to buy her albums as a protest to Kanye. In other words, she’s a snake and the media believed her.
Kendrick’s calling out of people was less direct, and, rather than causing a media firestorm, caused him to skyrocket up the charts. “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” was one of Kendrick’s first huge hits which included the line “I can feel the new people ‘round me just want to be famous,” among others that signal the song’s core message. Unfortunately, this message was not readily picked up by the radio DJs and Rap Genius scholars that paraded this and “Swimming Pools” as party songs throughout 2013. While the lyrics are a pointed attack on people who try to cut him down or take advantage of his success, the general public has viewed the title and chorus as a party song, screaming “Bitch, don’t kill my vibe” when someone tries to pry a Four Loko out of their hands at 4 AM.
Beyond talking about their experiences and telling off people who are trying to take advantage of them, K-Dot and Kanye are both deeply connected with their cultural backgrounds. In each of their songs, references to black culture, music, and history are everywhere. Two of the most referenced people in their music and in modern black history as a whole, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, are a strong parallel for the way these two have been portrayed by the music industry and media in general.
In “HiiiPower” from Section.80, Kendrick opens up the first verse with the lines “Visions of Martin Luther starin’ at me / Malcolm X put a hex on my future, someone catch me,” which indicates that while he wants to be more like King, but that the ways of Malcolm are his destiny because of the violent situation that he was born into. In later releases, he refers to himself more and more as “King Kendrick Lamar,” which works doubly as a way to crown himself the king of rap and also to create parallels between himself and MLK.
In contrast, Kanye’s incendiary approach has garnered him constant exposure and critical success (an 18 year-and-counting career at the top of hip hop as well as 21 Grammy awards), but has left a bad taste in the mouth of the mainstream media. In his song “Gorgeous” from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he refers to himself as “Malcolm West” and later alludes to one his so-called greatest accolades (being called a “Black Beatle”) by saying, “What’s a black Beatle anyway, a fuckin’ roach? / I guess that’s why they got me sittin’ in fuckin coach.” Aside from just dubbing himself an ideological descendant of Malcolm X, the Black Beatle line further aligns Ye with Malcolm by refusing to allow himself be defined according to what white people consider to be successful. He rejects the compliment by comparing their praise to the reality of the situation that even as a “Black Beatle” he feels he is treated more like the more common type of black beetle, “a fuckin’ roach.”
These statements ring true when we see a 21 time Grammy award winner consistently derided and talked down on purely for speaking his truth, a truth that a lot of people can relate to, just not many of those in the media. With this in mind, his attack on the media in the track “Saint Pablo” from his recent album The Life of Pablo, rings out especially loud, “I guess it's hard to decipher all of the bills / Especially when you got family members on payroll / The media said it was outlandish spendin' / The media said he's way out of control / I just feel like I'm the only one not pretendin' / I'm not out of control, I'm just not in they control.”
Now that you understand the differences in the way each artist talks about their life, their truth, and the public’s reaction to it all, it is important to look at how that has affected the media’s coverage of similar actions taken by each artist.
Let’s look at the way that the media responded to both artists deciding not to attend the 2017 Grammy Awards. Kanye, as I’m sure you all know, has a history of boycotting the annual awards show. His reasoning is this: The Grammy’s favor white artists and white music over equally good or, in many cases better, black music and artists. When Kanye talks about these issues either on Twitter or on stage, it is often met with large amounts of mainstream media coverage with a healthy amount of backlash from many of them.
This year, he stated that Frank Ocean’s absence from the Grammy nominations was going to be an added reason for his absence from the award show entirely. In response to this, many pop-culture news outlets, such as The Sun and US Weekly, diminished the validity of these points by referring to them as “rants” and characterizing West as being “ever-defiant” to diminish the importance of his claims. Rather than bringing attention to the issues that he brings up, the media only wants to focus on trying to make Kanye seem like he’s flying off the handle.
In contrast, Kendrick Lamar’s absence from the Grammy’s went almost unnoticed. TDE’s co-president Terrence Henderson tweeted, “I just spoke to kdot. He’s really upset about Queen B not getting her album of the year trophy,” and that was all the news that there was. Eventually, sites picked up on this tweet and reported on it, but with titles like “This is Why Kendrick Lamar Wasn’t Feeling the Grammy’s This Year.”
Further, the articles, rather than trying to discredit Kendrick or meeting his concerns over injustice in the award process with ad-hominem attacks, stated that Kendrick was simply supporting his friend. In similar articles, Kendrick is even praised for realizing and bringing attention to perceived racism at the music industry’s largest awards program.
These two artists are both extremely motivated, love their families, and put out catchy and socially conscious projects that often speak heavily on injustices in America and around the world, primarily those occurring in black communities. And while both take different paths to that goal, both are necessary. For some, hearing the fire and brimstone of Kanye’s lyrical choices drives them to the more eloquently and generalized descriptions of Kendrick Lamar; for others, Kendrick is too diplomatic, and they love Kanye’s visceral and outright attacks of the media and society.
In the end, this debate goes way further than music. If a black man presents himself as “too black, too vocal,” or “too flagrant” (to quote Kanye & Kendrick’s song “No More Parties in LA”) he will oftentimes be characterized as a trouble maker or a “thug,” and seeing a multi-millionaire, 21-time Grammy winning, fashion designer receive this same treatment is a real eye opener to those who are unaware of the struggles that minorities face every day. Kanye and Kendrick may not receive equal treatment, but they make equal headway and have each put a fire under the people in America to talk about and deal with these issues.