KENDRICK LAMAR – Kendrick Lamar, let’s paint the White House black
by Roger Roca
There’s something going on with black American music. Or so it seems. There are many signs. After fourteen years of silence, soul’s fallen angel, D’Angelo, published a third album that we thought would never see the light of day, Black Messiah, at the end of last year. And it’s amazing. Syncopated politics and messages rock around the best black music rhythms. Almost at the same time, L.A. rapper Kendrick Lamar finishes his third record, To Pimp a Butterfly, another outstanding album. There are so many ideas in those eighty minutes that well administered they could last for an entire career. On another reality, undetectable for the music industry but not for music critics, techno producer Theo Parrish, who during two decades has shaped a singular dance music work based on maxi-singles and remixes, has something important to say in long play format and publishes, in 2015, triple vinyl American Intelligence. Perfectly synchronized form and content for a dance music that cannot always be danced to and that as a whole works as a manifesto on identity. And there are several cases more: young sax player Kamasi Washington, appearing on the last albums by Lamar and Flying Lotus, has recently published another triple record, The Epic, in which everything seems out of proportion; it’s full of excesses: two drummers, two bassists, three hours of music.
To put these and other recent albums in perspective, an idea comes to mind, repeated like a mantra: “black music masterpiece”. Opinion leaders say so, some of the artists themselves agree to it, and even the music industry, which seemed to had gone back to the time of the single and of one song only hits, repeats it too: “this is black music’s greatest album in recent years”. Kanye West announces it with every new record; an eccentric soul man that The Roots introduced, Cody ChesnuTT, said so about his double The Headphone Masterpiece album thirteen tears ago (a fascinating debut because it was as precarious as it was ambitious); trumpet player Wynton Marsalis kind of affirmed it too with his jazz oratory on slavery, Blood on the Fields, in 1995, with which he even won a Pulitzer prize.
It’s this one. This is “the album”, we’re told and we tell ourselves. The heir to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, to Prince’s Sign O’ The Times, to Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, to The Fugees’ The Score… The canon isn’t fixed, but everybody agrees on the fact that there is a canon. There exists a common idea that African American music should affirm itself through a superlative and total masterpiece, in the shape of an album, conceived as a whole, with the calling of totally explaining black identity, its experiences and time and place in the world.
But this idea has many dark areas. What is it that makes it “black”? What grants it its black nature? Is it the genetics of its authors and the musical language they use? What type of identity is it portraying? And what kind of experiences? Ghetto lives? The lives of those that climb up the social ladder and change their status? Does this music reach the environment it is inspired by? Is D’Angelo’s message well received among “his people”, whoever they are? Is Kendrick Lamar a relevant artist for black music because he’s important in the neighbourhood he talks about or because his discourse has an impact on other circles? Who legitimates blackness? And is its relevance subject to its social and artistic impact? Are the critics, mainly white, the ones granting it its legitimacy?
“White music masterpiece”. This category has never existed and no one would ever think of using it. Up to the end of the forties, when record producer Jerry Wexler coined the expression “rhythm and blues” for Billboard magazine, in the US there were “race music” records and radio stations. Race music. Race, meaning black, of course. And the notion of “great black music album” reveals the same power structure. White categories used for black music. But courtesy shouldn’t detract from the danceable: what amazing albums by D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, Theo Parrish and Kamasi Washington!
Black music masterpiece canon?