Kendrick, Cole, and Home as Hip-Hop’s Muse
I’m a music snob. Won’t even pretend like I’m not.
I check the Billboard charts semi-regularly — as opposed to my adolescence, when I religiously checked the charts every Thursday. I’m also one of those folks who Googles albums I’ve been anticipating after they drop just so I can read the critics’ reviews.
The checking for reviews thing though? It’s a quirk I’ve developed that I can’t seem to stop. And I really need to stop, because I rarely (read: never) agree with the “critics.” For one, the albums I mostly check for are works of black artists and these critics are rarely (read: never) black, so I’m pretty sure their concept of the black aesthetic is completely wrong. And two, those reviews can be pretty condescending. I was so excited for Sean’s project and even though I’d admittedly biased, I just knew he’d finally get the respect he deserved following Dark Sky Paradise. The critics were nice, but so unnecessarily brutal. One even had the nerve to suggest Sean stick to sillier material because he supposedly lacks the voice and the gravitas for the deeper cuts he’s been seeking to make. Who the hell are you? You make such a deep song, since you seem to consider yourself a connoisseur of heartfelt rap. Asshole.
Anyways, like the masochist I am, I sought out reviews for Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly the day it released. I forget what I was doing that Monday, but my day was fairly empty, so giving TPAB an initial listen straight-through was pretty easy. I caught its major themes pretty quickly, so it shocked me when everybody — literally, everybody — ran away from reviewing it. It’s too early to review because there’s so much going on, seemed to be the consensus, but it is really amazing sonically. I personally was perplexed that everyone was so perplexed. I texted my best friend, a fellow music snob, to see if she picked up where Kendrick was going, and she agreed the project was really easy to comprehend. Why were the folks who get paid to critique it so afraid to try?
From what I can tell, TPAB follows a pretty clear narrative: Kendrick, now famous, is struggling with what that fame really means. He wants to remain true to his roots, but can’t handle what being ‘home’ represents. He tries to take his friends with him, but they truly aren’t equipped to handle what Kendrick’s success means. You can take the boy out the hood, but you can’t take the hood out the homie. Finding no peace at home, he breaks free, hoping to find it elsewhere, but he quickly finds the evils and temptations are much stronger without that foundation reminding him who he is and where he’s from. He finally realizes the happiness he so desperately wants will be hard to attain anywhere due to his celebrity, but the closest he can get to that happiness is at home. And so he returns with a new resolve, determined to make this situation work having recognized the flaw in his thinking.
I kept listening to the album front-to-back, just to make sure there wasn’t some hidden deeper meaning I’d missed. After about the seventh listen — and belatedly listening to an interview Jermaine Cole did with the Combat Jack Show in late January — I came to this really weird (and overly psychoanalytical) observation:
Cole made a pretty similar album.
2014 Forest Hills Drive starts from a different vantage point — Cole in his teenage years — but the idea is the same. Cole doesn’t see any opportunity in Fayetteville. Any place but home at this point would be ideal. One of his best friends is getting by selling drugs. He sees his friends playing stick-up kids and figures the only way to survive is to get in on the action. He leaves Fayetteville for New York and then Hollywood — the two “lands of opportunity” in the United States — determined to make it as a rapper, but finds himself unhappy and longing for home. By the end of the album, he’s singing, “Love yours. No such thing as a life that’s better than yours.” Cole got caught up in the glitz, the perception of what any place other than home could offer, only to realize his heart remained in Fayetteville.
See the similarities?
It’s not wholly surprising Cole and Kendrick accidentally crafted projects with the same concept. They’re admittedly close, so that closeness makes it very plausible they just think alike. But this sort of introspection might just be the new trend in rap — and not just introspection, but the realization of just how important home is and will always be. On Dark Sky Paradise, Sean’s dad opens and closes the album with the same question: Sean, it’s good to be home, isn’t it?
Seems there’s no place like it.