What makes Joker & Kendrick Lamar great art | 1791


Great works of philosophical or intellectual
art tend to share one enduring theme: they seek to explore people’s deepest convictions
in a way that provokes challenging questions. In this way, the artist channels his own internal
strife in his work. The complexity of human beings means that
great art should include their inner-struggle, and incorporates their flaws and blind-spots. Once touched by ideology, that work becomes
discernibly one-dimensional. From a technical standpoint it can still be
of high-quality, but it lacks the necessary component that ensures all people across time
can feel its message. Many people will think to themselves, rightly,
that not every artistic endeavour has to achieve this level of meaning. Clearly, things can be enjoyable just for
the sake of being enjoyable. A work of literature can be enjoyed on the
basis of its storytelling, a work of music for its thoughtful lyricism and well-crafted
production, and movies for their cinematography, acting and scripting. Similarly, politically propagandistic works
can be enjoyed on those same grounds. While shallow art produces something that
looks a lot like a simulation stocked with lifeless non-player characters, the great
artist wants to produce a world that feels alive-a world that is grand and morally complex. In order for such a world to feel alive, though,
the characters couldn’t be one dimensionally good or bad. They must undergo personal struggles as well
as mortal uncertainty, and the subject they are attempting to tackle should be seen through
the same prism of complexity. The answers and resolutions are not obvious
to the viewer or even the artist themselves. Even esteemed politically driven authors like
Orwell explained the difficulty in surpassing the simply political and reaching beyond for
something of psychological depth. He writes, “looking back through my work,
I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless
books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives
and humbug generally…” For most, the political can be a powerful
motivator. It’s not just a set of ideas, but an identity,
and that loyalty to your identity clearly drives people to more bizarre acts than writing
a book. The rarity of artists capable of serious philosophizing,
though, is directly proportional to how many works of that caliber there are–which are
seriously few. If someone so high-attaining and worthy of
praise as Orwell can’t write without a political motivation, all that does is speak to the
temptation. Not only can political art be good, the political
statement itself can also be right–but it still prevents it from being truly great on
an existential level. The politics of the day change, but our shared
psychological conditions and inner conflicts don’t. And this concept, of course, isn’t restrained
to literature. Rap is a subject that, as we’ve talked about
extensively, can often capture this sentiment perfectly. Power, referenced in a previous 1791 piece,
saw Kanye struggling against his hypocrisies and runaway egoism, while offering a very
nuanced commentary on fame’s perils. On a similarly self-reflective level, listeners
can turn to Kendrick Lamar’s Blacker The Berry. Though Kendrick Lamar is often driven by the
same political ideals most in his industry hold, in this track he grasps at something
beyond the purely political and while many of his usual fans reacted angrily, this is
when Lamar reaches towards the transcendent. So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach
with the Panthers Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all
the answers” Or try to celebrate February like it’s my
B-Day Or eat watermelon, chicken and Kool-Aid on
weekdays Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan
endorsements Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker
than me? Hypocrite! Many within his political tribe reflexively
saw this as a play toward what they call “Respectability Politics,” flowing from the belief that
his self-criticism is downplaying the role of slavery in producing violence in black
communities. At first listen, it’s easy to see how his
verses could be interpreted as a political statement–in the end, it really isn’t at
all. He explains that wasn’t his aim and reveals
it was a matter of expressing his own internal conflicts, rooted in his own experience. Abandoning the
one dimensionally political makes it understandably
human and, as a result, a wellspring of meaning. Now we can contrast Blacker The Berry, which
deals with the crisis of violence that black communities are gripped by, with a song that
tries to tackle the same subject–but from the vantage of an ideologue. This Is America sees Donald Glover in his
rap guise of Childish Gambino. He takes on the role of a shirtless, crazed,
shuckin-and-jivin Jesus. At first, all seems well: Gambino is dancing
blithely to the backdrop of a guitar. Progressively, the picture-perfect image of
what the title leads us to believe America is unravels. The video is embedded with progressive allusions
in every frame. The man playing the guitar who is shot as
well as the initially blissful America devolving to slaughter are just a couple of examples
that are pretty obviously meant to exemplify the black experience through a filter of social
justice. Those who agree with Glover’s ideology will
gawk at the tragedy of it all. It parallels and references Jordan Peele’s
Get Out, an equally ideological work. A plot that holds up the eyeroll that is widely
believed to be clever, Get Out turns the white guilt-driven identity politics on its white
liberal advocates. While Lamar in Blacker The Berry honestly
explores his inner conflicts, both Peele’s and Glover’s one-dimensional thinking only
manages to produce an onslaught of ideological talking points dressed up as artistic expression. The NPC meme has taken off for a reason, and
it is probably because it accurately satirizes those who find something so unoriginal and
contrived in its message so profound. You can appreciate its musical quality and
visual technicality, but that doesn’t alter its stale message and overall purposelessness. Ultimately, Glover’s music video is an opportunistic
affectation meant to exploit progressive trends–it isn’t his reality. Glover went to NYU, whereas Kendrick Lamar
was raised on the streets of Compton. That’s a reason Glover’s attempt to make
art on this topic falls dreadfully short of hitting the same note of emotional and moral
complexity–and why it skated by to uniform ideological praise, rather than the kinds
of criticism Kendrick faced. The internet’s most prominent music reviewer
talks at length about this insecurity-driven appropriation that drives Glover’s work:
https://youtu.be/EGFCKb5PfDA?t=148 In a similar way, Childish Gambino’s superficial
portrait of human struggle can be seen in the domain literature as well. For example, Ayn Rand, a politically driven
author, wrote several books using this same shallow style. In her book the Fountainhead, Howard Roark
is the clear hero, always embodying the ideal without fail, and Ellsworth Toohey is the
morally unambiguous villain. Toohey is literally based on Socialist activist
Harold Laskey-written after having gone to his lectures, and even changing his appearance
to mirror the actual man. Socialism is obviously a villainous ideology,
but her efforts throughout all of her fiction were not to reflect the persuasive psychology
that motivates the people that adhere to it, but rather to dismantle it. As a piece of political propaganda, this is
effective–and her argument is correct. But it doesn’t set out with the same ambition
of achieving great philosophical depth. One of the few authors who accomplished this
great achievement would be 19th century Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, who, if anything,
is obsessed with the duality of man. Having been a socialist, and later a strong
Orthodox Christian, few understand human psychology as thoroughly as he. His work The Double, for instance, is driven
by the psychological aspect of man’s dual nature. But what highlights this difference best is
probably his final, and possibly most praiseworthy work, The Brothers Karamazov, which sees the
character of Alyosha pitted against his Atheistic brother Ivan. Ivan’s rationalistic and moral arguments
against God are as strong in this work as people find them to be today, and Fyodor made
no attempt to diminish this fact even though Alyosha is the protagonist and represents
his deeply held religious convictions. Alyosha was depicted, despite the author’s
own beliefs, as being the inferior debater. The beauty of this move is that it allows
his position to be strengthened the more it is battered by a seemingly stronger argument. This crafting of morally complex landscapes
can be seen as well in acclaimed graphic novels like the The Killing Joke, and the film The
Dark Knight. In The Killing Joke, Batman represents one
set of moral ideals–fundamentally summarized as a belief in good, and the Joker another,
that there is no such thing and that anyone is just “one bad day” from falling into
the throes of evil. Joker’s argument is perhaps convincing,
no matter how sympathetic nearly all of us are to the idea of absolute good. It ends on a note of ambiguity, where we aren’t
sure if Batman gives in to Joker’s nihilistic worldview by snapping his neck–hence, “The
Killing Joke.” The point of this is to display how obviously
villainous ideas are depicted with as much weight and persuasion as they realistically
have, driving the reader, listener, or what have you to question their own values. Two other parallels to rap can be made: Joyner
Lucas’s popular but somewhat controversial track I’m Not Racist, as well as Kanye West’s
Ye Vs. The People. The first saw a stereotypical depiction of
Trump’s fat quasi-racist supporters struggling against an equally stereotyped dreadlocked
black man. Though his depiction of the Trump supporter
was intentionally unsympathetic, the fact that he made a few convincing arguments made
that irrelevant to many of its critics. It seemingly humanized his position when,
after emotionally expressing their respective sides’ point of view, they hugged it out. It was essentially put down for engaging in
“Respectability Politics”… which you might recall being a point of criticism against
Kendrick Lamar. At the core of those who evoke the idea of
“respectability politics” is an ideological hostility to serious engagement with uncomfortable
disagreements. Naturally for many, this level of self-reflection
is exhausting. The very idea that our difficulties can be
resolved through dialogue itself apologizes for the position they oppose, according to
this line of thinking. It doesn’t matter if that position is held
by someone on the left or the right, even if it’s obviously most often the latter. Art that attempts heartfelt, genuine thought
of human issues runs afoul of this ideology, which makes it one of its targets. That is the central point Kanye West strives
to make in his spur-of-the-moment rap battle with T.I. Kanye is clearly not a political actor. He has only ever tried, and succeeded, to
make meaningful music that uplifts his listeners. That’s what motivated tracks like Jesus
Walks and Ultralight Beam. It is likewise what motivates him to write
lyrics such as: “I know everybody emotional
Is it better if I rap about crack? Huh? ‘Cause it’s cultural? Or how about I’ma shoot you? Or fuck your bitch? Or how about all this Gucci, ’cause I’m fuckin’
rich?” A lyric like this reflects on what has and
always will drive Kanye to write music–it is in’t political, it is meaningful and
often self-contradicting. Sometimes, but rarely, those two motivations
coincide. Nevertheless, the political will always run
secondary to philosophical depth. Almost everyone will see that Kanye is by
no means perfectly spoken, but what can be seen in spite of his mistakes is that his
efforts are motivated by a sincere conviction to address his critics with honesty and to
grasp at something he likely doesn’t fully understand–as nearly every true artist does
in one way or another. Only when he was pushed by a political ideologue
in the direction of mouthing political talking points similar to Gambino did his authenticity
and impact fall into question. Candace Owens, spokeshole of Turning Point
USA, foolishly believed that she could exploit his celebrated artistic career to sell political
merchandise. Naturally, Kanye objected, and pulled away
from politics altogether, which was never his motivating impulse to begin with. It only became his motivation when he saw
grave dysfunction and a bullying bias within the political sphere. And despite being well integrated in an obviously
left-wing musical and entertainment culture, he was able to identify his conflicting feelings
on the issues surrounding the black community as did Kendrick Lamar in Blacker The Berry. Thinking is itself struggle, while nothing
is more self-assured than ideology. When it comes to ideology, the positions have
already been thought up for you and are assorted neatly, not having to be seriously thought
through. Ultimately, if your work aims to talk directly
about the human condition, it should reflect the reality that you don’t have all of the
information, and that your perspective isn’t absolute. This is what strikes at the core of the human
condition. Short of that, you have little more than a
work of well crafted propaganda, that leaves your target audience in thrall, because they
haven’t heard anything they wouldn’t have elsewhere. And the ability to introspect this honestly
is a rare quality, which is why this type of art is only very rarely created and encountered. Spanning every domain of art, this can be
seen and few artists have achieved this feat.

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