It’s important to note than hip hop culture reigns as one of the most influential platforms in our world today. Whether it is Kendrick Lamar inspiring young teenagers to rap, Kanye West innovating a new fashion line, or Miley Cyrus encouraging young girls to “be themselves” (ha), we must look at how hip hop culture utilizes rhetorical elements to obtain this vast amount of influence. We will be examining the use of rhetorical elements in hip hop culture on a micro level by diving into one of Kendrick Lamar’s latest tracks.
|To Pimp a Butterfly Album Cover|
Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy winning album, To Pimp a Butterfly, featured president Barack Obama’s favorite record of 2015 – How Much a Dollar Cost. This humbling and spiritual track features an encounter Kendrick had with a homeless man at a gas station in South Africa. As he takes us on this journey, we first experience Kendrick’s initial reaction to a homeless man asking for a simple dollar, the typical and almost expected, “no.” However, upon rejection the homeless man asks Kendrick if he’d ever read Exodus 14; the second book in the Old Testament. Exodus 14 spotlights the story of Moses holding out his staff in faith as God parts the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to safely walk through the sea on dry ground. As Kendrick was immediately humbled by this biblical reference, the rest of this tale consisted of Kendrick’s internal conflict regarding his encounter with this homeless man.
The following elements are used in the 3rd verse of Kendrick’s How Much a Dollar Cost:
- · Enumeratio – Enumeratio is a device in which you present an idea, moment, or argument with many details. While describing how he felt after being asked about Exodus 14, Kendrick opens the third verse by noting: “Guilt trippin’ and feelin’ resentment. I never met a transient that demanded attention. They got me frustrated, indecisive, and power trippin’.” Kendrick’s usage of concise details aids listeners in fully understanding the internal conflict he was wrestling with at this moment.
- · Analogy – So often in hip hop music, artists craft analogies to illustrate a memory, feeling, or story. As Lamar describes this homeless man he thinks back to his very own grandfather. Kendrick writes: “now I comprehend, I smell grandpa’s old medicine reekin’ from your skin, moonshine and gin.” This analogy not only serves a purpose in helping Lamar’s listeners visualize the moment, but helps put things into perspective for Kendrick himself.
- · Allusion – He closes the final verse by speaking from the homeless man’s perspective: “You’re lookin’ at the Messiah, the son of Jehova, the higher power. The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit, the nerve of Nazareth, and I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost. The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss, I am God.” Kendrick references the homeless man as a living product of God himself, which in turn explains why Kendrick was so resentful of his initial response.
In only one verse, Kendrick manipulated 3 rhetorical devices that continue to intrigue listeners to come back wanting more. Keep in mind, these are only 3 elements I chose to mention. We must look beyond the flashy music videos, wealthy lifestyles, and “dope” beats to fully appreciate the craft and artistry of hip hop music. Music is more than sound; it’s a memory, a story, an argument.