Kendrick Lamar Is the Langston Hughes of Our Generation
Maybe we believe in reincarnation.
Earlier this month, Kendrick Lamar released untitled unmastered, a 34-minute EP comprising cutting-room-floor tracks that didn’t quite make it onto To Pimp a Butterfly. Featuring jazz, experimental vocals, and live jam sessions, Lamar’s latest tracks not only give us another sampling of his avant-garde hip-hop, but also solidify his role as an influential innovator on par with artistic visionaries like Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes, first recognized as a prominent literary figure in the late 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance, was the first poet to incorporate the blues into poetry. Hughes’s literary adaptation of the blues—most famously in his 1925 poem “The Weary Blues”—marked the beginning of a long tradition of black literature heavily influenced by African American music. At his readings, Hughes was sometimes accompanied by jazz bands, further breaking down the boundaries between poetry and music.
Fittingly, we were introduced to Lamar’s untitled unmastered through live performances on The Colbert Report and The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. Listening to untitled unmastered is akin to lurking behind-the-scenes during one of Lamar’s recording sessions. The seemingly unedited tracks have an improvised quality consistent with live jazz performances.
Lamar’s album recalls a question that was at the heart of Hughes’s Harlem Renaissance poetry: What is the relationship between art and politics?
Throughout the EP, Lamar oscillates between singing a song and candidly interacting with the artists and observers around him. On “untitled 07 l 2014-2016,” Lamar jokes, “This is a 15-minute song. We just jamming out, we onstage.”
Though To Pimp a Butterfly gave us a glimpse into Lamar's spirit of improvisation, we’re able to see even more of Lamar’s commentary on the EP by virtue of its not being “an album.”
In fact, To Pimp a Butterfly is a lot to unpack even one year after its release—it’s intelligent, soulful, political, and, like Hughes’s Harlem Renaissance poetry, it’s in touch with tradition yet refreshingly modern. In line with the notion of revival that was such an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, Lamar draws inspiration from his musical predecessors on To Pimp a Butterfly, heavily sampling tracks from the mid-'70s, effectively participating in the quintessential Renaissance act of making something new by reviving something old. And yet, nothing about To Pimp a Butterfly feels stale. Lamar’s nod to the past results in forward-thinking, avant-garde hip-hop.
Lamar’s album recalls a question that was at the heart of Hughes’s Harlem Renaissance poetry: What is the relationship between art and politics? Most explicitly, the track “Hood Politics” draws a parallel “from Compton to Congress,” comparing politicians to gang members—“Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-icans.”
Lamar later invokes the ghosts of social and political activists Nelson Mandela, Huey Newton, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Mortal Man,” asking the listener, “How many leaders you said you needed then left them for dead?”
Lamar picks up where Hughes left off, speaking directly to the modern day black experience in America and facilitating a dialogue on race through his socially and politically engaged albums.
This notion of looking to the past in order to progress forward is prevalent on the album, and the importance of not misusing your influence turns the motif on its head, allowing Lamar to be critical of himself as an influential figure. Throughout To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar repeats the lines he ultimately recites in a poem (that he says “ain’t really a poem”) in “Mortal Man:”
“I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression”
This image of influence (and not misusing it) was integral to the success of Hughes’s experimental poetry. While many of Hughes’s Harlem Renaissance contemporaries were focused on adapting European literary forms such as the sonnet, Hughes gained his inspiration from African American music, and in doing so, he shone a spotlight on the black urban poor and working class, bringing issues of race to national prominence through his innovative and honest poetry. As a result, Hughes became one of the most straightforward spokespersons for the black community.
With untitled unmastered and To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar picks up where Hughes left off, speaking directly to the modern day black experience in America and facilitating a dialogue on race through his socially and politically engaged albums.
All that’s left to say is, Kendrick, bring on the Compton Renaissance.