If you could somehow magically drag the YouTube slider back before the zero mark, Kendrick Lamar’s new video would start with a still of the infamous cover of Janet Jackson’s 1993 career reinvention album, Janet. You know the one: Uncropped, on the cover of Rolling Stone, it revealed her then-husband’s hands covering her breasts and her jeans barely hanging onto her curves. And the song Anytime Anyplace was as salacious as the image the CD came packaged in, as Ms. Let’s Wait A While crooned about her lover’s hand moving up her thigh.
That same year, she starred in director John Singleton’s Poetic Justice as a wordsmith in love with a character played by Tupac Shakur, two luminous ships passing in the smog-dusted L.A.-afternoon glare of African-American celebrity culture. Sex was Janet’s undoing, when her striptease act went too far. Tupac – the most enticingly complicated figure in 1990s rap, not to mention the most handsome – was shot dead, allegedly on account of messing with another rapper’s wife.
Lamar remembers that time, when doomed romantics were everywhere, but most especially in the mythology of the ghetto. The clip for Poetic Justice, Lamar’s new single, is steeped in vintage Comptonology, like a recasting of Boyz n the Hood (another Singleton movie) with iPhones. A sample of Jackson’s erotically tinged line from Anytime Anyplace about doing it “in the thundering rain” floats over a street party full of dice games and 40-ounce bottles and Impalas moving slowly along the curb, while Lamar raps his first verses in a black patterned shirt so mid-nineties, it should come with a high-top fade wig and a VHS copy of House Party.
The camera pans across the faces lit harshly by the street light, in a mechanical swoop that resembles a security camera feed. A fresh-faced girl and a grinning boy are conversing, laughing, as a serious-looking third figure starts moving toward them. “If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?” Lamar asks coyly. The viewer knows what’s going to happen, though when the crowd abruptly starts running from the two figures, who are now lying prone on top of each other, there’s still a split second of confusion – we never hear the gunshot.
Right then, the director cuts away to Drake’s cameo, like a blast from the R&B past. As a vixen reclines on the hotel bed behind him, Drizzy spits a typically flirtatious verse onto the dead girl’s voice mail, oblivious. It’s jarring, but it fits.
Lamar’s 2012 album Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is rife with star-crossed lovers and nihilism, booze and booty, guns and God. He weaves sex and death together, but never seamlessly: We can see where one ends and the other begins.