Below is an excerpt from veteran journalist and culture critic Miles Marshall Lewis’ upcoming book, Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar, set for publication by St. Martin’s Publishing Group on September 28, 2021.
There’s not much consensus over what constitutes a concept album. A simple Facebook hivemind request — “What’s your favorite concept album by a Black artist?” — yielded everything imaginable.
Many mentioned Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, Millie Jackson’s Caught Up, Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, Jay-Z’s 4:44, and Tyler, the Creator’s Igor. Jazz albums without any lyrics at all made a few followers’ lists: Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, Journey Into Satchidananda by Alice Coltrane, A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. Critic Ann Powers mentioned Duke Ellington’s A Drum Is a Woman. Professor Michael Eric Dyson listed Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite. Novelist Marlon James said De La Soul Is Dead, Janelle Monáe’s The ArchAndroid, and Black Music by Chocolate Genius. Other records came up that don’t really have any single central narrative running throughout: ScHoolboy Q’s Oxymoron, Prince’s Sign o’ the Times and 1999, Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer. Some said (rightfully so) that Sun Ra, Parliament, and Funkadelic only made concept albums.
What’s Going On and good kid, m.A.A.d city surfaced several times too.
Talk about Kendrick Lamar’s musical lineage and Tupac Shakur is his most obvious forefather. Kendrick grew up idolizing him; he crashed the set of his “California Love” video as a little boy; he dialogues with Pac beyond the grave at the end of “Mortal Man,” etc. But Kendrick’s artistry deserves an evaluation that considers him in the context of Nina Simone, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, and other singer-songwriters who addressed freedom, equality, and Afro-pessimism in their work. His work shares as much of its sensibilities with Marvin Gaye’s discography as any rapper he ever put on a pedestal, starting with the idea of the…