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.

Creative Commons License
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.

To Pimp a Butterfly: The Blog Series Intro

I asked my partner to play Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly through my speakers last weekend while on a road trip. Despite its March 15th (2015) release date, I’d waited almost 6 full months to give it a first listen. I hadn’t heard Lamar’s previous album, “good Kid, M.A.A.D. city” (#dntjudgeme) and only knew about his single King Kunta through the radio’s rotations.

I honestly don’t know what I was waiting on. I always start off skeptical about artists with mass appeal, but when my partner (who is a singer / songwriter & guitar player) put the album in his iPod rotation AND when my PhD carryin’ ethnomusicologist / musician e-friend began listing tracks and liner notes (that included some of my favorites such as Robert Glasper, Bilal, Lalah Hathaway & talents such as Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and more) I knew I’d better take some time and listen to it. A road trip was the perfect atmosphere.

I felt the influence of George Clinton’s funk on the first track, “Wesley’s Theory”, before I knew Clinton was actually on the track. Yet, I also experienced a lot of dissonance with the lyrical content. At the time, I was primarily focused on finding the right roadside exits but his flow was absolutely undeniable. It didn’t take long to realize that he was creating lyrical dissonance in order to unpack a learning experience with the project. Nonchalantly, I asked my partner to tell me what he thought this song was about (he’s brilliant with things like that), and after hearing / comparing his analysis with my own, I knew this was a project I needed to dig into. I have been listening to it every day, twice a day, since then.

I don’t usually do music reviews on although I have done them before & have some background in music / vocal performance. This isn’t a review per se. It’s an acknowledgement / compilation of the thought processes that TPAB set forth for me. As I listened, I began to think about how this project would help:

  1. In discussions on memoir writing and telling authentic stories
    (TPAB puts me in the mind of memoir-writing in dialect and without prioritizing “standard” forms of English expression as better than any other dialect of English)
  2. In discussions on mental health & wellness
    (The song ‘u’ gives us a lot of space and text to discuss cognitive distortions: problematic thought patterns which lead to negative symptoms. Conversely, the song “i” gives us text to discuss challenging problematic thoughts and building resilience)
  3. In discussions on spirituality and writing / rapping / creating through a few broad spiritual themes: In many interviews, Kendrick Lamar talks about his art as a spiritual discovery for himself. In good Kid, M.A.A.D. city, Kendrick begins the dialogue by using what some might recognize as a version of “The Sinner’s Prayer”. In TPAB, Kendrick then starts unpacking broader themes of spiritual formation & processing including struggles with good & evil (i.e. For Sale?), loving & serving others genuinely (How Much a Dollar Cost), & self-love (i).
  4. In discussions surrounding navigating two communities: This theme jumped out immediately to me because of the work that I do with many first generation (first in the family to attend college) students, students of color, and students w/ financial needs as they enter academia / higher ed.

Two days later, I wrote a private Facebook post for a few friends in the field:

“There are just TOO many ways to utilize To Pimp a Butterfly as a supplemental illustration / text to discuss first year academic transitions, navigating home community and academic community (and the emotions that sometimes come along with that transition esp for 1st gen students or students anticipating accessing a different socioeconomic status than other family or community members after college), memoir and telling our authentic stories, financial literacy, managing debt to income ratio and credit in college, self efficacy / seeking help, accessing and contemplating the importance of studying abroad… like… just too many ways. Ain’t gone do it till I got that good ole academic freedom…… but I’m sayin’ doe….‪#‎Kendrickdonegaveusawholesemester‬

So, in the days, weeks, (and perhaps months if it takes that long), I will be unpacking To Pimp a Butterfly with attention to those four points. It’ll be the first full series on!

As I entertained the idea of using TPAB for a series, it was uncanny that the refrain, “I remember you was conflicted” replayed through my speakers. For me, the conflict occurred in mining through some of the more explicit songs and language in order to piece together helpful threads. A vague memory of the high school teacher, Brian Mooney, who used TPAB to create dialogue around race, privilege, and oppression alongside Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye came to me. In an explanatory post, he left a note about his “pedagogical decision to provide the edited or clean lyrics to a select group of songs on the album and… even post(ing) a link to the “edited” version on iTunes

So, LET. ME. BE. CLEAR: I listened to the explicit version upon my first listen. In my personal process, as a writer, professional, and artist (trained in Theater & Creative Writing), I thought it was important to work through an unedited script and body of work. Yet, I, like the high school teacher Brian Mooney, honor the “pedagogical practice” of using clean versions for this series as well – but for differing reasons. Many of the themes were so hard-hitting & the analyses of race, bias & systemic oppression so raw that if you lived it… or even some shade / form of it… the language can and could be equal parts mirroring and / or triggering. Working through the unedited text is a highly personal choice and endeavor for those who would LIKE to take that on.

I have absolutely no idea how long this series will take (full disclosure :), but I do know it’s worth doing & thinking through. Stay tuned…

Image Credit from Wikipedia