The Second Coming? Kendrick Lamar Preaches His Own Gospel in “HUMBLE.”

April 7th has come and gone without the much anticipated release of Kendrick Lamar’s first proper studio album since 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly.  Eager fans will apparently have to wait another week for DAMN. – Lamar recently announced the title for the project via Instagram – with all indicators pointing to a full release on April 14, rather than the date teased in his recent single, “The Heart Part 4.”  

In the meantime, Kendrick diehards can take more time to mull over his two most recent tracks: the aforementioned “The Heart Part 4” and “HUMBLE.”  Unlike “THP4,” it appears that “HUMBLE.” will actually appear on the upcoming album. It seems fruitful to analyze the song as an isolated work, along with its eclectic and gorgeously shot music video, before examining its place among the other songs on DAMN.

It is interesting, however, to note the placement of “HUMBLE.” among the other similarly terse, all caps, punctuated track titles Lamar revealed in his Instagram post.  “HUMBLE.” is sandwiched between “PRIDE.” and “LUST.” as well as other apparent elements of Lamar’s character and physical body including “LOYALTY.,” “BLOOD.,” “DNA.,” and “GOD.,” culminating in the final track, “DUCKWORTH.”  The titles seem to delve into Lamar’s basic components as a human being and present a rich topic for meditation when contrasted with Lamar’s ever increasing mythological status within hip-hop – an issue already touched on in To PImp a Butterfly but likely further complicated by the immense success of that album.  

Lamar’s decision to end the album with his little known last name, rather than the last name of his stage pseudonym, seems to support an interpretation that he is attempting to reimagine his fundamental, pre-fame humanity.  Likewise, the cover of the project centers solely on an image of Lamar in a plain white tee shirt with no visible jewelry or any other trappings of fame. The album, like the music video for “HUMBLE.” and much of Lamar’s other work also appears rife with religious imagery and its release on Good Friday certainly sparks connotations that will likely come into focus once the album is actually released.

One of the first things to notice about “HUMBLE.” – our only current window into the construction of DAMN. – is that it has a completely different sound from any of the major work Lamar has produced within the past two years.  Unlike the jazz and soul infusions of To Pimp a Butterfly or its sister production, untitled.unmastered, “HUMBLE.” is characterized by a basic, steady beat and a menacing refrain of piano keys that prompt comparisons to the popular, trap genre of hip hop.  Lamar’s delivery and rhyme scheme are also a bit more stilted and simplistic than usual, furthering the similarities to contemporary trap and recent mega hits like the Migos’ “Bad and Boujee.”

Lamar uses these stylistic departures from his previous work to further proclaim his status as the king, or more accurately, the messiah of rap.  His swerve into a more populist sound for the track can be interpreted as a shot across the bow directed at all rival rappers, essentially saying, “I don’t really need to make my music this way, but if I did, this is what it would look like and this is how massively successful I would be in doing it.”

The lyrics of “HUMBLE.” proclaim Lamar as the realest, most successful rapper alive, instructing other rappers to “sit down” and “be humble” and the music video for the track serves to artful mirror many of these statements.  In one clip, Lamar raps while riding his bike on a sidewalk; however, the scene is shot with a fisheye lens, distorting the image so that the sidewalk looks like a sphere and as if he is casually riding around the entire world.  

“HUMBLE.” is, at its heart, a brag track, but it is a much deserved indulgence for Lamar and he promotes himself in such a symbolically rich and humorous way that it is impossible not to enjoy.  He describes his perception of his own modesty and honesty at one point, stating, “I don’t fabricate it, ayy, most of y’all be fakin’, ayy / I stay modest ‘bout it… / Watch my soul speak, you let the meds talk.”  Throughout the music video, Lamar hammers home this idea that despite his usual humility – in comparison to boasts that make up the majority of some rappers’ repertoire – his greatness inevitably shines through and has been thoroughly recognized by the world without him needing to really address the matter himself.  

He appears at the beginning of the video with his head bowed, penitent, already donning papal robes – perhaps acknowledging that most have already anointed  him the spiritual leader of hip-hop before the release of “HUMBLE.” – and illuminated by a single heavenly light.  As the track begins though, Lamar lurches his head skyward, renouncing his reverent position and quickly transitioning into a comically grandiose shot of himself lying on a bed of $100 dollar bills surrounded by traditionally beautiful, near naked women counting his unending piles of cash.  

Although this would not be uncommon in another rapper’s production, with Lamar it seems to be played as a parody of modern, rap music video tropes, especially given his later comments in the song about the need for women to be more “real.”  In another section, Lamar presents a woman who strongly resembles a member of his earlier harem – and may perhaps be the same woman – wearing heavy makeup and revealing attire with her natural hair confined in tight bun.  When the woman crosses a bar dividing the shot, she loses her makeup, donning a more modest tank top and allowing the curls of her hair to flow down past her shoulders while Lamar raps about how he prizes this more realistic women, saying,

I’m so f*ckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop / show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor / Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.

Lamar, crucially, crosses the same bar without changing his appearance further demonstrating his authority in “realness.”  While the appreciation of more natural beauty in women is undoubtedly a progressive sentiment for hip-hop, it is still problematic in that Lamar, a man, is telling women how she should dress in order to please him while also promoting a conception of all women who do choose to wear makeup as “fake.” Lamar is certainly smart and sensitive enough to understand this and it would not be shocking for him to incorporate this criticism–which became a minor uproar around the Internet– in his future work.

For this misstep though, he atones with a string of biting lyrics and brilliant and provocative images. At one point he beautifully recreates Da Vinci’s The Last Supper while casting himself as Jesus and explicitly painting himself as a messianic figure for a modern hip-hop scene plagued by unsubstantiated vanity and possibly, society as a whole. The ambitious portrayal is not unprecedented in Lamar’s work as in “untitled 1” from untitled.unmastered Lamar raps in an address to God, saying, “I made To Pimp a Butterfly for you / Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you.” In the framework of this characterization, Lamar’s “boasts” of rap divinity cannot be considered as such, but must be seen as proclamations of truth.  One is inclined to believe Lamar considering he has already crafted two classic albums and “HUMBLE.” currently has over 50 million views on Youtube.

Just a few shots removed from this, Lamar pivots to hilariously recreating and subverting a classic ad for Grey Poupon from the 1980s.  While describing the his rhymes as a luxury item akin to Evian, TED Talks, and the prized condiment, Lamar mirrors the original commercial by pulling his black town car up to another with Grey Poupon in hand.  Rather than keep the high-class mustard for himself, Lamar hands the jar to the man in the other car, notably altering the ending of the original ad in which the man with the Grey Poupon drives off without sharing.  The scene cleverly claims both Lamar’s wealth and exclusivity – the original men of the ad are two stodgy, upper class white men – as well as his much discussed humility in spite of this exalted status.  It is ultimately an encapsulation of the video as a whole: paradoxically both braggadocious and modest, subversive, and deeply funny.

The single in many ways parallels Lamar’s similarly self-aggrandizing “i,” released prior to To Pimp a Butterfly.  Although on its own it seems to be a catchy jingle about Lamar’s own self-confidence, in the context of the album as a whole it is a beautiful moment in which the rapper is able to carry on his life in the face of depression, anxiety, and systemic oppression.  One can only hope that “HUMBLE.” can take on a similar depth in the full context of “DAMN.,” but on its own it still serves as a highly enjoyable, spasmodic flexing of Lamar’s creative muscles at the height of his powers.  

Jackson Fitzsimmons is a fourth year who knows how to get down at a silent disco.