On Kendrick & Sick Sociolinguistics: TPAB Blog Series


This post is a part of a series. Missed Pt I? Click here to get caught up!

“The mind of a literate writer, but I did it in fact

You admitted it once I submitted it wrapped in plastic
Remember scribblin’ scratchin’ dilligent sentences backwards
Visiting freestyle cyphers for your reaction
Now I can live in a stadium, pack it the fastest…”
– Kendrick Lamar, Momma

TPAB stood out to me, initially, for its musicality. Freakin’ George Clinton is on that project. And Lalah Hathaway. And Robert Glasper. And everybody else and their musically talented cousin.

The album, comprehensively, holds all the elements of story: various settings, conflict, climax, resolution. But the approach that Kendrick Lamar makes in telling the story is particularly interesting. In order to fully communicate his ascent to fame, his internal struggles, his soul searching & seeking, and his trips from South Africa back to Compton, he pulls on all of his linguistic capital: the socioculturally relevant linguistic choices he makes (because… ‘A1 from day 1’ means something very specific), the dialects & rhythmic patterns that fit with particular musical themes, and variations in tone. In TPAB, Kendrick Lamar gives us all a brief lesson in sociolinguistics (def: interpersonal, societal, & culturally bound ways of using language to “to send vital social messages about who we are, where we come from, and who we associate with”) and linguistic capital (the ability to use dialect & cross-cultural forms of language to communicate understanding).

Tara J. Yosso’s 2005 study, “Whose Culture Has Capital”, addresses the various forms of wealth (capital) that communities of color bring into the educational sphere. For the purposes of this post I will drawn a comparison to the sphere of entertainment & musical storytelling. In this study, Yosso (2005) explains:

Linguistic capital reflects the idea that (People) of Color arrive… with multiple language and communication skills. In addition, (they) most often have been engaged participants in a storytelling tradition, that may include listening to and recounting oral histories. This repertoire of storytelling skills may include memorization, attention to detail, dramatic pauses, comedic timing, facial affect, vocal tone, volume, rhythm and rhyme. Linguistic capital also refers to the ability to communicate via visual art, music or poetry. Just as students may utilize different vocal registers to whisper, whistle or sing, they must often develop and draw on various language registers, or styles, to communicate with different audiences… (Yosso, 2005, p. 78, italic additions mine)

So, what the heck does this mean for TPAB and how does this work in TPAB?

  • Recounting oral history
    Kendrick Lamar has said in multiple interviews that his music serves as a teaching / learning tool for himself and those who might be influenced by his music (he explicitly names friends & family back in his Compton community & college students). KL is particularly aware of the fact that oral histories impact present realities and understandings and displays this awareness in songs such as ‘i’. KL includes the use of what Yosso (2005) calls “parables, cuentos (stories), dichos (proverbs)” to contribute to community wealth & knowledge. A few examples of this stand out:

    • Parables – The album itself is a parable. Its crux is the metaphor of the caterpillar who is  “a prisoner to the streets that conceived it. It’s only job is to eat or consume everything around it in order to protect itself from this Maad City. While consuming its environment, the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive. One thing it notices is how much the world shuns him but praises the butterfly. The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness and the beauty within the caterpillar…” (Kendrick Lamar, Mortal Man). The album talks about the struggles in transitioning from the caterpillar to the butterfly & the varying needs / wants / desires of the caterpillar & the butterfly. Although the work, in and of itself,is a parable there are few tracks that hold a similar form. These include How Much a Dollar Cost (and I’m going to pause and just mention that the allegory in These Walls... #masterful).
    • Proverbs in TPAB – For the purposes of the post, I define a proverb as a brief statement which conveys a body of wisdom or knowledge & informs philosophical beliefs from one generation to another. Proverbs that fit these definitions includes refrains from Institutionalized (“I guess my Grammama was warnin’ the bul, she said, ‘Sh!t don’t change until ya get up & wash yo @**…) and You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said). Although to some, these particular proverbs seem crass, they effectively communicate the world in which Kendrick Lamar (and many of KL’s listeners) draws understanding and makes meaning of lived experiences.
  •  Using dramatic pauses, tone, & rhythmic timing to convey emotion & knowledge
    When TPAB starts, we are both musically and lyrically thrown (seriously, listen to it) into a representation of KL’s early ascent into stardom. Wesley’s Theory is busy with sound. The cadence of his rap almost leaves him breathless at the end of measures, which ultimately helps with the imagery of the frenzy to acquiring more, more, more, moremoremoremore… and the ever-looming threat of reconciling all of this material wealth with Uncle Sam (“Taxmancomin’,taxmancomin’, taxmancomin’, TAXMANCOMIN’). Another poignant example of this can be found at the beginning of “u”, where Kendrick uses variations in tone to depict the ups & downs of his emotional state at the moment (“Lovin’ u is complicaTED, lovin’ u is complicated). Each song is tied together by the sequential poem. This method helps to keep the listeners on track with the greater story and narrative while Kendrick Lamar manipulates rhythmic patterns, pauses, and tonal qualities to convey different realities and even different characters (i.e. Lucy & Kendrick’s conversation in For Sale?)

As Yosso (2005) explains, “using language for cross cultural awareness” (p. 78) both shows and brings form of wealth to communities of color. Kendrick Lamar’s TPAB is masterful for its musical appeal & experimentation but also for its ability to convey oral histories that are nuanced, colorful, explicit, imaginative, and socio-culturally poignant. Seeing and communicating these connections may perhaps be why the idea of TPAB found Kendrick… and perhaps why the idea of TPAB blog series found JadeTPerry.

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On Kendrick & Sick Sociolinguistics: TPAB Blog Series by Jade T. Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Image Credit: Jon Elbaz, used with permissions under this Creative Commons license

Resources & Links:
Yosso, T.J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth
Wofram. Sociolinguistics Definition from the Linguistic Society of America.