Listening to Kendrick Lamar is like “putting on the illest 3-D glasses in hip-hop,” Steven Marsh writes in a new GQ profile of the 26-year-old musician. Marsh is right: Lamar’s songs really do describe the world in such a way that it’s like you’re standing by his side, watching the struggles he’s rapping about happen in real time.
That’s a compliment, but on Saturday, Lamar’s label boss released a statement blasting Marsh’s article, which accompanied GQ naming Lamar one of its “Men of the Year.” What “should have been celebrated as a milestone,” Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith of TDE Records wrote, had been ruined by the “offensive” story’s “racial overtones” and focus on “drama.” GQ editor Jim Nelson has responded with bafflement, saying the magazine “gave him our highest honor: putting him on the cover of our Men of the Year issue. I’m not sure how you can spin that into a bad thing, and I encourage anyone interested to read the story and see for themselves.”
You can understand Nelson’s confusion at the story’s reception. Marsh indeed wrote “an incredibly positive article,” filled with smart observations that help explain what makes Lamar such a powerful artist. On first read, I didn't quite understand the outrage either.
But that fact shows just how pervasive the problem here is. Even when praising rap, it's easy to reinforce old, destructive stereotypes about it. It's especially unfortunate in this case because Lamar’s whole act helps to remind his listeners that hip hop and the inner city aren’t just pop-culture motifs: They’re real places filled with real people who have real lives.
Check out this passage from Marsh’s article:
Much of Kendrick's music now is an attempt to transcend his ravaged world without separating himself from it in judgment, about somehow gaining control over his household's chaos—some of his uncles were Crips, and his father was reportedly a Gangster Disciple in Chicago before moving to Compton—and over his neighborhood's warped commitment to adolescent pride. It's an ethos that extends to his crew. They have a seriousness of purpose, a rigorous discipline that can feel slightly monastic at times. Kendrick doesn't smoke weed or drink booze. In the time I spent with him, I never witnessed anyone roll even the thinnest spider leg of a jay, nor did I see Kendrick so much as glance at the many, many girls around him.
It’s innocuous until you consider the underlying implications. The description of Lamar’s crew “slightly monastic,” “rigorous discipline” comes from them not getting high and Lamar not being a cad. In other words, being law-abiding and decent—which is only remarkable if we’re assuming the group of people in question to not normally be law-abiding and decent.
There are reasons that assumption exists. One is that, as the article and Lamar himself notes, rap often portrays itself as hedonistic and sex-driven. But that’s performance—an exaggeration in the name of self-expression, entertainment, and commerce. Why would it be extraordinary that a group of human beings, when you meet them, aren’t quite the way pop culture portrays them? Perhaps Kendrick’s crew is “calm” in comparison to other rap clans Marsh has hung out with, but if that’s the case, the reader doesn’t know it. Instead, we’re expected to operate off of stereotypes. The point the piece seems to make isn't that those stereotypes are wrong or even that they describe a complicated reality, but that these particular people are exceptions.
Again and again, the apparent desire to make Lamar and his friends fit into old tropes runs against Lamar's actions and words, but the tropes themselves are never questioned. The lede talks about how Marsh had wanted a “a guided, cue-the-G-funk-synth Star Maps tour” but Lamar canceled so as to mourn a “murdered friend he calls his ‘little bro’—a kid from a neighborhood where friendship is defined primarily by neighborhood.” A whole section details apparent tension between Lamar and Drake—the kind of tension that can be reduced to “rap beef,” but that Lamar downplays to Marsh. And there’s this:
The gossip from Diddy's Ciroc Amaretto Launch Party/VMA Afterparty sounded like it fell out of a massive tear in the mid-'90s West Coast-East Coast time wave. Bloggers breathlessly recounted a surreal scene at Dream: booths packed with hip-hop illuminati—Jay, Bey—mouths agape as a wasted Diddy, incensed by the "King of New York" boast, attempted to pour a drink (Ciroc Amaretto, presumably) over Kendrick's head, only to be thwarted by Jay Z acolyte J. Cole, who was kicked out in the ensuing chaos. Naturally Kendrick himself refused to corroborate any of this. "It was all love at that party," he told me on the private jet.
Lamar’s positivity comes off like image management; the frustrated “naturally” and "refused" implies that when Lamar says “it was all love,” he's probably lying. Given the choice between continuing to buy into a cliché about out-of-control rap rivalries and believing the truth-telling genius being profiled, the reader’s asked to favor the cliché. Of course, it's good for journalists to maintain skepticism about their subjects. But why bring up this party at all if Lamar has nothing of note to say about it? It's to evoke that "mid-'90s West Coast-East Coast time wave."
Elsewhere, Tiffith’s described as “basically TDE's Suge Knight.” To an extent, it makes sense to mention the Tupac/Biggie era; Lamar’s from Compton and references its musical history constantly. But the story equates Lamar’s Top Dawg Entertainment with Death Row Records by the mere fact that they’re both from with Southern California; again, generalities blot out specifics. In this case, the effects are particularly dangerous: As Tiffith said in his complaint, he and his associates are being linked with violence.
“Lamar is our embedded correspondent,” Marsh writes, which helps explain one way this well-intentioned, at times very perceptive piece ended up offending the people it was meant to flatter. They’re inside hip hop, but much of the magazine’s presumed audience—white people—don’t know much about the genre these days. Focusing on “drama,” making comparisons to recognizable touchstones: This how a lot of publications, The Atlantic included, have to write about rap. But problems arise when those touchstones and drama get unquestioning, preferential treatment over how things really are.
The article, to its credit, does recognize that Lamar’s act offers a “deconstruction” of rap clichés. That’s why it’s all the more frustrating to see it lean on those clichés. Yes, Lamar defies and subverts popular notions about hip hop. But more importantly, he insists on portraying people in all three dimensions—and asks, rightfully, that the rest of the world do the same.