Kendrick Lamar's Forever War

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Last week Alyssa made a point I've been thinking a lot about, in relation to some of the art that really has affected me over the past few months:

If there's one thing that marks our current era of popular culture, it's an obsession with cool of the kind exemplified by Quentin Tarantino's movies, or with transgressive badassery, of the sort that's characterized so many anti-hero dramas. And the way most people achieve that cool or badassness? The deployment of violence.
For me this goes back to Wolverine (who I loved as a kid) and mohawked Storm knocking Scrambler's teeth out during the Mutant Massacre, or Colossus snapping Riptide's neck. For those of who came up in the relentless violence of the Crack Age, there was the sense that all the nonviolent pieties of Martin Luther King, Jr. were totally irrelevant. (Bizzy Bone had it about right "Beg your pardon to Martin / But we ain't marching we shooting.") The point was that we lived in a time of great violence and what was needed was more violence wielded by a noble hand. What I didn't realize then was this idea--a Champion of Noble Violence--is probably as old as humanity. 

Hip-hop, if not always premised on nobility, is certainly premised on transgressive violence. I loved the music, but (with some exceptions) that basic premise is why the music always felt a little off to me. I mean this about even my own favorites. I eventually wrote this need to always be badass Superman as simply what the music was, as something that could never really be any other way. As I got older the Champion pose became harder for me to take--not just in my music, but in movies, in comic books, and maybe (not sure) even in video games. Consequently, I moved away from a lot of things I loved as a kid.

A few weeks back, I went on at some length about Joe Haldeman's Forever War, and I think it was largely because I was happy to read a fantastic adventure story where the protagonist survives not because of great brawn, superpower, or even superior intellect. Mandella is smart, but far and away his greatest attribute is his sheer, dumb-ass luck. In that way, There was something refreshing about a hero greatest power amounts to not getting shot in the head. As virtually all of Mandella's comrades are killed off he seems to saying "I am glad it was not me." But behind that is something else--"that very easily could have been me."

That same kind of everyman vibe runs through Kendrick Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. "The Art of Peer Pressure" has a series of great lines ("I hope the universe love you today.") but my favorite is one of the simplest, "Look at me," raps Lamar before pausing and continuing. "I got the blunt in my mouth."  

It's such a simple line but there's something about his phrasing that abandons the superhero pose, that takes off the mask and reveals that dumb, ordinary black boy that so many of us have been. Good Kid is the first album I've heard that drops the Batman pose, and yet remains trapped in Gotham.  Much like how Mandella is not some ace star-fighter pilot, Lamar is not Compton's Most Wanted, he is "Compton's Human Sacrifice." And he carries that vulnerability throughout the album. The fact is that most black boy's in Lamar's world are more human sacrifices than badasses.  And even if some are truly the latter, all contain a portion of the former. 

Perhaps this aesthetic is a bit conservative, but this is the art I love. I understand that there are drug-lords who double as soccer moms. I get that there are serial killers who kill serial killers, and worlds premised on big men with big swords and other worlds where being good at your job but horrible to your wife makes you noble. But then there are the normal people. And they have stories too.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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