Written by Clarissa Brooks
Kendrick Lamar’s most recent visual treatment directed by Jonas Lindstroem and the Lil Homies, who are Kendrick and Dave Free respectively, brought us to discuss real questions around poverty, violence, and the black image. In Lamar’s most recent visual for his track ELEMENT, off his latest album DAMN, he brings you into his world—the world full of physicality, resurrection, and violence that brings Kendrick out of himself. Kendrick Lamar’s album DAMN is a look at what happens when the self is torn in different directions as you realize God may not be as merciful as you thought. ELEMENT as a video is a direct homage to a few photojournalists, but mainly Gordon Parks, the first black photographer to have his work featured in Vogue and LIFE. He spent much of his career documenting the realities of black life and social justice movements of the 60’s. He later became the godfather of Malcolm X’s daughter because of his long and trusted friendship with X.
The song itself brings us to a Kendrick Lamar that is over it. In this rendition of ELEMENT, Kendrick is stepping out of himself. Exposing a new Kendrick. D.O.T is the paranoid, egotistic, and at times violent side of Kendrick, a person we have all had to be at one point or another. We all have to come outside of ourselves at times to remind folks of our worth and triumph, especially as queer folk. D.O.T is doing just that; he’s putting the religious analysis to the side and wants to remind his fans that he is STILL the greatest. This paranoid Kendrick is a young man being forced to defend his fame and skill. We witness this paranoia throughout the album, but in this song, specifically, we see that paranoia met with a violent tone. D.O.T is ready to call out any fake rapper that may pass by him. In ELEMENT, we see Kendrick Lamar have an interpersonal dialogue with himself as he weaves a violent disposition into a gorgeous sequence of images. He turns violence into a dance of beauty and physicality that you can almost feel.
My biggest question watching the music video was why would Kendrick choose artists such as Parks, Elliott Erwitt, and Bill Viola to depict these black images? What does it mean to depict your reality through specific images? What is he trying to say? I realized by the end of the video the importance of altering narratives, of turning what has been deemed violent into a space of beauty. To speak on the cycles of taught violence that most black men need in order to survive. To turn the ugly parts of blackness that we try to hide as spaces of strength. To recreate images that now speak to a current day struggle. To give respect to Parks and to note how important the documentation of black life is to be able to discuss nuance. We never see black boys in images that aren’t derogatory, but in ELEMENT we see how black boys are taught to fight for survival and how they have to let go of their innocence in order to live in a world that doesn’t want them to survive. I felt as if Kendrick’s use of silhouettes were focused on displaying a life that is riddled with a masculinity that has no space for vulnerability. Throughout Kendrick’s career, we have seen him go back and forth with his own ideas around masculinity and faith, we see how those two ideas can get complicated quickly. In ELEMENT we are seeing the return of D.O.T, the unhinged side of Kendrick that is full of rage, anxiety, and paranoia around losing a notoriety that he was rightfully earned. More importantly, in the recreated fight scenes, we see Kendrick give a physicality and beauty to violence, specifically black violence that is normally ignored. In recreating these Parks images we see a current adoption of reality that shows us that masculinity, even the toxic kind, isn’t as cut and dry as normally portrayed. The last few scenes reminded me of a moment I had as a kid, my cousins and I would get together and go beat up the kids we didn’t like from down the street. It reminded me of how you can find pride in the things that have been used to castigate you. We would walk with our chests high ready to protect what little area of the playground we could. We were indoctrinated into a world that wasn’t easy and we had to learn quickly how to defend ourselves. Kendrick and his crew felt familiar, like my older male cousins, whose lives are riddled with self-doubt with having to always protect a masculinity that constantly feels under attack.
Kendrick Lamar is always coming home. In every album, song, or feature Kendrick finds a way to bring his hometown into his person or his lyrics. Whether it be his voice, visuals, or movement Kendrick is always looking to remind us where he grew up. Compton is a constant inspiration and guilt for Kendrick. He’s discussed his struggle to now stay stuck in his own guilt of leaving the place that raised him. I think with creating a visual of contrasts and recreation, Kendrick wanted to create more than a music video. The TDE team is amazing at creating visuals, but this time around Kendrick created a work that was a personal look at the humble beginnings he never wants to forget.