"Northrop Frye Meets Kendrick Lamar: The Four Phases of Frye's Monomyth Applied to a Rap Album"
Originally produced and finalized on November 27, 2017
A critical analysis constructed with methods by a renowned psychoanalytic philosopher (Northrop Frye) on a modern, critically acclaimed music album by artist, Kendrick Lamar. A twist of classic examination mixed with modern pop culture.
Northrop Frye Meets Kendrick Lamar:
The Four Phases of Frye's Monomyth Applied to a Rap Album
The critic Northrop Frye in his famous book Anatomy of Criticism has stated, in Charles Bressler's words, that "all of literature comprises one complete and whole story called the monomyth" (133). The monomyth theory is that each story fits into a circular form including four different phases named by the yearly seasons. Phase number one is summer, located at the top of the circle, the romance stage where all happiness and hopes are fulfilled. Following the circle clockwise comes the fall phase, being the tragedy stage where the happiness from summer is replaced with disaster. Continuing on, we come to the winter phase, the anti-romance stage where all of the frustration and fear takes over the story. Lastly is the spring phase, the comedy stage where the story gets away from the frustration and fear and is going back towards happiness and freedom.
Now, who is Kendrick Lamar and how does he fit into this theory? Lamar is a Grammy-winning rapper and song writer: his full name is Kendrick Lamar Duckworth. His music came from poems and short stories he wrote as a young kid about his personal life and growing up in the gang violence and drug culture of Compton, California. His latest album release is 2017's DAMN, an album that came at a height of racism and police violence. In DAMN Lamar raps with raw and intense emotion. It gives us a story through Duckworth's eyes of the war inside one's mind in a lyrical, conceptual, and cutting-edge way.
I believe it is important to add in why I chose this album to work with and apply Frye's theory to; ultimately, it's because rappers tend to be very choosy with their words; even though the verses may sound like incomplete sentences, there is more to work with than what the ears can hear. So, in this critical analysis I will be applying Frye's theory to Lamar's rap and lyrics to show that even musical albums can fit into the complete circle of the monomyth. It is also interesting to point out some of the track names I'll be using to demonstrate with: "Humble," "Love," "Pride," "Fear," "God," and "Feel" and in that order evoke the thought of Summer ("Humble" and "Love"), Fall ("Fear" and "God"), Winter ("Feel" and "Pride").1 You could almost guess just from the names where each of these would fit in Frye's scheme; that is, "Love" we would expect to find in the happiness and fulfillment season of summer, and "Fear" seems to fit neatly in the tragic story of fall.
Starting off with the track titled "Humble," Lamar indicates different moments in his career where his wishes are fulfilled—and of course that would make it part of the summer phase. He actually first raps "Nobody pray for me"; at first this sounds harsh and on the opposite side of what humble actually means, but the song goes on to talk about his gratefulness for his successes and large fan base. For one instance, he indicates he has a great deal of money with the line, "Now I'm counting this, Parmesan is where my accountant lives." Parmesan is not a place obviously but often a rapper uses the word "cheese" in place of money. Lamar also raps the line "Watch my soul speak," meaning people pay to hear and watch his performances worldwide, the peak of a rapper's career. As I said previously, the summer phase is the romance phase where your wishes are fulfilled, one of them being love. In the track "Love" it is clear that Lamar has love and he is making sure that it is real and that it will last. The track has a list of questions in it, such as "If I minimized my net worth, would you still love me?" and repeatedly through the song "I wanna be with you, love me just love me." With this Lamar is saying he does love and he wants reassurance that the love he is receiving is intended for him.
Moving on to the fall phase next, we move onto the track "Fear," which fits into the fall category because Lamer raps about his literal death in a number of tragic ways. For example, the line "because of these colors standing out" refers to his gang-like representative colors. The line "from one of these bats and blue badges" refers to the police violence on African-Americans. Finally, when he raps, "cause that's what you do at seventeen," refers to the common angst-y years of being a confused teenager. He also expresses emotional fear in this track with the line, "I'm talking fear, fear of losing creativity / missing out on you and me / loyalty from pride." What would be tragic to Lamer is losing his flow or mojo, not being there for his personal relationships, and letting his work ethic and power get the best of him. In Lamar's track "God" he makes reference to also being afraid of the unknowns in his life with the line "God toss full of carnivals / Everything in life is a gamble." Carnivals usually have a lot going on and try to shock their guests with unexpected events like when clowns pop out of nowhere, much like ordinary life. Each decision you make could lead to a twist that you weren't expecting.
Now getting into Frye's winter phase where depression and frustration are, we look at the track "Feel." Early in the track Lamar raps, "I feel like it ain't not tomorrow, fuck the world" And he also motions to feelings of hopelessness, heartlessness, and false freedom. These are common effects of what depression does to the mind and human emotion. Two other lines from the track are "Falling apart with darkest hours, lost it" and "I feel like I'm boxing demons." Lamar is showing that there is an internal struggle that he's battling within his personal life. Another track where Lamar expresses darker emotion is the song titled "Pride." Lamar raps the line, "A perfect world is never perfect, only filled with lies / promises are broken and resentment comes alive." Lamar seems to be feeling alone and believes that the people close to him are not being honest or being supportive of him, so he resents the world for that. In the previous paragraph, I mention Lamar fears that his pride is getting the best of him. The line, "See, in a perfect world, I'll choose faith over riches," seems to take us back to the summer phase of Lamar being happy with success and money, but as he fears, his pride got the best of him and now he is wishing he wouldn't have let that happen.
Coming to the end now is the spring phase, which is the stage where the protagonist rises back to happiness and freedom. One track that shows this shift is tilted "Yah." Within the first couple lines, Lamar raps, "today is the day I follow my intuition," which he means he is going to refer back to his earlier appreciations when his career first took off. This is when he was happy because his words were being heard and happiness is his goal. There is another line in this track that says "my cousin called, said know my worth." Knowing one's self worth is important because it helps raise self-esteem and self-respect. With those three things Lamar can find his way back to being happy. The last track that illustrates the rise back to happiness is "Duckworth." As I mentioned before, Duckworth is Lamar's actual last name and this song is about how his life essentially came to be. The first line Lamar raps in this song is, "It was always me versus the world until I found out it's me versus me." Lamar has come to the realization that the world was never against him, that the demons he was boxing with came from himself. Going back to Northrop Frye's monomyth, spring is indicated as the comedy stage. Lamar enlightens the comedic element of this in "Duckworth," when he raps, "Life is one funny motherfucker / the true comedian, you gotta love him, you gotta trust him"; This is Lamar finding light in the dark place. Being a pious guy, he is also alluding to God being the comedian.
Kendrick Lamar may not have a clue who Northrop Frye is and what his theories are, but Lamar has inadvertently followed this theory through his thoughts on his life, both personal and public. So, by criticizing and connecting lyrics throughout each track, followed by identifying which phase of the circle the lyrics fall into, then explaining why they fit into that category, you can now apply Frye's monomyth theory to a music album. By applying a theory such as Frye's, you can see a new perspective on an album's meaning and look at it in a way not presented by an artist like Kendrick Lamar or any other's intentions. In conclusion, you can see that Northrop Frye's theory applies neatly to Kendrick Lamar's album DAMN and that even musical albums can fit into the complete circle of the monomyth.
1 As mentioned previously "Humble," "Love," "Pride," "Fear," "God," and "Feel" in that order evoke the thought of Summer ("Humble" and "Love"), Fall ("Fear" and "God"), Winter ("Feel" and "Pride"). It is important to note that these titles are not sequential on the album. Frye's monomyth phases are spread throughout the entire album.
Bressler, Charles E. Literary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice. 5th ed., Longman, 2011.
Lamar, Kendrick. DAMN. Kendrick Lamar. Rec. 14 April, 2017. Top Dawg Entertainment, 2017. CD.