Loving you is complicated.
In the song “U” (from his Grammy-winning 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly), hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar samples Whoarei’s “Loving You Ain’t Complicated,” but flips the script on typical musings on love and raps a refrain ten times over that tells the listener,
Loving you is complicated.
“U” is a brutally honest portrait of self-doubt and battling with the endless self-fulfilling prophesies of depression and anxiety. In his pain, Lamar helps us all recognize that one of the most complicated parts of love is that it starts with loving oneself, and that’s not always easy.
Loving you is complicated.
If we turn to the organic wisdom of contemporary cultural hermeneuts found at the rich archive of Genius.com, Lamar’s complicating of love is inspired by his hip hop predecessor, Tupac Shakur, who once wrote that “Love Is Just Complicated.” In this poem, Shakur “wanted ‘A’ but ‘A’ was 2 mixed up with ‘B.’” His objects of affection are too much alike. Instead of thinking of ‘A’ and ‘B’ as other people, what if we imagined that both objects of love actually represent different self-images, different conceptions of Shakur’s own identity? This imagining is what Lamar does with ‘Pac, here and throughout his catalog of work. Lamar loves Shakur to the point of imitation but worries that his overidentification with Pac is why we (collectively) love Lamar today. Would we love the “real” Lamar if he stopped loving ‘Pac? And if we don’t love the “real” Lamar, could he love himself?
Loving you is complicated. But what is it?
An interviewer once asked philosopher Jacques Derrida to speak to the idea of love. The French deconstructionist warned that “Whoever starts to love, is in love, or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. One wants to be true to someone – singularly, irreplaceable – and one perceives that this someone isn’t x or y. They didn’t have the qualities, properties, the images, that I thought I’d loved. So fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what” [emphasis added].
In considering the question of “What’s at stake in invoking ‘love’ in political spheres,” we get nervous, because love doesn’t really handle social difference well, at least not in a way that is qualitatively different than the circumstances shaping our desires for political intervention. Whether ‘A’ and ‘B’ are sexual partners, self-definitions, or political goals, love conflates ‘A’ and ‘B’, who with what, confounding us in the process. Is our desire to love’s anything more than a yearning to see and be seen by those who might only see us through circumscribed glasses?
In his tragically timeless The Fire Next Time, when American writer James Baldwin tells his nephew that “the really terrible thing” is that “you … must accept them with love,” (8-9) he is warning that doing so requires a flattening of the who and what, erasing any difference between the ‘A’ and ‘B’, concealing what we might consider the danger of white fears of difference taken up as fundamental human concerns:
For it would seem that a certain category of exceptions never failed to make the world worse—that category, precisely, for whom power is more real than love. And yet power is real, and many things, including, very often, love, cannot be achieved without it. In the eeriest way possible, I suddenly had a glimpse of what white people must go through at a dinner table when they are trying to prove that Negroes are not subhuman. I had almost said, after all, ‘Well, take my friend Mary,’ and very nearly descended to a catalogue of those virtues that gave Mary the right to be alive. And in what hope? That Elijah [Muhammad] and the others would nod their heads solemnly and say, at last, ‘Well, she’s all right—but the others!’
When our concern is self-love, the task of loving is difficult, but vital; when our goal is loving other people, that task is downright dangerous and is already “political” in the most fundamental sense.
In the white western world, who a person is perceived to be – as a singularity – has an inordinate impact on what one does, where one does it, and how it is received. Stating the same idea differently, what a person is perceived to be – as a non-unique representative of these or those social classifications – has an inordinate impact on who a person perceives themselves to be as social, political, sexual, and altogether complicated human beings. Some of us, by virtue of this arrangement, move through the world conflating this who and what without much consequence, while for others, the conflation can have byzantine, tragic consequences. Working as a kind of intersectional mode of violence, love flattens who and what, such that its logic echoes modes of social marginalization that have historically objectified non-white, non-male social actors as various generic “Others” (i.e. whats) serving various economic, social, and cultural ends for a singular who, straight white men. If we are to attend to, much less celebrate, the difference between the who and the what – as we hope to do in our (own) work – then love may be more trouble than its worth. In this brief piece, we want to suggest the potential that a critical hip hop hermeneutic holds for promoting a Baldwinian sense of radical love as truth telling about the need to see “love” deconstructed and disavowed. Baldwin’s admonition is not a pie-in-the-sky ethereal idea useful for pastors or politicians who want to extoll the virtues of loving one’s neighbor. It is a warning. And if the likes of Kendrick Lamar or Cardi B are any indicator, hip hop heeds Baldwin’s warning about love.
Hip hop is a mode of cultural expression seen in fashion, film, online, graffitied building walls, and mainstream advertisements organized around four principal “elements,” including emceeing, djing, graffiti, and breaking. For at least 45 years now, under the social ills of the still-colonial, postindustrial west, hip hop culture has offered an interpretive alternative for marginalized communities organized around the axiom that what you do or make or create determines who you are. For many, this constellation of elements produces life worlds and interpretive postures that do not assume a teleological model of liberatory arrival and keep it real as to the costs of love. In short, the pop cultural irony played on by the television show “Love and Hip Hop” and exemplified by Lamar and Cardi B reveals a particular truth: hip hop is suspicious of love.
Among the wide array of hip hop artists, entrepreneurs, and producers today, Lamar has gained notice for his quick rise to fame, meticulous and original artistic genius shaping cultural discourse, and an adept political awareness, producing nodes of ongoing significance affecting the nature and meaning of black life today. As his philosophical acumen would have it, Lamar offers wisdom on the notion of love, telling us that if he’s going to keep it a hundred (i.e. staying honest), he’d rather we trust him than love him.[vi] In April of 2017, Lamar released his fourth EP, titled DAMN!. Space does not do justice to the multiplicative significations of meaning offered by the album, for sake of both its sheer creative genius, but also its timing (arriving quickly after the transition in the U.S. to a new (not-so-new, after all) Presidential Administration). Lamar’s album provided cathartic release for many, so many, in fact, that every song on the album was in the Billboard Top-100 single chart at the same time the album was on top of the Billboard Top-200 album chart.
“Love.,” featuring Zacari, from the album, debuted at No. 18. The song is a hazy, romantic promise to a partner, offering a snapshot of one hip hop artist’s outlook on love; furthermore, despite its suggestive title and the admonition once offered by The Beatles, love is not all we need. Through a chorus uncannily reminiscent of Derrida’s position on love, Lamar raps:
If I didn’t ride blade on curb, would you still love me?
If I minimized my net worth, would you still love me?
Keep it a hundred, I’d rather you trust me than to love me.
Keep it a whole one hund’: don’t got you, I got nothin’.
The first two lines have Lamar ask “if I didn’t live up to your expectations, would you still want to be with me?” For instance, what if Lamar wasn’t such a skilled lyricist? What if Lamar wasn’t “black” enough? What if he tried to note the singularity of a lover only to be heard as criticizing certain beauty standards and norms? What if his artistic ideas all came from Tupac? Would we still love him? Essentially, he’s asking what would happen if the difference between the who and what were exposed? Clearly, he’s celebrating and longing for love in the sense of the term that Gayatri Spivak, following Derrida, suggests “takes for granted that an irrational fixation upon the unique is a property of love.” Like Baldwin’s reflexive awareness of his own need to exempt “Mary,” Lamar champions this “irrational fixation” but through his word choice and the wraithlike, frantic music suggests he’s all too aware of his irrational fixation on feeling unique, and demonstrates the wisdom that such efforts have an effect of transmuting uniqueness into sameness.
The third line doesn’t rest on love, doesn’t fetishize it, and through a kind of existential humility, recognizes that love – for many folks and for many reasons – is too much to ask of another and too much to give of oneself. Lamar would rather have trust than love. This resituating of priorities provides a foundation for creative response to marginalization. Whereas many considerations of love (in/as) response to marginalization assume it able to achieve certain political or existential ends or turn it into a kind of turn the other cheek/love your enemy ethos, Lamar (and all of America’s children who made/make hip hop) know that the effects of love are limited: Love might feel good, but I need to trust you’ll be home with groceries. I need to trust you aren’t stepping out on me. I need to trust that you know how to avoid getting shot by police. I need to trust that you won’t exceptionalize me with their sense of normal. While this perspective may ring as abrasive and sullen and surely heartrending, through mutual recognition of circumstance, hip hoppers orient themselves towards new possibilities attentive to the high personal costs of love and the structural realities that know all too well about love’s relationship to white terrorism and other sorts of violence.
Recently, none within hip hop have demonstrated such an orientation better than Cardi B. Love her or hate her, Cardi B is “killing the game.” Former stripper turned reality TV star turned rapper, Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” was the song of 2017, outmatching a host of strong competition, including Lamar. Her official music video for “Bodak Yellow” was published to Youtube on June 24 of 2017 and approximately one year later, it has been viewed over 580 million times. Additionally, by the end of September 2017, her song had made it to the top of Billboard’s singles charts. This was the first time a solo female rapper reached number one since Lauryn Hill’s 1998 “Doo Wop (That Thing).” Cardi B and Hill are the only female rappers to ever make it to the top of this chart. Her impact on hip hop culture, and her impact on hip hop’s influence on popular culture generally, are incontrovertible:
These is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes
Hit the store, I can get ‘em both, I don’t wanna choose
And I’m quick, cut a nigga off, so don’t get comfortable, look
I don’t dance now, I make money moves
Say I don’t gotta dance, I make money move.
Through double-entendre and other wordplay more sophisticated than the broody trap beat would suggest, Cardi emphasizes a taste for expensive goods, an understanding that these products often come with social consequences, honest recognition that (at least partly) she has paid those social costs already, so she’s not choosing between competing interests but she’s going to have them both. “I don’t dance now…I don’t gotta dance” implies something of an awareness of social asymmetries that objectify women of color at staggering rates and through many forms. What can be read as conspicuous consumption and a laundry list of repackaged hip hop stereotypes is more than the sum of those parts. If love is the erasure of difference between the who and what, perhaps “Bodak Yellow” is a story of Cardi B learning to love herself. Not the world. Not others. Herself. Maybe, self-definition and contentment with that definition is as far as talk of love needs to go?
To conclude, we leave you with final thoughts from Cardi on the topic of love. In an interview with radio show The Breakfast Club, it was charged that she was in love. Cardi’s reply seems uncannily significant to the current occasion, representative of hip hop brilliance, and befitting a final word on love:
Why you gotta use the ‘L’ word? Now you know what?…things was going cute until you…Ner what I’m sayin’, I gained a couple a weights, ner what I’m sayin.’ It’s healthy. You know, you know I’m too gangsta to use those types of words, mayne.