Kendrick on Creativity. By @DaisyBard
By Daisy Bard
Kendrick on Creativity.
For those of you who’ve been living in a hole, Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, ‘DAMN’, dropped a week ago. This is one of the great masterpieces of hip hop, much like 2015’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ before it. I’ve had this album on repeat since it came out, so I thought to collate some learnings on ideas, creativity and copywriting from Kendrick, in my opinion one of the greatest living creatives.
So, 20 things to learn from King K:
- Grab them with a banging opening line. ‘I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA.’ What a claim. What a calling card. What an anthem.
- Challenge the way people think. The album begs for several listens, if not dozens or hundreds. Create something rich in meaning, whether in one snappy line or in a fifty five minute album.
- Listen to the greats. Kendrick learned from Tupac, the Compton rapper par excellence, and in listening absorbed something of his ambition and iconicism – as well as other greats such as Eminem and Jay Z. People who’ve taken the same path as you and excelled are always worth taking on board as an influence.
- Take responsibility. The album teaches us to be introspective about race, to come together and to help each other out – as he puts it in interview, ‘figure out our own problems and our own solutions’. It focuses on self-evaluation and taking the responsibility to stand up and make a change.
- Don’t talk down. In ‘Section 80’ Kendrick says, ‘I’m not on the outside looking in, not on inside looking out, I’m in the dead fucking centre looking around.’ This is where you should position yourself: with your audience. If you’re an outsider, you can’t truly speak to the heart of your listener.
- Love words. As Kendrick puts it in his interview with Zane Lowe, ‘I love words. I love how to bend ‘em, I love how to break ‘em, I love how to twist ‘em, turn ‘em, make them in couplets.’ If you’re a copywriter, words are your weapon and your shield. Don’t waste them – embrace them.
- Deal in human emotions. The album wades into various internal struggles (the battle between ego and humility, between love and lust), and manages to nail the fragile balance many of us tread daily. The more genuinely and effectively you negotiate this, the more you’ll get through to your listener, watcher or reader.
- Be able to trust those around you. As Kenny puts it, ‘I’d rather you trust me than to love me.’ Being reliable and trustworthy is more important than being loved and popular when it comes to getting work done in a pair. You’ve got to be a great partner to have a great partner, at work, in life and in love.
- Craft. Kendrick’s exceptional manipulation of language and verbal acrobatics is the result of hard graft and deep craft. Keep working and perfecting. He’s been doing this since he was a teenager.
- Be a chameleon. Kendrick has changed his sound and format even in the last two years. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ is a sprawling, conceptual, academic matrix. ‘DAMN’ is more concise and feels more like the hip hop coming out at the moment. Like the Beatles, he can adapt to a new sound. We have to do the same depending on whom we’re working for.
- Bring in different genres. Kendrick’s renowned for his jazz influence, which has marked his music out as different and experimental in the last few years. Using different spices will make the end product distinct. Collect culture all the time.
- Look at the big picture. Kendrick’s music has never shied away from themes like police brutality and the struggles of the African American community. But he doesn’t blindly follow one side – his own interpretation allows for plenty of nuance and is often as messy as the situation itself. Always keep a sense of perspective and curiosity in your work.
- Face critics head on. Kendrick begins ‘DAMN’ with a quote from Geraldo Rivera that ‘hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism.’ He isn’t afraid to join the discourse and present his album as a complex response as well as a piece of cultural commentary.
- Know your history. ‘King Kunta’ takes inspiration from the story of Kunta Kinte from ‘Roots: The Saga of an American Family’, who in turn was based on a real relative of the author. And the song makes him a modern hero using a language of racial pride. This is one of hundreds of references on ‘To Pimp a Butterfly.’ Rewrite old stories, take them to new levels and keep them relevant.
- Create a legend. A ton of fan theories were rife from the day ‘DAMN’ dropped, including ideas around Easter, the resurrection and a surprise second album on the way. If you’ve hooked people with your art, imbue it with a sense of mystery and people will try to fill the holes. Also, as an obvious sub-message from this one – leave them wanting more.
- Have something sacred. Kendrick doesn’t talk about his private life. Know what your limits are in how you treat work and life.
- Be in it for the long haul. If you love what you do profoundly, you’re not in it for one great piece of work. You should be proud of everything you do, and be able to look back 30 years into your career and feel you changed the culture.
- Trust yourself. ‘If I don’t feel it then the listener sure as hell ain’t gon feel it,’ says Kenny. Use your intuition and ask – do I believe what I’m saying?
- Be humble. Self-awareness will always serve you well, and this Kendrick has in spades. In ‘To Pimp a Butterfly,’ it’s only when Kendrick returns home to Compton that he realises he doesn’t know anything and his stardom hasn’t taught him anything.
- But still be the best. In ‘Control’ Kendrick lit up the scene on fire at a time when hip hop was being criticised as less competitive. He called out his own contemporaries, including friends and collaborators. As he puts it in his verse, ‘What is competition? I’m tryna raise the bar high / Who tryna jump and get it? You better off tryna skydive.’ Claim the throne.