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COLUMN: Be careful interpreting art


By Steven Reinoehl



On Friday, Kendrick Lamar released his newest album, titled “DAMN.” Following the trend of his last few albums, “DAMN.” speaks in multiple layers, operating both as a rap album with cool rhyme schemes and top notch beats, and as a concept album speaking to Lamar’s life and greater themes he sees in the world.

Lamar speaks sparingly on the meanings behind his albums and prefers for people to listen, analyze and seek to understand what he is saying.

He has yet to post anything or do an interview about the album since its release, and even with his last albums, he spoke only to some of his intentions and meanings and often admits that he was only giving one of several intentions behind a song or lyric or album cover.

Because of Lamar’s relative silence behind the meaning of his work, people often take what he says out of context, and with “DAMN.” more than ever, people are getting what they want to hear out of the album rather than what Lamar is actually conveying.

With lines such as “Ain’t no black power when your baby killed by a coward,” and “The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives,” there is no shortage of interpretations to go around.

I believe interpretations of art should be treated with caution and care, and that slapping labels onto such a layered album dilutes its value and the value of art in our society.

The most popular label to put on this album, and probably the safest yet least accurate, is “political.” Several media sources, including Rolling Stone magazine, paint Lamar’s latest masterpiece as primarily an attack on President Trump and Fox News Channel.

While Lamar is definitely not professing himself as a fan of Trump in office, he mentions the name of the current president exactly one time and mentions the presidency three times in the whole album, never as the primary subject of any song.

While Fox News comes up far more often in the album, it does so in reference to a specific event. In 2015, after Lamar performed one of his songs from “To Pimp a Butterfly” at the BET awards, members of Fox News did a segment on him claiming he and rap were doing more to hurt the African-American community than help it.

Multiple songs on “DAMN.” address their accusations directly, but never does he address Fox News as a whole.

The references to Trump and Fox News in Lamar’s album are specific, pointed and not the main point of the album.

In fact, they are essentially the only political points in the whole album. They don’t dominate the album, nor do they reflect the larger goals of the album. They act as accents rather than primary sources, but it seems whoever can twist his art to reflect what they want people, conservative or liberal, to hear will do so in a heartbeat.

Overall, this hurts art. If Lamar’s album, meant to reflect his struggle as a Christian, as a human, as a black man and as a celebrity, can be whittled down to “Kendrick hates conservatives,” then all art can be cut and charred and diluted to lose its meaning.

The very real and urgent messages Lamar wants to convey to the world are going to be unheard, replaced with the shallow filter the media is giving us. Be careful with how you speak about the meaning of art.

Recognize when you hear what the artist is saying, and when you hear what you want the artist to say.

Their messages can change lives, and the more we let them do that, the better off we are as a 
community.

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