Ever since he became famous, Kendrick Lamar has seemed both interested in, and somewhat troubled by, the dualism of public image and private citizen, of person and persona. He’s well aware that these days, his public image is of being… if not cuddly, then definitely likable — Taylor Swift records Instagram videos of herself singing along to “Backseat Freestyle,” he guests on tracks by people like Maroon 5. and so on. Even before he was famous, he seemed to strike a balance between an appearance of innocence and whatever that appearance was created to cover over: on Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City sort-of title track “m.A.A.d. City”, he wondered: “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me? Or see me to be innocent Kendrick you seen in the street, with a basketball and some Now and Laters to eat?”
That entire album is about balancing the desire to be a better person and the need to do whatever’s necessary to survive. It looks at what it does to a person to live a paradox: to escape the streets and be accepted by “normal” society, you can’t be seen to be a gangbanger, but to survive, you can’t be anything else. Whatever he’s done, or his characters have done — because, again, it’s hard to know where K-Dot the rapper begins and Kendrick Lamar the person ends — there’s clearly a sense of inner turmoil, a sense that the mad city is constantly trying to explode from out of the good kid.
This subject dominates Damn track “Element,” and the song’s video — which Lamar released via Twitter — puts a visual spin on the idea. The song’s lyric snaps back at lesser rappers who might have dared to make snide comments about Lamar: “Most of y’all throw rocks and try to hide your hand… Because it’s all in your eyes, most of y’all tell lies,” and suggests that “Most of y’all ain’t real… Most of y’all just envy, but jealousy get you killed.” (And, I mean, you’d be kinda dismissive too if you grew up in Compton, managed to negotiate a way out of the place, recorded three of the greatest works of art rap has ever seen… and then had to listen to smartass comments from a Canadian wetbag named Aubrey, right?)
Beyond the confines of rap beef, though, Lamar muses on the way that fame insists on neutering black men, who are still seen as somehow threatening, especially if they come from somewhere like Compton. It seems that this has had real-life results: “Niggas thought they wasn’t gonna see me, huh?/ Niggas thought that K-Dot real life/ Was the same life they see on TV, huh?” Rap is and has always been about braggadocio, of course, but one senses that things didn’t end well for whoever wanted to test our hero’s limits.
These ideas lurk in the lyrics of “Element,” along with various other themes, but the video brings them to the forefront. Lamar’s life is presented as one of constant conflict, often physical, wherein he gives as good as he gets. As the clip progresses, he takes to one adversary with a pool cue and gives a massive open-hand slap to another. He inhabits a landscape of burning houses, street brawls, where boys are taught to fight by their fathers, and kids play with toy guns in anticipation of owning the real thing. It’s a bleak world, but the message is that Kendrick has survived here, and will continue to survive. And he’ll make it look sexy.