Kendrick Lamar is a rapper from Compton, California. Kendrick often uses themes of blackness in his music often drawing from lived experiences, the political climate in America and a collective black memory. He is an artist of the people, particularly of his people. This attention to his own community earned Kendrick his spot in the “conscious rappers” category, which also contains the likes of J. Cole, Common, and Tupac Shakur. In 2017 Kendrick Lamar released his fourth studio album, DAMN; shortly thereafter he released the video for one of the songs from the album, ELEMENT.
ELEMENT is a song where Kendrick is expressing that he is at the top of the rap game and no one can take him out of his element. Kendrick’s lyrics in this song are aggressive yet elegant as he flows over drums and a deep elongated vocal loop of Juvenile’s “Ha” while also singing “if I gotta smack a pussy ass nigga I’mma make it look sexy.” This line itself is reframing black masculinity in a multitude of ways. The video for element calls on some strong visual energy to speak to the various facets of black life. Kendrick uses the title of the song to build something, the term element outside of its scientific context speaks to an environment as well as a level of comfortability. Element as a video calls back to the work of Gordon Parks, an iconic black photographer. He invokes images of black women, children, and men that Gordon documented previously. Both Gordon and Kendrick are chronicling aspects of black life through a lens. Kendrick has created an environment in the video that includes the pain, peace, beauty, and violence of black life through the imagery of Gordon Parks. He uses beautiful cinematography, and a subdued color palette to give an elegant feeling to some very strong, very visceral images and lyrics. There are themes of masculinity, love, peace, innocence and the loss of it.
The images from Gordon Parks work that Kendrick uses include a group of men who appear to be practicing self-defense techniques, an image of a young boy with a lady bug on his forehead, and an image of young boy with a gun in hand pretending to shoot at a passing car. The juxtaposition of the last two images alone show how things such as peace and violence coexist in the black community. Just as Alicia Garza spoke about expanding the Black Lives Matter movement to include all facets of black life aside from the extrajudicial killings of young black men, (Garza.) Kendrick is doing the very same. I think showing these multiple facets of black life in a predominantly male space such as this video is important but is simultaneously missing a bigger opportunity. Kendrick also could have used this as a chance to highlight those marginalized individuals in the movement who also help to create the element. I feel as if a stronger female presence in this video could have added something great to it, however the video does seem to have a narrow focus on masculinity which may have been Kendrick’s intentions. The ELEMENT video allowed me to look at facets of black life outside of the usual “woe is us, we are down trodden, and oppressed” narrative. In the story of ELEMENT there is agency, there is aggression, there is hope and there is love. I think that he is altering our views on masculinity by evoking various images of masculinity i.e. Kendrick’s boss narrative, the mob of men, the old man bleeding and the many young boys. He is also subtlety subverting stereotypes as there is an image where there are men behind bars however they are all white as he says, “Bunch of criminals and money in my phone calls, ayy” Other imagery that Kendrick uses does indeed allude to the current political climate and racial tensions in the nation as the video opens with a young boy’s hand rising out of the water, we later see a hooded figure under water seeming to be floating up and out of the water. These images for me directly recall the deaths of Trayvon Martin who was shot and killed walking home because he had his hood on, and Emmett Till who was beat to death, shot in the head, and thrown in the river for being accused of flirting with a white woman. The act of having this figure rising out of the water functions as a way of saying, you can’t kill our spirits, or “you can’t take us out our element”. It’s a form of resisting this violence that is constantly being done to us through art.
The choice to invoke Gordon Parks also is extremely calculated as he was an integral part of documenting the civil rights movement and as the director for Shaft, he is considered the Father of Blaxploitation movies. Kendrick also seems to borrow from Blaxploitation movies, in the prevalence of violent imagery he includes. In the subdued palette, the one color that maintains its vibrancy is red which shows up as blood, a result of many violent acts. Each violent act is also slowed down and dramatized, this has a double meaning as I feel Kendrick is reaffirming his spot as top dawg through this violence, a way of letting everyone know who is boss, emphasized by the large mob of men that follows him in the video, but also it functions as a commentary on the amount of violence done to black men and by black men.
The element video to me is Black and Art simultaneously because of the subject matter Kendrick has chosen to deal with: his invocation of an iconic black legend in the arts, and his position as a black man in America. Kendrick himself makes a statement at the end of ELEMENT that says, “there’s a difference between Black Artists and Wack Artist”, which makes me wonder is all art by a black person Black Art and if not what is the criteria for black artistry?
This is an essay written in 2017 by ZeCora Smith for the course Culture & Identity: Black Lives Matter: Art, Theory, and Practice with Jasmine Mahmoud.