By Sharmin Shanur
Kendrick Lamar’s new single “Humble” has fallen under some intense scrutiny. With fans hailing him for calling women the most beautiful in their natural state, be it without makeup or with cellulite; others find him to be just another rapper simply proclaiming his personal majesty through a social commentary on beauty. In truth, both claims are valid, as Lamar does address our Photoshop culture while using Christological imagery in his music video and a holier-than-thou ethos to present himself as divine for preferring his women unretouched. For these reasons, two extremely polarized groups have arisen around this song and music video.
“Humble” begins with Kendrick Lamar dressed as a Pope, illuminated in a dark room by a single ray of light — he certainly appears godlike in this scene. The song commences with him narrating his story to stardom — how he went from “[f]inesse[ing] a nigga with some counterfeits” to “countin’ … parmesan where [his] accountant lives.” Kendrick Lamar is unquestionably proud of his rise to fame and fortune. But the song gets into murky waters in his second verse, in which he states “I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop / Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor / Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks.” In this particular verse, Kendrick Lamar addresses African beauty to be desirable in the most natural form. He no longer wants to see a distorted version of a woman. He continues to say that a woman should feel proud to show cellulite and other natural features of her body — Kendrick does not need a cursor to smooth those lines out in order to be attracted to her. However, the song does have problematic elements to it, such as the fact that he is calling everyone (presumably women as well) “bitch.” Of course many rap songs use the word “bitch,” but it is highly misogynistic and translates the belief that women are weak and sexual objects. His chorus continually states “(Hol’ up lil’ bitch, hol’ up lil’ bitch) be humble / (Hol’ up, bitch) sit down.” Now, when this chorus appears right after his second verse it almost seems as if he is telling women who display themselves under a Photoshopped light to become humble and muster the strength to become natural. Now, this presumes that women who apply makeup or engage in other forms of aesthetic art are immodest because they are presenting themselves “artificially.” Of course, one cannot deny that makeup can have negative effects on our society, but it has also been highly empowering for others. According to the New York Times makeup is “holding [women] back from true equality” because in “[a] recent survey … wearing makeup increases a woman’s likability and competence in the workplace.” Nancy Etcoff, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School, has also noted in the New York Times that “[w]omen who feel that makeup use is obligatory but unwanted, that it requires a forced confrontation with the mirror when they’d rather put their attention elsewhere, do not feel more confident after using it. Research suggests that women can feel objectified by makeup, and for such women, any potential advantage may be offset by the emotional labor of wearing it.” So, by saying that women do not require makeup to be beautiful, Lamar believes he is liberating them — but the question still remains, why do women need his permission? Is he telling women not to wear makeup and Photoshop their bodies because he has a fetish for stretch marks and cellulite? Many of Lamar’s critics think that is the case. As Kendrick presents the partly naked bottom half of Carter Kim, the main character in “Humble,” he does not acknowledge that she is a beautiful and independent woman worthy of respect. Instead, he expresses how he would have sex with the Kim in “polo socks” and on her “mama’s couch.” To Kendrick, Kim is nothing but another body. The only difference between her and other women, is that Kim is not wearing makeup, and that makes her more desirable to Kendrick.
What Kendrick does not understand is that for women who use makeup as a form of art and a way to delve into different artistic realms, “Humble” is problematic, if not unempowering. It tells them that makeup is wrong in all its forms and functions. According to the same research by Nancy Etcoff, women who feel empowered by makeup and believe it is a form of art are actually happier with makeup on — it makes them more assertive and cheerful. It gives them an avenue to explore.
Although Kendrick Lamar thinks his intentions are good-natured, it turns out he is only asserting his misogynistic views where women must follow his lead. It is true that Western beauty standards have had a huge blow on the self-esteem of women. But, what Lamar and other rappers should be fighting for is not a makeup free society, but a society that allows a women to choose, a society that gives her a choice to either wear or not wear makeup.