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We Want The Funk!

How Kendrick Lamar’s vocals evolved from freak to funk

Kendrick Lamar took to the Saturday Night Live stage on a mid-November night in 2014 bathed in a velvety, mauve spotlight. The soft hue shone brightly against the gloss of his skin, refracted off of his black, dilated pupils, and cast his half-’fro/half-cornrow do in a regal beam. The look paid visual homage to two of rap's most talented extraterrestrials — Method Man and Ol' Dirty Bastard — and the ensuing performance of "i," the lead single from Kendrick's then-upcoming To Pimp a Butterfly, reasserted his place within a legacy of oddball observationalists. It also introduced a novel twist on Kendrick's vocal approach: The high-pitched squeal accompanying the lyrics he added for the live rendition ("When ya lookin' at meEEee, tell me what do you seeEEe / Ah! I put a bullet in the back of the back of the head of the poliiIiice!”) pointed us toward the funkier, freakier Kendrick we've heard on much of what he's done since, including his latest knockout record, DAMN.

Even before Kendrick mothafunked his sound, funk was on its way back to the fore of pop music. Musicians like Thundercat and The Internet, among others, have kept the genre afloat in recent years by adding modern touches, from digital Afrobeat drum patterns to ambient soundscapes. By 2015 and 2016, as the mood of the country reached a nadir, contemporary artists began reinvigorating their music with appropriate levels of stank. Soon, acts like Solange and Childish Gambino were rewinding the psychedelic funk of the 1970s into life-affirming humanity-music. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Kendrick's work in the form is the way he's expanded his vocal range into a quasi-psychedelic, deeply funky alien trip.

Prior to the cosmic transmission that night on SNL, Kendrick's early vocal experimentation, while noteworthy, depended heavily on digital vocal enhancements and smart layering of super-high-pitched squeals (to give it that Alvin and the Chipmunks feel), slowed-down (read: chopped and screwed) sounds, and assists from Bilal and Anna Wise. Peep how "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" wavers in foregrounding the artist's nasal delivery within a cacophony of in-tune but disparate voices. Or listen to the second verse of "Swimming Pools (Drank)," in which, to denote a separation between Kendrick and his cautious conscience, a squeaky inner voice warns him not to imbibe beyond his bodily limits. On DAMN., as on moments of To Pimp a Butterfly, his approach is simpler. The way he squeals and squeezes out lines in his natural voice speaks to his inspirations and the ways black music continues to morph into the future.

When Kendrick's voice tweaks into a higher range on DAMN., it often coincides with moments when he tries to address the separation that he feels from the rest of humanity. The concise chorus of "PRIDE.," in which Kendrick calls out "I care," pierces the song's airy atmosphere and offers something more. On a track about how societal flaws eventually "become repetition" if we don't address them, Kendrick almost sounds like he's weeping at the apathy. He sounds pained by the narrowness with which humans see one another, hurt by the fact that "I care" can be a radical statement.

Later, on "FEAR.," Kendrick catalogues his anxieties about bodily and creative death, stemming from the ways a disconnected world has perceived him throughout his life. The chorus creaks and climbs up registers until he, again, reiterates how his decisions separate him: "If I could smoke fear away, I'd roll that mothafucka up / And I'd take two puffs." Kendrick is a known nonsmoker, so while others might believe the leaf can offer relief from reality, he doesn't have that option. You can hear what's happening in his voice: His continued exposure to our world has left him feeling distinctly and understandably lonely.

When a friend comes to Kendrick to confide in him about the death of a son on "XXX.," the disruptive force of violence shakes Kendrick to his core. After explaining the situation, Kendrick explodes in an anger and passion that hearkens back to older songs like "Untitled 05 | 09.21.2014" or "Institutionalized," on which he directly engaged with socially inherited anti-blackness. "XXX." is the most lived-in of the three songs, and the effects of violence cause his voice to break at the end of each line in an almost adolescent fervor: "It be murder in the street, it be bodies on the hour / Ghetto birds be on the street / Paramedics on the dial." The verse has incredible resonance, as the sight of black bodies burning under the sun is closely linked to a quiet kind of madness for black people living in this country. The spirit to voice that kind of anger — and then to turn on a dime to deal with the hypocrisies and complexities of black existence in the B-part of the song — indicates someone who's found the answer within himself, even if he knows your answer might look a little different.

In stretching his voice this way, Kendrick calls back to a lineage that runs through James Brown's foundational work in the ’60s; the psychedelic ’70s; Prince’s sweaty phantasmagoria in the ’80s; and gangsta rap's run in the ’90s. In each of these eras, artists stretched the human voice in order to challenge listeners to consider the forces residing in our bodies, awaiting a sound to call them to life. Brown, for instance, gave us music that, as the critic Greg Tate wrote, “made it respectable for black people to own rather than disown their bodies in public space.” In the next decade, funk acts like Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Ohio Players used the freedom of the voice to stand in for the freedom of the mind.

Later, what Brown did to release the life-spirit through and outside of the black body, Prince did for the voice. His unreleased 1986 album Camille, named after his female alter ego, featured cuts like “Housequake,” “Strange Relationship,” and “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” on which he used pitched-up, androgynous vocals to push his art further than ever before. These songs were eventually folded into his 1987 masterpiece, Sign ‘O’ the Times, adding a visceral dimension to an already wide-ranging performance. By singing as Camille, he was doing his damnedest to extol the entirety of his humanness on wax.

The funk, like the blues that preceded it, never left us. While its implications of liberation have gone in and out of mainstream favor — as with most black music, the general population usually digs our innovative sound but largely disregards what we actually have to say — the paragons of radical black music have always had their ears open. Kendrick’s uplift music since 2014 reminds us of the lengths the funk musicians before him went to in order to save us, and how we didn’t really listen.

Conversations about consciousness in hip-hop often lead to repetitive debates on whether naysayers are smart enough to understand Kendrick's, or whoever else's, work. What's most annoying about this is the way it limits the real feelings bubbling up on songs like “XXX.” or “PRIDE.” These songs go far beyond the conscious/unconscious rap binary by emphasizing the aftereffects of living in an apathetic world. We don’t need an English degree to pull back the layers of feeling: His voice, and the way he uses it now, will do a lot of that work for us. Artists who hope to follow Kendrick's lead would be wise to consider the way his use of funk vocal techniques serves the message of empathy and humanity in the face of conflict. If pressing hip-hop forward is the ultimate goal, funk’s commitment to weirdness as a path to universality could be just the jolt the genre needs.