ELEMENT. by Kendrick Lamar opens with a hand rising from a calm body of water. A DJ introduces the song with a vocal style that directly invokes a late 90’s - early 2000’s mixtape aesthetic. This is the 4th track on DAMN. Lamar's 4th studio album. ELEMENT. is a 3 minute 33 second affirmation of his home, Compton.
Using Marshall McLuhan’s assertion “the medium is the message” this paper will illustrate how the medium has changed Lamar’s reality, identity, and ultimately his message. In response to this ELEMENT. is an affirmation of home and an act of resistance against the forces pushing him away from what was once the core of his music and message, life in Compton.
Kendrick Lamar first made it into the mainstream by virtue of telling his story about his home in his first album good kid, m.A.A.d city. Compton, is a place directly effected by racial inequality, neglect, and ghettoization created by Jim Crow era laws and racist housing policies.
Richard Rothstein defines ghetto “As a neighbourhood in which is homogeneous and from which there are serious barriers to exit.” In his appearance on a segment of Fresh Air titled Historian Says Don't 'Sanitize' How Our Government Created Ghettos he talks about the importance of acknowledging the history of explicit racism against black communities by the American government.
Lamar’s story and experience of Compton is a result of that. American ghettos are created by design by explicitly racist government policies aimed at creating concentrated black communities. In this centuries old assault on black life these are the sites where the effects of racism and inequality are felt most severely. Lamar synthesizes his experience of resisting, surviving, and eventually thriving under an anti-black society and political reality in his music. His bittersweetness toward Compton arises in his early works as he expresses a fondness for home that’s still married to the tragedy he’s experienced there.
The Medium is The Message
With a resentful tone Lamar takes moments to comment on different mediums people experience him through. He says, “I didn’t do it for the gram I did it for Compton.” The visuals that accompany that line feature Lamar in two separate shots in the centre of a large group of people presumably from Compton.
The gram is a moniker for Instagram, but its also used to reference Instagram’s audience, rather than the actual platform. In that case the line could be taken as “I didn't do it for people on Instagram, I did it for Compton,” and if “it” refers to his art and career then he’s making a reprehensive statement to clarify who his art is for in a response that suggest that the medium itself blurs those lines.
If we consider that Instagram is a medium that blends hot an cold, in that its high definition but still participatory and conversational. Then going further this line is Kendrick directly telling us that although the medium makes us feel like his work is accessible to everyone, it’s for Compton. Only they can fully understand it, engage with it, comment and contribute to it. The clarification that Lamar delivers in this line shows us how the medium distorts andLamar seems irritated by that.
In another line he says, “Niggas thought that K.dot in real life, is the same life they see on tv,” K.dot is a reference to himself. This line has an even more resentful tone. It seems to suggest that even though Lamar crafts the message that the medium delivers some how the way the medium articulates that message doesn't satisfy him and doesn’t give an authentic 1:1 delivery of who he is.
In both of these lines Lamar seems frustrated at the people who consume his art but what he’s actually expressing is his frustration of mediums and what happens as his art passes through them. He irritably makes corrections, and tells us no matter what we’ll misconceive who he really is.
Mode Of Production
We see that Lamar is frustrated with mediums. We explore how the medium distorts his message. Now we’ll look at how the medium shapes and transforms Lamar’s reality.
Lamar’s art and career have proliferated him into super stardom. The binding element of the American ghetto mentioned earlier in this paper no longer apply to him. He’s bigger than any barriers to exit and no longer confined to the reality of Compton which originally fuelled the production of his art.
Lamar’s entire music career can be seen as a medium. A mass audience responded well to the message that medium delivered and thus the medium is directly responsible for the success thats transforming his life. As his music career took off and he begins to transcend his reality in Compton his music changes as well. References to Compton become more nostalgic and expressions of survivors guilt begin to appear in his work.
They Won’t Take Me Out my Element
In several moments he declares “They won’t take me out my element,” in a way that suggests he’s resisting a force that seeks to pull him out of Compton. The force he’s resisting is his new life which threatens what’s been familiar to him his whole life. Compton is a choice he makes now and not a circumstance.
Lamar appears to be having difficulty accepting his new life evident in his fixation on visuals and lyrics that invoke imagery that characterize tough experiences of living in rough circumstances. For example, the scene of a father teaching his son how to fight, and the scene that follows it which features the group Lamar was previously riding with jumping out of the van while Lamar raps “Pull up, hop out, air our, made it look sexy” where made it look sexy euphemizes some form of violence as mentioned in the lines that proceed it “If I gotta slap a pussy ass nigga, I’ma make it look sexy, if I gotta go hard on a bitch I’ma make it look sexy.”
Although he’s resisting change and clinging on to the nostalgia of his bittersweet Compton life, the imagery of fire and water in the visuals tell us that Lamar knows a transformation of his life is taking place. This is evident in the first scene of the hand rising from the water, followed by the scene of a group watching still as a house is being swallowed in flames while Lamar narrates “I’m willing to die for this shit, I done cried for this shit, I’ll take a life for this shit.”
Right after that the young boy, from the father and son fight scene, is introduced. He’s bowing his head while being showered with water, and that scene is juxtaposed by the next scene which features Lamar in silhouette in the same position raising his head from being bowed. These scenes let us know from the very beginning that rebirth is central to the theme of this work.
Lamar is conscious of the transformation occurring in his life afforded to him by his music, his medium. However, as the effects of the medium begin to shape his life he doesn't want to lose sight of home. He refuses to transcend from Compton and fights to transform with Compton.
You can’t take Lamar out of Compton, nor can you take Compton out of Lamar. What you can do is watch and listen to the fire burning what once existed. From it something new but familiar rises out of calm waters to take its place. Lamar’s medium gave him a new life of prosperity. Now, he’s asking for Compton to be prosperous with him so he can stay in his ELEMENT.
All images used are screenshots taken from the ELEMENT. music video attached below: