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Music The Enthusiast: How my son taught me to love Kendrick Lamar

Musician Kendrick Lamar arrives at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards in Inglewood, Calif. on Aug. 27, 2017.

MARIO ANZUONI/Reuters

My 17-year-old son and I were in the backyard last weekend, negotiating what upcoming concerts we’d see together. I say negotiating because Eli gladly accepted my extra Jack White ticket, but joining his father for a Kendrick Lamar concert gave him an anguished pause.

Kendrick was his favourite act, period, and owing to Eli’s influence, one of mine, too. But what should have been the Krazy Glue for a father-son duo was as useful as spit and sand.

Is it because he thought I’d kill his vibe, I asked, probably sounding betrayed.

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“Maybe,” he said.

“But Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize,” I argued. “Doesn’t that give me the dad waiver to join you?”

“Not sure,” he said.

It is complicated answer, actually. As Eli would tell you, despite the laurel, accolades and sales, Lamar’s music remains subversive. The lyrics, beats and melodies of the Compton, Calif.-raised rapper are mercurial, moods and personalities sometimes packed into a single track. While a few critics have compared Pulitzer Kenny to Nobel Bob, Lamar can be as unpredictable within a rhyme as Dylan could be from album to album. “Look at me, I’m a loser, I’m a winner, I’m good, I’m bad,” he sings in his 2010 track Kush and Corinthians, an allusion to both scripture and spliff. As if inhabited by multiple personalities, this Gemini rapper can channel different voices in a matter of flows: a whiny wizard, a thug, a lover.

Lamar’s biography is no less complicated. While living in Compton’s Section 8 housing project, he was five years old when he witnessed his first murder. His lyrics are pocked with violence, laced with bravado and fatalism. But he’s also a Christian, family man and engaged to a woman he’s known since high school. He’s so old-school that he still has faith in concept albums. How very dad-rock.

All of this is to profess that without Eli, I wouldn’t know any of this. It was Eli who first introduced me to Chance the Rapper, Anderson Paak, Noname and Frank Ocean. When he first played me Ocean’s sublime Pink and White two years ago in the car on the way home from a swim practice, the song’s candid beauty upended me, the father-son equation suddenly flipped on its head. Could it be that this kid has better, broader taste than me?

I slowly relinquished my divine right to the radio.

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Sometimes, this came at my peril, with a few errant recommendations from his YouTube habits. (Boy Pablo? Sounded like rehashed Aztec Camera!) And on the first go, the opening track from Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered didn’t grab me. At all. Mid-way through, I declared that it sounded like a parody of Business Time, the Flight of the Conchords’ Isaac Hayes parody. But later I read that before David Bowie died, the Great Borrower was listening to Lamar. I returned to Lamar’s untitled album and on the second track, Untitled 02, heard echoes of the fluttering saxophones from Bowie’s Blackstar and imminent hip-hop-alypse now.

Seen black turn ’em Burgundy

Hundred of them, I know I’m greedy

Stuck inside the belly of the beast

Can you please pray for me?

But it wasn’t until Eli and I were on a college visit last spring that Lamar had me in his thrall. One night, we were driving up I-91 in Massachusetts in the bible-black dark, and he fell asleep, iPhone in hand, playing Damn. It was the very hour the album was released and he was trying to stay up to listen to it.

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I was thinking about my own father – whose health had taken a turn for the awful around then. He always put up with my music, even though in own admission he left his musical interest behind at his college bar in Columbus, Ohio, in 1961 – with a CSN & Y hiccup later. (He usually had two observations about my repertoire: “Not a lot of melody,” or, “They make this up as they go along, you know.”) So if my dad could bear it, so could I. Besides, my boy had swum at five that morning and two hours again after school. He is a light sleeper and I was loathe to wake him.

Soon came DNA and the assassin’s row of tracks that, for me at least culminates with the track Pride, in all of its gauzy, confessional glory.

Hell-raising, wheel-chasing, new worldly possessions

Flesh-making, spirit-breaking, which one would you lessen?

The better part, the human heart

You love ’em or dissect ’em

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Happiness or flashiness? How do you serve the question?

For Eli, the last track, Duckworth, became the clincher. It was about Lamar’s father, Ducky, who according to the lyrics, worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken and tried to get on the good side of a gang member by feeding him free chicken and biscuits. That gang member ended up being record-label chief Anthony (Top Dawg) Tiffith, who eventually held up that very KFC and spared Ducky’s life. As fate would have it – or least the song’s version of it – Top Dawg eventually signed Ducky’s son to record deal.

Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?

Because if Anthony killed Ducky

Top Dawg could be servin’ life

While I grew up without a father and die in a gunfight.

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Four months later, my wife and I went to a Lamar concert at the Air Canada Centre – without Eli, actually. Our son was out of town. We were the oldest people there, or at least that’s how it felt. The concert was thick with hormones and pot smoke, the ACC hotboxed. When Lamar started Humble, it was done as call and response, with the audience shouting his lyrics back to him, but rather than doing the cheesy pop-star routine of putting the mic out to the masses, he folded the mic into his arms and allowed the voices of thousands wash over him. A big screen showed him overcome with emotion. I actually thought he was crying. Either way, it was one of the most moving concert moments I had ever experienced.

This time around, though, Eli and I wound up going to Lamar together. In fact, our entire family of five went: My wife snagged extra tickets, and we went with our 15- and 12-year-old daughters. In the teenage calculus of embarrassment, I was the lesser of two evils.

On our walk down from our home to Budweiser Stage, I eagerly asked if Lamar would play my favourites. Eli told me not to get my hopes up. “He won’t play your kinds of tunes.” Instead of Pride or Untitled 02, we’d hear the arena anthems. Ah, I said, and started naming a few – King Kunta, Money Trees – but he wasn’t terribly impressed. No wonder. Once Lamar took the stage, I could see why. Pot smoke around us swirling, hundreds of lyrics starting pouring out of Eli’s mouth, in sync with the thousands of others with their flailing arms and extended fingers. We were the land of Kush and Corinthians, and these were the pews. So much holy fervour. I couldn’t possibly compete. At least not yet.

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