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The Art Above All Else: Kendrick is the new Dylan

Looking back at the career of Bob Dylan, I often come to wonder how it was possible he put together the collection of music he did in the Sixties. Classic album after classic album from Freewheelin’ to John Wesley Harding and you can see the maturation of a prodigy that is in itself very rare. His albums of the Seventies are not nearly as famous but still great, especially the masterpiece that is Blood on the Tracks but it’s where we see the voice of Dylan mature and morph, as he becomes a narrator to the commonplace. This would all clearly be enough, and I don’t want to dismiss the Dylan Eighties where he went into Christian rock, where the legend faded but to then gift the world with albums like Time Out Of Mind in the Nineties and even Rough and Rowdy Ways, just released last year, where we are able to see the lifetime perspectives of a man that I am forever grateful to have. I honestly never thought I’d find an artist that was even comparable but I am starting to think Kendrick Lamar might fit the mold.

With the release of his most recent album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, he takes on all the previous forms of himself and gives us a take on 2022 that is not only realistic but genuine. While he doesn’t shy away from the issues (i.e. cancel culture, transgender sexuality), he also doesn’t take the hard stance of someone who is pushing an agenda and still is able to deliver it in a voice that is deeply personal. But that’s not necessarily where it starts because it starts with the fact that lyrically he’s head and shoulders better at laying down a bar than anyone else in the game, much like Dylan was. It’s shocking, almost incomprehensible, from the individual lines to the overall message, and always unique in cadence, songs like “A.D.H.D.” or “Savior” that are dense with personality while also speaking to a larger subject. I think this is very similar to what Dylan did in the Sixties when he would become the most important singer-songwriter the folk music scene had ever seen.

Dylan was anointed ‘the voice of a generation’ and he wore it for a while, producing protest songs of the most superior form such as “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Masters of War” but it wasn’t a label he wanted and he rejected the notion, most infamously by going electric. Even on his folk albums he had a diversity of songs that showed a much more personal side and despite having played the “I Have a Dream” Martin Luther King Jr. rally, Dylan was unwilling to box himself into a singular persona, something Kendrick has also shown an aptitude for. He can have a song like “Alright” that is a cornerstone of the Black Lives Matter movement but even that album, To Pimp A Butterfly, is so much more, an exploration into various dialects of music that had yet to be seen. On Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers we see Kenrick take a similar avant-garde, jazzy take on hip-hop but it delivers a message that is not necessarily politically aligned, it’s just Kendrick, speaking his mind, on domestic violence, on cancel culture, on using homophobic slurs, he comments on it all and it’s why he’s a reliable narrator, because he isn’t just pushing some message down our throats, he acknowledges these problems of the world are complex and not that simple. While most rappers embrace and take on the idea of being a savior (i.e. Nas, Kayne), Kendrick understands the issues with the very notion and rejects the label, he doesn’t want to be a savoir, he knows he too is only human and that the human experience is far more important to contextualize than some farfetched notion that he or his songs will save us.

At this point, Dylan has had a career unlike any other, from being the protégé who delivers, to decades upon decades of albums and touring that have turned him into this mythical figure. Part of this is the way Dylan distanced himself, to him his songs were enough, that is what he gave to the public and his private life was removed, maybe something that was ambiguously crucial to his songs but still in a way that was only left out there as a life experience to its listener, to be interpreted as it may. This is another similarity that can be drawn to Kendrick, a man who has receded into his own personal life as of recent and made a separate family life for himself much as Dylan did, yet still the man makes the biggest splash when he wants to. It’s a tough status to get to and much tougher to maintain but that’s just what Kendrick did on this most recent album, he made his own exceptionality commonplace.

It’s hard to say where someone is going to be in fifty years, it’s honestly a little sketch to even think they’ll be alive. What we’ve seen from Kendrick Lamar is enough validation for a lifetime and more, he’s already a legend. Many artists get caught up here, who could blame them. It’s a rare breed that see their own celebrity, the pitfalls it creates for their art, and reject it for that reason. It’s something that can only be seen in the few that are dedicated to the art more than anything else, it’s the idea that this art matters to people, it matters to the human experience. A song can’t change the world but it can certainly change a person’s world and maybe that’s the one thing that these two artist understand better than anyone.

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