Kendrick Lamar as Virtuoso
The virtuoso is the apotheosis of the artist. He is an expert at his craft, so adept that his accomplishments continually surpass the previously conceived limits of his medium. He possesses unparalleled technique, commanding continual awe from his audiences. In the realm of music, the virtuoso is a master of his instrument, known for his sensational displays of musical skill.
That the term "virtuoso" is most often associated with classical music is likely due to the field's longstanding obsession with technical excellence. For over 200 years, musicians like Niccolò Paganini and Franz Liszt have been pushing the boundaries of what is physically possible on their instruments by writing and performing technically dazzling compositions. These pieces, in turn, have served as tools for both pedagogy and showmanship for subsequent generations of instrumentalists. So it's no surprise that the preoccupation with technical perfection that resulted from these virtuosic activities have remained in the culture of classical music to this day.
Of course, there's no reason to eschew granting that title to performers of other types of music. And the prime example of the virtuoso in modern American music is Kendrick Lamar.
Kendrick Lamar's categorical dopeness has been thoroughly chronicled. His is a brand of dopeness so extensive as to be uncontainable within the confines of hip-hop music itself, spilling over them and influencing a far wider cultural landscape. Some have argued that his most recent album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is the most important artistic work of modern black culture, citing the complex lyrics and diverse array of musical genres it features. Even if we aren't yet comfortable calling him the GOAT, we all know that KL is dope AF.
But to say that Kendrick Lamar is dope does not explain the public's obsession with his music. Yes, he is a cultural beacon and a skilled poet, but why is his music dope? Or: why is he a virtuoso?
First, like all virtuosos, KL delivers his material quickly. Rapidity is a characteristic of virtuosos because the rate of rhythmic emission is a primary measure of technical ability. Doing things faster means doing things in less time; doing things in less time is always harder; and doing things the harder way is a signature characteristic of the virtuoso. In Rigamortis, KL raps semidemiquavers at a tempo where the crochet is 88 beats per minute. This translates into 12 syllables per second. Take a listen.
Second, KL employs novel modes of musical transmission. Much like Paganini showcased new techniques for the violin, such as the left-hand pizzicato, so too does KL displays vocal methods that are unprecedented in the field of rap. This has to do with both the color and melody of KL's voice. While most rappers keep their vocals within a predictable range of timbre and pitch to keep their delivery consistent, KL often subverts this expectation by expanding this range drastically. In the song U, for example, he opens with a melodic segment that spans 2.5 octaves, which is unheard of in rap music. This colossal range necessitates an aggressive, throat-heavy sound throughout much of the song. Yet, if you compare his delivery in U to that in You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said), as you can below, you would not recognize the two as belonging to the same rapper, because in the latter, he uses a much more restrictive melodic range combined with a more nasal vocal sound. KL's ability to deliver rhymes in so many tessituras and colors highlights his mastery of the medium.
Lastly, KL constructs music through the prolonged repetition of modular musical units. This observation may seem the most abstract, but it is the most visually and aurally striking. Virtuosic compositions tend to feature segments in which a single musical figure repeats for long periods of time, as a display of the performer's stamina. It's a musical way of saying "look how long I can do this without making any mistakes!"
To illustrate my point, below, I've superimposed excerpts from KL's Alright and Paganini's 18th Caprice for Solo Violin. Note the obvious visual similarity. This stems from the recurrence of downward scalar sixteenth note motives beginning on off-beats in both excerpts.
If there is one criticism that virtuosos like Liszt and Paganini have faced, it is that their technical abilities have masked a lack of artistic substance - that is, for all their glitz and glam, they had little to express in terms of emotions and ideas. This does not apply to Kendrick Lamar. He is an artist who will be remembered for his cumulative impact on society. His songs, though virtuosic, are profound expressions of the human condition rooted in a deep commitment to social justice.
KL is a virtuoso with a purpose. And that's why he's dope AF.