Poetry Within Modern Hip-Hop Music with Kendrick Lamar
by Branson Neuman
Kendrick Lamar is one of my personal favorite artists, so I’m very excited to delve into his work and how he has continued the progression of some incorporated poetic structures/formats into modern hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar Duckworth was born in Compton, California, on June 17, 1987. His family had moved to Compton from Chicago to get away from the violence associated with the area they lived in. However, growing up in Compton was very difficult for Lamar and inspired him to talk about the effects of violence on African American urban youth and the effects of gang culture and racism in America as a whole. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner and has gained that literary/musical achievement for the album, DAMN. This album is not my favorite in his discography; however, I still thoroughly enjoy this album front to back.
This album uses multiple literary devices and musical techniques in order to convey deeper meaning. This album contains examples of internal rhymes, slant rhymes, and alliteration. In verse, internal rhymes are rhymes that happen inside of a line of poetry. (Rhymes that fall at the end of line endings are end rhymes.) Slant rhymes, or “close rhymes,” can be characterized as a rhyme in which the focused on syllables that close the phrase don’t rhyme with the previous vowel sounds. Lastly, alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in succession within a line in poetry or music. Lamar’s mastery over these skills enables his themes of weakness, wickedness, and the fight between morality and damnation to come across with precision and clarity.
Lamar uses internal rhymes and end rhymes in his phrases expertly to maintain rhythm. For these examples, I will be using the song, “Duckworth.” Lamar states, “Pray with the hooligans, shadows all in the dark. Fellowship with demons and relatives, I’m a star.” The words “fellowship” and “relatives” are slant rhymes. They don’t fully rhyme; however, the sound produced is similar enough. It not only carries the meaning the author wishes to convey, but it also repeats the sound of the word that starts the phrase. These words are arranged this way to aid the flow of the narrative. He also uses the end rhyme and internal line even more cleverly later in the song with the following stanza: “Free chicken every time Anthony posted in line / Two extra biscuits, Anthony liked him and then let him slide / They didn’t kill him; in fact, it look like they’re the last to survive / Pay attention, that one decision changed both of they lives / One curse at a time; Reverse the manifest and good karma, and I’ll tell you why.” The words, “every time,” “let him slide,” “survive,” “they lives,” and “one curse” and “reverse.” Lamar shifts between slant line and end rhyme to keep the flow going. These lines contain an essential rhyme scheme to the narrative of the song. The song’s narrative tells the story about how Lamar’s father met his current friend and the founder of Lamar’s label, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. Lamar’s father in the song “processed and digested poverty’s dialect” and made “one decision that changed both of they lives.” Lamar’s father decides to include extra biscuits as well as free chicken whenever Anthony came to his workplace. This act of “good karma” reverses the effect of violence that could be brought on by Anthony’s actions. Lamar brings attention to this with the use of the end rhyme and slant rhyme present in the words “one curse” and “reverse.” The “curse” Lamar alludes to is the scourge of Damnation from the book of Deuteronomy. It’s a noteworthy topic all through the album and is referenced on in the title, DAMN.
Lamar uses alliteration expertly throughout the album. Alliteration gives certain passages more value. I noticed alliteration present in the song, “DNA.” Lamar states, “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.” The words “Power,” “poison,” and “pain” are highlighted because the hard “p” consonant sound is repeated in succession. He possess power because he has found fame and believes he has the ability to succeed flowing in his DNA. He also says he possess poison. This can be an allusion to his death, which he references again in the very beginning and at the very end of his album. Lastly, he references his pain, which is a continuous theme throughout the album as well. Lamar is in pain because he feels the weight of his personal life and decisions, as well as their effect on his mortality. He also states, “I know murder, conviction / Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption.” These words are dark in tone and imply crime and violence. He repeats the “b” consonant sound to aid the listener in focusing in on these aspects of his life that he has dealt with. He says that he knows them, and by personifying these words, he lets the listener know he has been influenced by this crime. Lastly, in the song “ELEMENT” Lamar furthers this alliteration. He states, “Damned if I do, if I don’t; / Goddamn us all if you won’t / Damn, damn, damn, it’s a goddamn shame.” The phrase “Damned if I do, Damned if I don’t” is referenced in the first line of that phrase. However, when Lamar utilizes it, it returns to the idea of dual realities presented in “Duckworth” and the damnation that appears throughout the album. He is, quite literally in his beliefs, damned if he does or if he doesn’t. He uses the repetition of the “d” consonance to highlight the harsh sentencing he is under in his life and to emphasize this theme of damnation or feeling cursed.
Conclusively, DAMN. utilizes different literary techniques to pass on more profound significance in Kendrick Lamar’s work. This collection contains instances of internal rhymes, slant rhymes, and alliteration. Lamar’s dominance over these aptitudes empowers his messages to listeners with exactness. Lamar plays with the topics of shortcomings and underhandedness, and this battle among divine punishment and morality is complimented by his comprehension of scholarly and melodic methods. I thoroughly enjoy this work and hope to continue to see him implement these poetic structural techniques in his albums.