Kendrick Lamar & Theater Rap Bring New Dimensions To Hip-Hop
From beginning to end, Kendrick Lamar‘s performance at the Grammys was distilled theater. Onstage, the set designs–a desolate, dimly-lit cell block and a roaring fire pit–looked as if they were ripped straight off of Broadway. But offstage, in the studio, Kendrick is just as theatrical. His music has spearheaded a rising trend in hip-hop: theater rap, where emcees embody a cast of characters in order to diversify the stories that they can tell.
Kendrick’s last album, 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, should include a cast of characters in its liner notes. “Who’s rapping now?” I would ask every time Kendrick put on new airs. The different caricatures that Kendrick embodied would be impossible to keep track of if the rapper didn’t exaggerate his vocalizations. There’s Lucy (short for Lucifer), whose Cee-Lo-esque screech hides his conniving nature. There’s Kendrick’s drunken, self-loathing rant on “u,” where he pauses mid-sob to take another swig of poison. It’s an album performed by so many Kendricks, who navigate a maze-like drama in order to realize their true selves. The effect is disorienting–this isn’t one emcee’s boastful defense, this is an artist’s howl as he splinters into twisted versions of himself. Rappers have often engaged with the concept album, a narrativized record that attempts to tell a story track by track. But with the introduction of multiple voices, it has never felt so natural.
Kendrick’s rise to fame is no accident. Other emcees near the top, like Nicki Minaj (with alter egos such as Roman Zolanski, Harajuku Barbie, and Female Weezy) and Kanye West (with alter egos such as Kanye West), similarly change character depending on what they want to say or whom their idealized audience is. The trend is largely beneficial to hip-hop, whose community once viewed authenticity as paramount, even when such values cast unheard queer and marginalized voices further into the abyss.
Compared to the heyday of ’90s gangsta rap, where criminal authenticity came at the cost of human lives, most fans have tabled concerns about celebrities acting like their performed selves. For example, “hard in the muthafuckin’ paint” emcee Waka Flocka just made a video about how to bake Vegan Blueberry Muffins–it’s absolutely wonderful, and absolutely not hard in the muthafuckin’ paint. Even rappers in the 2000s, with their supposedly innocuous “no homo” ad-libs dominating radio waves, silenced the voices of others in order to heighten their own. Nowadays, hip-hop’s theatrics have let voices into the fray that previously would have been dismissed as too odd. (Enter artists like Junglepussy, Cakes da Killa, Le1f, and Shamir.)
Emcees breaking up their onstage personas isn’t exactly new, but its widespread success is. Since the early 2000s, rapper Daniel Dumile performed under several Marvel-inspired titles, such as MF DOOM and Viktor Vaughn, in order to give his characters nuanced origin stories. To this day, Dumile rarely appears onstage without his signature metal mask. But MF DOOM is an indie darling, not a Billboard chart topper, and his multiple personalities were often separated neatly between albums. To see rappers with mainstream appeal perform under a single moniker while juggling so many voices and alter egos is a testament to the fervor of hip-hop’s devotees. Fans are ready to study their idols, to dive deep into texts as rich as curriculum classics.
It’s hard to tell if the theater rap’s cast will continue to grow, or if it’ll reveal itself to be another trend (see: autotune, trap music, DJ Mustard) in a culture as fast and unpredictable as hip-hop. But, undoubtedly, the overwhelming variety of voices that have been introduced to the mainstream is only good news. After all, hip-hop is accessible to anyone with a mic, a dream, and a combustible mixtape. Making it on Broadway? Break a leg.
Images courtesy VEVO, PigeonsandPlanes.
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