Kendrick Lamar’s New Visual Language

This post is part of our program, The Story of Kendrick, an in-depth, 10-part look at the life and music of Kendrick Lamar. Sound cool and want to receive the other installments in your inbox? Go here. Already signed up and enjoying it? Help us get the word out and share on FacebookTwitter, or with this link. Your friends will thank you.

Long after MTV died, the golden age of music videos began. Freed from the constraints of corporate gatekeepers, cutting edge artists such as Kaytranada and ANOHNI crafted videos that were elegant and deeply personal, while established icons such as Gorillaz and Björk pushed technological boundaries in videos that were innovative and pleasantly disorienting.

Perhaps no artist has taken such care at crafting a specific visual language as Kendrick Lamar. His videos not only function as promotional visual elements, but serve as an apocrypha of sorts, expanding and exploring the ideas put forth on his knotty, intricate tracks.

A great example of this is “Alright.”  Shot in stark black-and-white, and oscillating between locations in the Bay and Los Angeles, the visual maintains the loose narrative flow and spoken word interludes of To Pimp a Butterfly, but it’s most effective at playing with signifiers of a police state. Cops loom in the background, glaring out of police cars or aiming air pistols at protesters; Kendrick floats above the proceedings, seemingly hovering between transcendence and resistance.

“Alright”—alongside Kendrick’s other best videos—achieve a sort of synesthesia, reflecting, both thematically and aesthetically, the MC’s knotty but celebratory survey of modern blackness. “King Kunta” may be the most purely euphoric representation of inner-city life committed to video.

Kendrick’s fans have responded to this approach, though Kendrick’s ascent to the top of the pop world has been a slower burn than most. As of this writing, Lamar has over two million YouTube channel subscribers and nearly 700 million overall views. While he has numerous videos that have been viewed over 50 million times, his latest clip, for Damn.’s leadoff single, “Humble,” was viewed 53 million times on YouTube in its first week. As a point of reference, it took previous singles “i,” “Alright,” and “King Kunta” months to reach this milestone, and, if projections hold, “Humble” will easily be his most successful single to date.  

It’s fitting: Kendrick’s time has come, and “Humble” feels like a coronation.  The video is a collection of startling, uncanny imagery. A shot of Kendrick rapping in a cathedral and dressed as a bishop segues into one of him in all black, lying on a table and surrounded by women in bras and surgical masks who count hundred dollar bills. In another shot, Kendrick, dressed in a patterned Caddyshack polo shirt, smashes golf balls atop a run-down car in a Los Angeles aqueduct. And, in perhaps the video’s most iconic shot, the MC sits at the center of a recreation of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”

It’s easy to read the video’s themes as a meditation on the role of spirituality and religion in an increasingly secular society—topics that have become increasingly prevalent in the MC’s work—but the video also reflects a technical acumen, an understanding and willingness to recontextualize pop culture signifiers. Much has been made of Kendrick as an icon for a new, woke generation, but, first and foremost, Kendrick is a badass rap stylist who makes videos that are visually stunning.