Music video commentaries (10): Kendrick Lamar

Here I discuss the five videos Kendrick Lamar released for songs from his album DAMN.

Kendrick Lamar, Humble (Dave Meyers and the Little Homies, 2017)

This song/video was the first track to be released from Kenrick Lamar’s prize-winning 2017 album DAMN. It’s a banger, with a hard-hitting percussion and piano motif repeatedly looped. The lyrics involve a lot of complicated wordplay (as is always the case with Lamar), but they basically revolve around a paradox. In the verses, Lamar is boasting of his prowess as a rapper, his superiority to all the competition — which is a traditional hip hop trope. But at the same time, at points in these verses, and even more in the repeated chorus, Lamar is warning himself, as well as others, to be humble: which probably means both before God, and in terms of the rapper’s responsibility to the community and to social justice.(There is even a mention of Obama, who had just left the Presidency when the song was released).

The video is directed by Dave Meeyrs (whose work with major artists from Missy Elliott to Britney Spears to Harry Styles we have seen earlier in the semester) in collaboration with the Little Homies (which consists of Lamar himself and his associate Dave Free, who has also directed an impressive number of superb hip hop videos on his own). The video consists in a number of carefully lit tableaus featuring Lamar and others, which vary in an editing rhythm that makes counterpoint to the rhythms of the song. Some of these tableaus are specifically keyed to particular lines in the lyrics (for instance, when Lamar mentions Gray Poupon mustard, we see him handing a jar of the mustard to somebody in another car, which echoes old TV advertisements for the brand). Other tableaus reflect the lyrics more generally. The video begins in a large, mostly empty space with high ceilings (resembling a church); it is mostly dark, but a shaft of sunlight points directly to Lamar, who stands wearing white priestly garments, with his head bowed. Shots of him rapping in this setting are montaged with ones of him lying on a floor scattered with Franklins ($100 bills) while scantily-clad women around him are running the bills through money-counting machines. This sets up the duality that runs through the song and video: religious reverence and service versus a parodic version of the opulence that is almost stereotypical for hip hop videos. Other tableaus follow, including a reenactment of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper, with Lamar in the place of Jesus; his apostles are all partying and ignoring him. We also see Lamar sitting under the dryer in an African American hair salon (all the other customers are women); Lamar riding a bicycle in a wound-up shot (apparently done with GoPro cameras on a drone, plus software to stitch 360-degree views together into a distorted spherical view — a technique previously pioneered in this video); Lamar golfing off the roof of a car, in the Los Angeles River; and Lamar dressed in black, in the middle of a crowd of similarly dressed black men with bald scalps and their heads bowed. Then there are shots of Lamar dressed in white, with his head on fire, in front of other black men dressed in black with ropes on fire wrapped around their heads. One of the most praised (and also criticized) sequences shows the screen divided in half, with Lamar on one side, and a black woman on the other; as Lamar objects to false female beauty standards created with Photoshop, Lamar and the women both cross to opposite sides of the image; she metamorphoses from processed to natural hair, and from an airbrushed image of shaking her ass to one where she displays, as Lamar requests, “somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.”`I won’t catalog all the imagery in the video; suffice it to say that all these tableaus provide an expansion, and a counterpoint, to the dichotomies that we find in the lyrics. Humble is a superb example of a video that illustrates the lyrics of the song, but in an imaginative rather than reductively literalistic way.

Kendrick Lamar, DNA (Nabil Elderkin and the Little Homies, 2017)

This is another song from DAMN, with high-speed rapping by Kendrick Lamar. The wide-ranging lyrics speak about everything from black accomplishments (wealth, honors, and references to “scholars” and to the Williams sisters’ successes at Wimbledon) to problems like the prevalence of “sex, money, murder” in the ghetto. Lamar cites all these as parts of “our DNA.” There’s also, in the middle of the song, a sample of Fox news personality Geraldo Rivera denouncing hip hop.

Nabil Elderkin is an experienced video director; earlier in the semester we saw his video for FKA twigs, Two Weeks. In the first half of the video, Kendrick Lamar is a prisoner, padlocked to a table. A police inspector (played by the actor Don Cheadle) comes in to interrogate him. There is some kind of weird energy exchange; Cheadle and Lamar lip-sync the first half of the song in tandem, trading lines and glaring at each other. Finally Cheadle releases Lamar; then Cheadle falls down dead. Lamar leaves, and next we see him on the sidewalk with his posse, playing dice as he starts to rap the second verse. Lamar and his friends stand up and walk towards the camera; for much of the remaining time of the video, this turns into a black-and-white closeup of Lamar as he frantically raps. This footage is intercut with brief shots (in color, like the rest of the video) of different scenes of African American life, including gambling, eating dinner, a corpse in a coffin, and (most frequently) a bunch of young black women driving around at top speed and screaming. At the end of the video, when Lamar’s fast rapping has ended and all that’s left is the closing chorus, a member of Lamar’s posse, fellow rapper Schoolboy Q, walks toward the camera and gives it a punch. The video is visually compelling with its stark images, but also hard to put together as a whole; this matches the chaos and ambivalence of the song, which often moves from pride to self-reproach, and back, in the course of a single line.

Kendrick Lamar, Element (Jonas Lindstroem and the Little Homies, 2017)

The song, also from DAMN, mostly references Lamar’s pride and skill in his craft, even when the content is unpleasant and ugly (e.g., “if I gotta slapa pussy-ass n****, I’ma make it look sexy). Lamar also states, “I’m willin’ to die for this shit / I done cried for this shit.” The music, produced by James Blake, is less harshly rhythmic, and more flowing, than the previous videos.

The video begins with a shot of water, and then a hand and arm emerge out of the water. We hear the rapper Kid Cudi, sounding like a preacher, introducing Kendrick Lamar; then we hear him shout, “I don’t give a fuck.” After this, we get a flow of almost still images. In many shots, people are standing almost still, and in others, violence unfolds in slow motion. We see a man who has been bloodied; we see a crowd, backs to the camera, motionlessly watching a house burn. We see Lamar rapping, camera framing him from below, the blue sky behind him; but there are blood stains on his white t-shirt. We see a young boy, in profile, bare-chested, standing as snow falls. There’s a shot, early in the video, of three young African American children, evidently poor, standing behind a barbed-wire fence; the child in the middle is holding a gun. When the image returns later in the video, the boy is aiming the gun at a car passing by, and pretending to shoot it. According to this article, many shots are recreations of famous still photos by the great African American photojournalist Gordon Parks. All in all, the video mixes horror and beauty; it asks us to pay attention to what we see, and to grasp its multiple dimensions.

Kendrick Lamar, Loyalty (Dave Meyers and the Little Homies, 2017)

Yet another song from DAMN, this one a collaboration with Rihanna. The music is built around a sample from a Bruno Mars song; so it is more lyrical, and less banging, than many of Lamar’s other songs/videos. The song, true to its title, is all about the concept of loyalty: “Tell me who you loyal to. Is it money? Is it fame? Is it weed? Is it drink?” Dave Meyers’ visuals mostly reference gangster movies (and perhaps horror as well; the video begins with a dog barking, its eyes lit up malevolently). Then we see shots of a city at night; then some sort of club, with Lamar in a big chair, blindfolded, while women dance around him. Rihanna both caresses him, and holds a knife just over his head. There are also surreal shots of tarmac suddenly liquefying, and people (presumably members of Lamar’s crew) sinking downward; there are even shark fins gliding through the suddenly liquefied ground. We see Lamar in a fist fight with a taller and more heavily muscled man, while Rihanna looks on. We see the top of a skyscraper; Lamar stands there, holding on to Rihanna who is dangling over the edge; he tells her to “trust me” (and she does). We see Lamar as a gangster, interrogating a prisoner (also played by Lamar), and then turning him over to Rihanna, who suffocates him with a plastic bag. We see Lamar and Rihanna on a joyride; the car suddenly crashes with a sickening thud. Only then they look at one another and both start laughing: are they glad they survived? or is this a meta-moment, the two of them out of character and simply responding to the movie stunt they have just pulled? There are also several shots, placed throughout, of Lamar and Rihanna locked together in an embrace, and sinking into the liquefied tarmac; the video ends with a shot of them almost totally submerged.

Kendrick Lamar, Love (Dave Meyers and the Little Homies, 2017)

This one is a love song, supposedly addressed to Lamar’s partner, Whitney Alford. Lamar is joined by the singer Zacari, who wrote the original version of the song. The video starts with shots of the seashore; a typically romantic location, but we only see Zacari and Lamar each standing their alone, in separate shots. Then we see vignettes of Lamar and his (fictional, played by Andrea Ellsworth) love interest at the dinner table – they embrace and make out, later they sit separately and glare at one another, then they fight and she smashes a plate in anger; then we see Lamar alone at the table, drinking. His profile dissolves into wavy lines (one of the video’s nice, low-key visual effects). Then we get continuing shots (we had seen them quickly interspersed with the previous sequence) of women dressed in black, barely visible against the darkness of the frame, either posing or dancing in slow motion. This gives way in turn to a number of surreal shots of nude women, covered in glitter, their bodies either mirroring one another or fused together in weird, impossible configurations, parts of their flesh lit against a blank bluish background (I admit it, this is my favorite part of the video). There are more suggestive shots (not surreal, but like earlier in the video) of women posing while Lamar continues to sing/rap. Then we get Lamar in the passenger seat of a car, continuing to rap wearing a silver hoodie and looking towards the camera, while Zacari, similarly clad, drives. This is mixed with shots of Lamar wearing this hoodie rapping in front of a building, while the rapper Travis Scott sits on some steps behind and to the left. Then, continued shots of the women dancing slowly in the dark, sometimes in the same shot with Lamar, and again with those wavy lines around their profiles. But these shots are interspersed with ones of Lamar’s (fictional) girlfriend working on his braids, and then embracing him; and a bit later, he comes up the steps of a house, she opens the door for him, he enters and they look at one another, both suspiciously and longingly. Perhaps this could be regarded as a reconciliation after the quarrel earlier. But the video, like so many music videos, resists any simple linearity. This seeming progression is intercut with shots that belonged with other sections of the video: Lamar on the seashore, Lamar with the models dancing in slow motion behind him, against a black background, Lamar in the car with Zacari. In this way, the video suggests simultaneity — rather than a linear narrative with beginning, middle, and end. This is also a good example of what makes music videos so difficult to talk and write about: I have described many of the sorts of shots that recur throughout, but I cannot find a good way to describe the rhythm of the shots, how they are held and varied and made to give way to one another. It is this rhythm which really makes the video come alive, so that it changes the feel of the song from what it would be without any visuals.