By Eóin Donnelly
I wouldn’t write, and I didn’t care what happened next. It was June 2012, just another day in my English classroom spent in an endless reverie, staring down at the ugly jail of my scrawled handwriting from which beauty tried to escape. I was becoming more and more introverted, less and less willing to divulge inspiration. If you were to die tomorrow and I handed you a pen today, how would you write your obituary? What would you want it to say? If you asked me this five years ago you’d have been met with a blank stare and a few thoughtful, slow blinks that led precisely nowhere. Because I didn’t fucking know. Maybe I’d have offered you some empty platitudes, sentiments overheard in the graveyards of false idols, the people I was meant to aspire to but was never really inspired by. I had not yet come of age, young in body and younger still in spirit. What I did have, though, was a penchant for brilliance, a love of creative writing that would manifest itself every so often when my English teacher would goad me by hyperbolising the poetic achievements of my classmates. Excuse my hubris. She knew how I worked, lazy to the core and that I would only write when I felt I had something to prove. At the time, my mentality was akin to Genghis Khan’s: “It is not enough that I succeed. All others must fail.” Where this toxic mantra came from I don’t know, but the tornado of anger and passion swirling through me was beginning to lose its potency. Anger can be a useful fuel, but it is no infinite well, and all my inspiration was beginning to run dry. When I don’t write, a reservoir of passion overflows and floods the wired circuit of my brain, a natural trip of electrifyingly alchemical energy that’s just as likely to shut me down as turn every minus positive. At 17, my metaphysical intrigue was submerged by the humdrum scourge of routine. Reaching down into the dust of my soul, all I could find was apathy. Like Kendrick, I too was dying of spiritual thirst. George Carlin said it best: “inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.” He was right. My default disposition of a dreamer was beginning to dissipate with disastrous timing, with A-Levels round the corner and a place in my chosen- can you ever really decide anything at that age?- Law course at stake.
It’s nothing to be proud of, but if I told anyone how little work I done in my A-Level years they wouldn’t believe me. My rapidly deteriorating effort levels had not gone unnoticed. Just one week prior I had been kicked out of my A-Level Religion class for good, banished to the study for the rest of my most critical year in education. My crime was simple. Engaged in one of my customary, meandering inner monologues delivered to the visual backdrop of a window-pane, my Religion teacher attempted to engage me in the class, to which I responded with that blank stare, those thoughtful, slow blinks that led to precisely nowhere as I attempted to reclaim the lost fragments of whatever noise she just made. Something about St Patrick… Nothing. “Sorry, what was the question?” Her face turned to molten lava: “GET OUT!” I couldn’t believe my ears. It was a minor indiscretion, but the final straw in what was a steady incline to Not Giving A Fuck Mountain. It was a familiar conversation, but I’ll never forget that private meeting, seeing her cry uncontrollably as she asked me what was wrong, why I wouldn’t work. It was a question I couldn’t answer. A nameless malaise had consumed me to the point I didn’t realise it was there. My guilt was palpable whilst insufficient to alter my inaction. Back in that English classroom one week later I was again prompted to look in the mirror and face up to the prospect of wasted ambition. The only one I had never disappointed, my English teacher Mrs O’Donnell, held me back after class, looked me right in the eye and delivered the fatal blow to my ego: “Eoin, I’m worried about you. I’m worried you’re going to fail.” She told me that, owing to my talent, if I achieved anything less than an A* I’d have failed. Hubris prevented me from ever countenancing the possibility, but it was three days before I’d be examined on Jane Eyre and I didn’t even know how the book ended let alone have a rounded critical perspective and list of learned quotes at my disposal. I didn’t deserve it, but somehow I managed to get an A in both Religion and English; my place at university was secured.
So what has any of this got to do with Kendrick Lamar? Before I had hip-hop rhyme saviours to worship my life as a teenager was characterised by an ongoing duel between self-belief and a crippling sense of resignation. Deep down, I felt possessed by a rare talent, but with each passing year came more excuses, more external influences to blame for my failure to change. Was my confidence misplaced? Was my ability self-delusion? Truthfully, I could never fully believe I could succeed at anything because I never knew anyone that was successful. The greatest achievement you can manage where I come from is having a nice car. At 17, Jane Eyre was the first time I had heard the term ‘bildungsroman’, a German literary genre meaning ‘to come of age.’ What I encountered in Charlotte Brontë’s novel was a Victorian England inculcated in sexual antipathy, formalistic prose as alien to my experience as a Hugh Grant movie without any of the fervour, glitz or thematic depth that made me fall in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby a year prior. Cover your ears literature nerds: coming-of-age had never seemed so boring. To me, coming-of-age was a bunch of wildly different teenagers realising they had more in common than outward appearances suggested (The Breakfast Club), Ferris Bueller embracing the fleeting joie de vivre of adolescence, the gifted but wayward Will Hunting overcoming his past through the eyes of a girl who’s still around the morning after; coming-of-age was Robin Williams’ poetic wisdom invoking the raw, human passions of a classroom of insipid young men (Dead Poets Society), Evan and Seth gaining the affections of their dream girls (Superbad), and last, but not least, coming-of-age was Ice Cube’s seminal acting debut, Boyz n the Hood. It is both indicative and damning of the cyclical nature of life that the same narrative that immortalised Compton’s original ‘Best Rapper Alive’ in cinema laid the foundations of Kendrick’s major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d. city over twenty years later, but the travails of life in the ghetto are more than just a plot device. People die young and often, entire families are decimated by drug addictions, and basketballs and notepads transform gangsters to Gods.
“They don’t make them like this anymore.” Walk into any bar in any city in the world and you’re virtually guaranteed to hear this sentiment when a classic song lights up the jukebox. Nostalgia’s one helluva drug! The graveside of culture welcomes hundreds of millions of people every day, hundreds of millions of people sorrowfully placing flowers bequeathed with the placard: “MUSIC IS DEAD”. The condom was the glass slipper of the last generation and the virtual reality headset may well be the glass slipper of the next. The Information Age is a disposable culture where its inhabitants perpetually skip from text to meme to trending TV show to Instagram to Snapchat to left-and-right swipes, a never-ending sugar-rush in cyberspace where each hit feeds the craving for more. We consume everything but ponder nothing, overdosing on so much viscera that it’s lost its potency. I’m no different. I’m always on the hunt for the next album, the next movie, the next writer that tugs my heartstrings. Rampant consumerism runs amok and it’s increasingly difficult to find something real. As access and improvements to technology has made making music easier, thus cutting out the middle man between artist and consumer, musical compositions have become more rudimentary, all window-dressing without a great product. The monochromatic hues that colour modern-day pop music aren’t worth the cover of a book never mind a place on your shelf. It’s this onslaught of randomness that’s culminated in a cultural apocalypse. With so much more channels to choose from, we have so much less to unify us. The mainstream culture is at a more palpable discord with reality than ever. Music today is an industry so broken by failure to adapt to streaming it constantly tries to rectify itself to no avail. Modern-day superheroes can only stand idly atop burning skyscrapers, cape blowing in the wind waiting for someone to notice. So thank God for Kendrick Lamar, rap’s Mewtwo in a stadium full of discombobulating Psyducks, both man of the moment as well as throwback to a time when the album was the litmus test of popular artistry rather than a solitary spot in a popular playlist.
“Will you let hip-hop die on October 22nd?” These are the final words Kendrick rapped before the release of his major label debut just four months after that Jane Eyre exam, a statement of intent on what was to come fused with a sobbed delivery that hinted at the hardship behind the passion and the magnitude of the stakes for hip-hop culture at large. Officially the most popular musical genre on the planet as of 2017, it is easy to forget that prior to October 22nd 2012 hip-hop was in the midst of its own Dark Ages. Sans Kanye West’s magnum opus in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the early 2010’s marked a transitionary period where Drake’s emergence shifted the emphasis from meaningful lyrics to catchy RnB melodies, legends past their prime (Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Eminem, Lupe Fiasco) failed to recapture former glories and newcomers cowered like vampires in the spotlight. In hip-hop, flattery is a deception that fools nobody worth impressing. Fads die quicker than hairdo junkies, only the sculptors of immortal poetry will have statues built. Lamar’s bronze-cast rhymes would soon end the famine.
Hype was high in October 2012 for a reason. Eight years after signing to newly-founded indie label Top Dawg Entertainment and six mixtapes deep, Kendrick finally released his debut album Section.80 in July 2011. Long before Louis Theroux was making documentaries about the opiates crisis that President Trump has labelled a national emergency the ever-clairvoyant Kendrick was assuming his now familiar position as sly observer in the shadows of hedonistic mayhem, assuming leadership to warn us of the perils of apathy amidst destruction. ‘A.D.H.D.’ was the first Kendrick Lamar song I heard, a song I stumbled across when searching for answers for my inability to retain attention in class. Before then, I was no more a fan of rap music than any other average teenager who lived amidst Irish hills. As always, it was art that defined the times. At last I found my generational voice speaking to and for me, succour in human form reaching down to the pit of the zeitgeist and pulling me clear. I’ve been intoxicated by his voice ever since:
“I’m in the house party, trippin’ off
My generation sippin’ cough syrup like it’s water
Never no pancakes in the kitchen
Man, not one of our lives is caught up
In the daily superstition that the world is ’bout to end
Who gives a fuck? We never do listen
‘Less it comes with a 808 (A melody and some hoes)
Playstation and some drank (Technology bought my soul)”