A survey of Kendrick Lamar's increasingly kick-ass music videos.
Unlike good kid m.A.A.d. city, To Pimp a Butterfly produced a set of visuals that matched the imagination, ambition, and purpose of Kendrick Lamar's music. It appeared impossible that Kendrick could conceivably one-up himself in the music video department again—until he released "HUMBLE." two weeks ago. DAMN.
Before we dive into DAMN. in a couple days, let's take a moment to appreciate the genius of the music videos Kendrick Lamar has released over the course of the past two years.
King Kunta (April 2015)
"King Kunta" was a song that bridged the gap between "single" Kendrick and "album" Kendrick. Its music video, which debuted in Times Square, takes Kendrick to the Compton swap meet, where he first laid eyes on Tupac as a young boy. Director's X filtered, square frame evokes a sort of Instagram aesthetic, but there is none of the shallow pretension that Instagram culture tends to cultivate. "King Kunta" is populist at heart, an engaging and affirming portrait of life in Compton.
Alright (June 2015)
In order to mirror the empowering message of "Alright," its black-and-white music video begins by establishing an urban black milieu, or what director Colin Tilley described as a "m.A.A.d. city concept"—an expansive series of shots of kids, parks, graffiti, churches, and raucous partying that ends with a black man's death at the hands of police.
What follows is the exact opposite: first, Black Hippy rides in a hooptie carried by white police officers. Then, Kendrick literally takes flight to the astonishment of the people below. Like the "King Kunta" video, the "Alright" video is Dickensian in its broad cast of characters. It is a cinematic triumph that itself testifies to the song's message, though it knows that a black hero who ascends too high is bound to get shot down.
For Free? (July 2015)
As if it's not enough that "For Free?" is a blend of spoken word and blazing post bop that only Kendrick or Andre 3000 would dare attempt, its music video is surreal, hilarious, and layered with meaning.
Kendrick receives a tongue-lashing from his ungrateful woman, and responds by chasing her willy-nilly through their mansion. His sense of self-worth is the catalyst that drives this absurd marital drama, as well as its racial, economic, and historical implications. "Oh America, you bad bitch," he concludes. "I picked cotton and made you rich."
These Walls (October 2015)
Alternately titled Behind the Walls: A Black Comedy, the Colin Tilley-directed, seven-minute "These Walls" video is the story of how a man named Mookie, played by comedian Corey Holcomb, wound up in jail. One night, "two bottles and three pussies deep," he arrived at a party populated by eager, scantily clad women, Kendrick Lamar, and Terry Crews. Kendrick and Crews win the party's talent show with a flawlessly executed (synchronized!) hitting of the Quan. Mookie realizes Kendrick has been consorting with the mother of his children, then gets hauled off to jail for drunkenly rear-ending a cop car.
God Is Gangsta (January 2016)
The two-part, seven-minute "God is Gangsta" begins with "U," the emotional nadir of To Pimp a Butterfly. Kendrick is holed up in a hotel room, but moreso holed up in the darkest corner of his psyche, stewing in self-loathing ("you fucking failure"), downing a bottle of liquor to help release his demons. Kendrick gives a distressingly vivid portrayal of a man unraveling at the seams. The mirror would suggest self-reflection, if what was happening in the mirror reflected what was happening in the room.
In the second half, Kendrick basks in the same crimson subterranean light as Mean Streets and Jay Rock's "The Ways" video as he struggles to resist the seductive powers of Lucy (Lucifer). Indeed, the lush production of "For Sale?" feels more like the garden of Eden than the depths of hell.
HUMBLE. (March 2017)
HNHH correspondent Patrick Lyons has already discussed the implications of the "HUMBLE." at length. The brilliant Dave Meyers-directed music video is at once a whirling dervish of random images (Kendrick the golfer; Kendrick the connoisseur of Grey Poupon) and a coherent piece of art with clear religious and racial themes. Kendrick drapes himself in papal robes and sits at the center of a "The Last Supper" reenactment. He raps amidst a bobbing sea of bald black men and admires the natural beauty of black women. "HUMBLE." is a remarkable testament to black solidarity, as Kendrick asserts the godliness of his raps, and by extension his race