It’s a well-worn joke on Black Twitter by now, that someone is always offended by something. A popular social media sociologist will air a grievance with a work of art, one of their (many) detractors will respond — often with hyperbolic pluralization — seeking to score points of their own while deflating the original tweeter’s point, the original tweeter’s followers will assemble like a loyal fan club-cum-special-operation- strikeforce, and before you know it, the next all-day battle in The Great Twitter Culture War has begun.
When Kendrick Lamar sneak-released his latest single and video, “Humble,” of course the fanfare reached a near-deafening fever pitch almost instantly. However, in the era of the Fuego Take (shout-out Desus and Mero), someone’s off-the-cuff observation can easily transform into the tinder that sparks an all-Twitter-segments-spanning debate. In one scene in the video, Kendrick performs alongside a model in a split screen image; on the right side, Kenny and his muse are filtered and well-lit, her in contoured, caked on makeup, hair slicked back, looking like an image from King magazine circa 2005 (R.I.P.). On the left, the filter is removed, the hair set free to crown her bare face with loose-set, natural-looking curls as Kenrick barks: “I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop / Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor.”
It’s a line meant to celebrate natural beauty, to uplift and encourage any woman who wants to go about her day in the state she wakes up in, without the accoutrements of socially-enforced standards of sex appeal… Or is it? Some listeners were quick to observe a potentially veiled implication behind the intended compliment: While it is entirely possible to extol the beauty and bravery of the “naturalista,” it appears to come at the expense of the girl on the right, who gets out of bed and starts her routine to look “presentable” to a world that has already repeatedly told her that her natural look is inferior, unprofessional, problematic. Whether or not K. Dot intended this is beside the point; we can’t give brownie points for intent, only what’s been said and shown, and how that imagery makes us feel.
Imagine a young Black woman who struggles with her everyday appearance, due to influences both internal and external, who has found a balance in being able to look corporate enough in her weave, pretty enough in her makeup, and photogenic enough with her Instagram filter, only to be told by her favorite artist lyrically that he would hypothetically reject her due to these aesthetic decisions. It’s crushing to be held to impossible standards by society, by pop culture, by community, to conform to those standards as best one can, and to be given the about-face anyway. More than that, it’s frustrating; the number one sentiment one comes away with in browsing the tweets of so-called “Twitter Feminists” is one of profound exasperation with what comes across as fickleness on the part of men, who set the tone of the conversation more often than not.
After all, the majority of magazine editors, television and movie producers, marketing and advertising bigwigs have always been, and still are, men. It wasn’t women who decided that every glossy paper image of feminine beauty needed to be airbrushed and hairless, dead-eyed, straight-haired and light-skinned, just curvy enough (but not too curvy!) to be deemed “flawless,” or that only this artificial perfection was the only possible version of “good enough.” Even when the standard has been somewhat reversed in recent years, a moment’s perusal of the popular natural-hair models on both traditional and social media still reveal a predilection toward fairer skin, looser curls, and curves over love handles and jelly rolls. Please note that this would seem to disqualify a significant portion of rap’s fanbase, as black women have long been the first supporters of many a new artist (including Kendrick, from this writer’s personal experience watching the come-up in LA dive bars from the earliest days), yet are usually the first ones excluded from the typical rapper’s description of his ideal mate/sex partner/soulmate/hoe/housewife.
K. Dot speaks of “Richard Pryor afros,” but one would have to rock a pretty high prescription to be unable to discern the difference between the girl in the video and that particular analogy. And it must be said, rap music and hip-hop culture have been a propelling influence in how all these attributes are perceived. Now there are female casting directors for rap videos, but they are casting to meet the demands of the archetypical rap fan, who will exist to some extent in the minds of decision-makers as a young, straight male, however inaccurate that portrayal may be.
The opposition to this critique — and it is critique more than outcry — paints these complaints as outrageous, seemingly in an effort to mitigate negative effect on the public reception of the song and its accompanying visual. “Kendrick can have whatever preference he wants!” they counter, “You feminist [sic] are always offended!” It bears noting that many of these self-styled arbiters of artists’ intent match the above-mentioned criteria of a stereotypical rap fan. It’s also important to remember that this cycle has repeated ad nauseum since Twitter reached the level of being the global water cooler for social commentary — it’s nearly always black women starting the conversation, and men (in general) trying to hush them up, sit them down, and explain all the reasons why they were wrong and need to learn to lighten up.
Here is where they make their mistake: Legitimate, constructive criticism is not offensive. While feelings may hurt, or intellectual sensibilities can be piqued, addressing how art can be better is neither censorship, nor indignance. Women like Kendrick Lamar and his music. More than that, they want to like his music. That they are even stating these quibbles, qualms, nitpicks “aloud” proves that fact; there are many women who enjoy the product he creates, despite its flaws. Asking for a product that they consume to meet a certain standard does not automatically disqualify them from being able to feel good things while partaking in the product itself. It means that while they do so, it would also be nice not to feel bad things. You can enjoy driving your car, but if the manufacturer installed bad wheel alignment, you would also very much want that alignment fixed by the manufacturer so that the car will drive straight and not swerve into traffic rather than scrap the whole thing and ride the bus.
Likewise, it is entirely Kendrick Lamar’s prerogative to like whatever or whomever he likes, but just because he likes cheeseburgers doesn’t mean he has to put down pizza. You can state your preference for one thing without also demeaning the alternative. Especially as it relates to people, who all have so many differences and variances from each other, and even from their own younger selves. No one should expect anyone to be constrained to being only one way all the time, every day, year after year, yet the line about being tired of Photoshop speaks to doing just that. Again, even if it doesn’t explicitly state that, it implies that one shouldn’t want to throw a little filter on, or touch up something they are insecure about in a photo or video that might be widely seen in the modern era of virality and global reach of even the tiniest minutiae of one’s life.
Now, to be fair, there are a great many women who read both that line, and its follow-up (“Show me somethin’ natural, like ass with some stretch marks…”) as its author apparently intended. It’d be remiss to overlook the listeners — especially the black girls who he is probably most readily addressing (although shout-out the Latinas, Desis, Arabs, Asians, and Caucasians who fit the description too) — who had long felt unpretty in their natural state, and in that moment could feel appreciated, empowered, loved, whole, and beautiful. Such is the power of music; multitudes can be contained in one simple 4/4 measure of time.
Every person has the right to interpret what they hear however they want; if you want to believe that Compton Kenny just wants you to believe in your selfie and harbors no ill will for anyone who wants to dress it up a little first, go right ahead. But if someone hears something else, and feels upset that they’re trapped in a daily catch-22 of trying to satisfy a million and one conflicting demands dictated by the omnipresent power of the male gaze, that’s okay too. They should be able to ask for better, as many times as they need to, until the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Instead of being defensive, men should be willing to hear out these critiques, without getting offended themselves on behalf of the artist. Either way, don’t worry about Kendrick; he’ll be alright. The women who like his music but have qualms will still be able to enjoy it; many of them will just swallow those concerns to do so. Unfortunately, they’ve gotten used to doing that.
Aaron Williams is an average guy from Compton. He’s a writer and editor for The Drew League and co-host of the Compton Beach podcast. Follow him here.