Photo by Money Mick for Okayplayer.
How Kendrick Lamar Used Narration to Become Rap’s Best Storyteller
Since his breakthrough in 2011, Kendrick Lamar has toyed with the use of a different cinematic narrator within all of his bodies of work. Here is a breakdown of how he has maneuvered and grown this tool with each of his releases.
This article has been handpicked to be included in our Hip Hop 50 collection as a noteworthy inclusion to the genre's rich and diverse narrative.
In a 2011 interview,Kendrick Lamar was asked about the lack of skits on his O(verly) D(edicated) mixtape. He responded, “I like the traditional skits, but at the end of the day I wanna try something new, try something different.” Throughout the rest of his catalog, from his next project Section.80 to his most recent album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, Lamar has expanded his exploration of interlude sequencing. There are clear homages to the history of hip-hop skits, yet there is also a reason why he labeled his official major label debut release good kid m.A.A.d city as a “short film.” Lamar, since 2011, has toyed with the use of a cinematic narrator within all of his bodies of work. The fusion of his film voiceover style of narration with his take on rap skits has elevated his projects to be some of the most consistently poignant.
There are countless examples of how this tactic is used in film styles from drama to comedy to documentary. Lamar seems to pull from a variety and, when fusing them with his sonic influence, has boosted the advancement of the narrative device. It is also a key reason why Lamar’s music has such a wide reach. The layers of his psyche and perspective explored through narration provide more opportunities for listeners to latch onto an assortment of internal and external storylines. We decided to track how he has maneuvered and grown this idea for each of his projects and take a stab at where he could’ve drawn his influence from for each progression.
Album cover of 'Section.80' by Kendrick Lamar. TDE.
Over sounds of building flames popping off wood in a pit, the opening of Kendrick Lamar’s seminal mixtape is a pitched-down version of his voice proclaiming, “Gather round, I'm glad everybody came out tonight. As we stand on our neighborhood corner. Know that this fire that's burning represents the passion you have.” The fire and the deep voice remind me of one of the most grabbing opening sequences in film history, Apocalypse Now. The opening moving image of a burning forest in Vietnam bleeds into a scene where Colonel Walter E. Kurtz is lying on a bed surrounded by items reminiscent of the Section.80 cover (smoke and weapons). A voiceover of himself in a baritone tone plays revealing his inner thoughts reminiscing on his PTSD.
Kendrick Lamar - A.D.H.D (Official Video)www.youtube.com
Throughout Section.80, Lamar ruminates on a generation who acquired “A.D.H.D” via trauma induced by the “Ronald Reagan Era.” The narrator, always accompanied by the sound of fire, acts like a professorial version of his subconscious reminding him to dive deeper into the root of the issue at hand as he dissects his generation’s pain. The pitched-down voice also seems to draw from Houston screw music. The reminder to “keep it real” parallels the intro to the UGK Ridin Dirty album voiced by “Smiznoke Motherfuckin’ D.” Over synths and penitentiary murmurings he proclaims, “I get treated like the motherfuckin' pope up in here… Due…to the motherfuckin' fact that I'm real…As you can hear, I don't ever get no peace.”
good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012)
Album cover of 'good kid, m.A.A.d city' by Kendrick Lamar.TDE/Interscope.
The major label debut by Lamar flipped the quintessential West Coast rap album skit function on its head. On the classic West Coast rap albums, the raps and skits seem narratively interchangeable. They both provide scene displays, storytelling, and imagery that push the plot as a blended collage. Take Snoop Dogg’s opening skit and then lyrics on his classic anthem “Gin and Juice”; an opening mini-skit by Daz Dillinger making fun of someone for bad breath turns into a descriptive scene set by Snoop about him and his homeboys having parties at his unoccupied mama’s house.
The Art of Peer Pressurewww.youtube.com
This youthful belligerence is displayed in the sequencing of “The Art of Peer Pressure” on good kid, m.A.A.d city, yet here the raps function entirely as the narration itself and the skits become the scenes of the film. We hear Kendrick rapping on “The Art of Peer Pressure” from his first-person subtextual viewpoint about his undercurrent of pressure and anxiety. As the song fades out and the skit fades in, displaying a conversation with his homies about what the move is for the evening, the prior rapped narration adds tension underneath the youthful jeering. This tactic is further displayed in songs like “Sherane a.k.a. Master Splinter’s Daughter” where he stresses hidden worries about young lust and in “Sing About Me/Dying of Thirst” where he contemplates sudden yet patterned grief. Lamar may draw inspiration for his lyrical narration from cinematic stylings reaching as far back as 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. The LA story chronicles the narration of a writer grappling with the events that led to his death, much like Kendrick raps about his experiences that led to the death of a friend. The writer Joe Gills and writer Kendrick Lamar both split time between narrative storytelling and psychological strain to each make their pictures breathe.
To Pimp A Butterfly (2015)
Album cover for 'To Pimp a Butterfly' by Kendrick Lamar.TDE/Interscope.
As Kendrick sonically took a hard left turn into jazz rap with To Pimp a Butterfly, he also sharply cut away from his prior movie narration influences into what most parallels the style of poetic documentaries. There is also influence from albums that merge hip-hop, vocal jazz, and spoken word poetry from artists such as Gil Scott-Heron, yet Lamar took those deliveries and collided them with a niche documentary style (Masterclass describes the genre as, “a more experimental approach, weaving together images and music to create a specific emotional experience”).
Poetic documentaries also often feature winding poetic narration that outlines the imagery’s emotion. Lamar famously merges together his montage of society dissecting songs on To Pimp a Butterfly with a building spoken word piece exploring his journey to higher consciousness. By the end of the album, the poem is completed much like at the end of many poetic documentaries. Chris Marker’s 1983 documentary Sans Soleil has a poetic reading of lyrical written letters as its narration. Lamar’s poem feels like a simultaneous letter to himself and the world of his lessons learned.
Album cover for 'DAMN.' by Kendrick Lamar.TDE/Interscope.
Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-winning album narration pulls straight from the source. He enlisted OG mixtape DJ Kid Capri to loudly announce his song transitions and blurt out sharp overarching philosophies. In the classic sense, mixtape DJs exist in the tradition of hyping up the listener and gassing up the rapper (which can also be rooted in dancehall and Jamaican dub DJs). On DAMN., Lamar elevates his homage to hip-hop’s tactical history once again by intertwining his journey to mindfulness.
Kendrick Lamar - ELEMENT.www.youtube.com
One of the repeated phrases Capri proclaims is “what happens on Earth stays on Earth,” which can be traced to the Bible verse “Timothy 6:7,” “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” Lamar goes through an intense self-reflection on his relationship to religious philosophies throughout DAMN., landing on a fate-like rapped story of how his father met his label boss. Weaving in and contextualizing a DJ into a narrative is also something essentially done by director Spike Lee in his classic film Do The Right Thing. One may recall Samuel L. Jackson as radio DJ Señor Lovedaddy preaching that he will be providing “the yin and the yang, the hip and the hop” for his listeners, (perhaps jokingly) blending Chinese philosophy and rap.
Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers (2022)
Album cover for 'Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers' by Kendrick Lamar.TDE/Interscope.
Kendrick Lamar’s dive into internalized reckoning on his latest album meant he needed multiple narrators to carry him through. On the album, Lamar dissects his generational trauma and potential sex addiction, which has, in turn, led him to therapy. He is joined by narrators that include himself, his wife Whitney, his children, philosopher Eckhart Tolle, Kodak Black, and even tap dance shoe clicks that represent him “dancing around the conversation.” A multi-narrator film is a rarity centered around a core issue, yet Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line draws some really interesting parallels to Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. Malick’s take on a war film is primarily about the cast of individual characters’ turmoil surrounded by strange beauty amidst their service in the Pacific during World War II. One particular voiceover narration sticks out as Private Jack Bell professes his yearning for the trauma of war to cease to affect the love between him and his wife. Bell’s narration parallels Lamar himself, but it could be said the narration of other soldiers throughout the film parallels the other narrators on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers who have been affected differently by similar trauma. The film and album both hold a communal narrated grappling with hurt and healing.
Kendrick Lamar - United In Grief (Official Audio)www.youtube.com
In recent hip-hop history, Kendrick is not the only rapper enlisting a therapeutic narrator voice. The clearest other example is U.K. rapper Dave who began his 2019 album Psychodrama with audio from a therapist guiding him through his past and deciphering how it has led him to where he is now. An amalgamation of a classic film and rap’s present and future cements Kendrick’s passage through narrator tactics. One could only assume he will continue to be guided by the elevation of that combination.
Miki Hellerbach is a freelance music and culture journalist from Baltimore, whose work can also be found on CentralSauce, Euphoria Magazine, Notion Magazine, GUAP Magazine, and Complex. He also regularly co-hosts the In Search of Sauce music journalism podcast highlighting the top-tier work of other writers.
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