With his current status as the world’s greatest living rapper, Compton native Kendrick Lamar continues to defy what was once socially expected of a hip-hop artist. At 30 years old, Lamar has developed a habit of shattering musical records: Two of his four studio albums—2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly—are certified platinum, while his newest album Damn. was the first and only album to receive a double platinum certification in 2017.
Most significantly, perhaps, is his recent triumph as the first non-classical or jazz musician to win a Pulitzer Prize in music (for his work on Damn.) since the prestigious award was introduced in 1943. Lamar’s Pulitzer marks the beginning of a new era for hip-hop, one where it’s rightfully considered high art.
Damn., like Lamar’s previous albums, centers on themes of self-discovery, stark internal and external conflicts, and blunt honesty about the perilous realities of life in the hood. Although his origin story and rise to fame might seem like a modern-day American Dream epic, applying this narrative is an insult and erasure of what it means for some to be Black in America today.
On the masterful track “XXX,” Lamar sets the record straight in three parts: First, he illustrates a setting where survival must be brutal, and draws parallels between famished sharks and gangs in Compton. Then K. Dot, a teenaged Lamar, forgoes his faith when the need to avenge his friend’s death overpowers it. Finally, Lamar turns his lens to the criminalization of communities of color and the ultimate hypocrisy of America: “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.”