The ArtsEmail This Article Print This Article

Worlds Apart

Owen Duff

More Life
March 2017

Kendrick Lamar
April 2017



Rap is often understood as a competition, and the status of the art as duel between the two most successful MCs. In the 90s, it was Biggie Smalls and Tupac, and in the late 90s, Jay Z and Nas. It is possible that such divisions exist only for fans, but in some cases, the artists’ aesthetics and outlooks differ so completely, it is difficult to discuss one without reference and comparison to the other.

Currently, rap is divided between Kendrick Lamar and Drake, and this has been the case since at least 2013. The difference between them, however, was most clearly expressed this spring, with the release of DAMN. and More Life, Lamar and Drake’s fourth and sixth projects, respectively. DAMN. is an affirmation of Lamar’s faith in God. He presents himself as a sinner and questions the moral authority his community has conferred to him. Lamar emerged from To Pimp a Butterfly a prophet and saviour. DAMN. mostly qualifies this image. He cannot explain the injustice of his audience’s lived experience, but he suggests that it may be the work of God, a benign test to which they must humbly submit. The story of Job is at the heart of DAMN. More Life, by comparison, walks back some of the pessimism of VIEWS, Drake’s previous album, and is largely an affirmation of Drake’s faith in the world and other people. The injustices discussed are not societal but personal, and they are not visited on man by an omnipotent creator, but arise from a default of love which is ultimately surmountable. More Life, in this sense, is the secular counterpart of DAMN. The imperative “more” may be Old Testament in spirit—more life! Go forth and multiply!—but the underlying perspective, here, is humanistic.

The difference between Lamar and Drake’s works is particularly evident in their use of terms such as “world” and “earth”. This is the image in which the disparity of their assumptions, about what life is and what can be expected of it, appears most clearly. In DAMN. “earth” is a byword for much of what is difficult, ugly, or broken in life. The song “Fear”, an account of terror and its capacity to maim and blind, begins with a supplication, a man’s tired groan: “I don’t think I can find a way to make it on this earth.” The earth is somehow not intended for human life, and yet, at the same time, designed for pain. Suffering, moreover, reveals the imperfection of men, not the world: “In a perfect world, I would be perfect, world,” Lamar observes. Humans are to suffer for an imperfection of which they can give no account. Lamar’s cousin, late in the album, leaves him a voicemail reminding him that his people have been singled out for testing. And yet God’s appraisal is often obscure: consequence and judgement are imminent, but indecipherable, or unbearably slow in their arrival. Indeed, there is a sense that they may never come: “what happens on earth stays on earth,” Kid Capri reminds the audience at various points in the album. This line has been interpreted in the context of 1 Timothy 6:7: the things of earth, experiences and relationships included, are only a preparation for another life––more life––or another earth to come. And yet, equally, it might mean the opposite: that everything that happens here is of no consequence, and is therefore permitted.

For Drake, “earth” and “world” refer to human agency, as opposed to subjection. The world is large and navigable and represents possibility. More Life is in some sense an album about the possibility of a world, one single world, which would be diverse, and yet transparent and unified. The album’s musical influences are wide-ranging: sounds from the UK, South Africa, Canada, the US, the Caribbean are marshalled here into 80 minutes of danceable, quotable hip-hop; its language is a potluck of Jamaican, London, Arabic and Toronto slang. It is truly a global collection of music. “You know it’s crazy,” Drake said during a recent Billboard acceptance speech, “We’re all here on earth for a limited amount of time and we’ve got to show love while we’re here.” Life is short, and can be sweet, or should be; its brevity commands respect. What the world is is nothing other than the possibility of connection and understanding; it is a place for human flourishing. This is clearly distant from what has been expressed on DAMN. Perhaps what makes Drake’s work finally interesting is the fact that this outlook is continually being challenged or deflated: the world is open and hospitable, but the artist is nowhere at home: “Watch how you speak on my name, you know?” Drake warns his enemies throughout More Life. But the taunt, the defence of the artist’s name itself, is uttered in an acquired speech, Jamaican patois; what is supposed to be an assertion of the self’s integrity is, instead, evidence of its division and vulnerability. Integrity requires roots, and a home––but this is precisely what the artist cannot find. He says he wants to move to Dubai to escape fake friends in America. Or he is in Germany, writing insults to a man who threatens to replace him as the greatest rapper of Canada. Or he is in Bel-Air, burdened with the doubt he thought he had left in Toronto; he wonders whether he should return. Ultimately, the discomfort of international living on the one hand, and the fantasy of homecoming on the other are expressions of the same problem, a simultaneous excess and lack at the heart of Drake’s vision of selfhood. Because if the will to travel is revealed finally as a will to escape oneself, the moment of homecoming, for all that, is never a reunion. “Book a plane home, then I hesitate / Scared to see what I left behind,” Drake sings on “Since Way Back.” What he fears may be an encounter with a more original, authentic version of himself, one that might put his current self to shame. But what he would find is that this version never existed.

For Lamar, there is no place on earth outside of the dominion of God, and that dominion is gruelling and often without explanation. It is something to be endured. For Drake, there is no place on earth you might hope to escape yourself. Yourself is already there waiting for you in Dubai, or in Kingston, or even Manchester, and certainly in Toronto. And yet, this inescapable self can never be known, and to the extent that it always differs from what it is, the search for an origin remains futile.

This is the greatest difference between the artists: self-knowledge requires a reference to something outside the self––and a leap, over a wall or a partition, to God. The globe-trotting free-agent is doomed to homelessness, and to remain a mystery to itself forever. The ways of God may be no less mysterious, but they are, finally, necessary and guaranteed. Lamar may be stuck where he came out, hemmed in by fortune, or an accumulation of circumstances, but he knows where he must be: “Drake is definitely a great artist in this world,” he said in a Billboard interview, “I’m a great artist in my world.”


Owen Duff is reading for an M.Phil in Modern Languages at Balliol College, Oxford.