What Kendrick Lamar Teaches Leaders About Greatness
Hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar rocked the world of high culture to its foundations when he won the Pulitzer Prize for music for his album DAMN., becoming the first non-classical, non-jazz artist to win the award.
At Motto, we talk about entrepreneurs, small businesses and leadership. But that doesn’t mean someone like Lamar doesn’t have a few lessons to teach us. DAMN. is the kind of risky, dazzling, inventive work musicians record when they have nothing to lose and are trying to make it; Lamar put it out after he was already a star.
That’s not a recipe for success. That’s a recipe for greatness.
So, let’s look at three ideas behind Lamar’s Pulitzer win that entrepreneurs who aspire to greatness should damn well memorize (yes, pun intended).
1. Don’t pander to make people comfortable.
Lamar came out of Compton with wordplay that took the hip-hop world by storm. With his 2015 record To Pimp a Butterfly, he became the spokesman for a generation filled with rage over police brutality.
Black anger has always made white people uncomfortable, but Lamar didn’t back off one iota on DAMN. to make his work more palatable to a mainstream audience. On a record that’s introspective about the price of fame, he consistently attacks Fox News and at one point drops the line, “It was always me vs the world until I found out it was me vs me.”
For entrepreneurs tempted to back off their rebel instincts, play it safe and try to offend no one, that sends a clear message: Don’t. Try to please everyone and you end up with watered-down sameness that impresses no one.
Remember, you want your company, brand, or product to elicit a strong reaction. Not everyone will like what you’re offering, but the ones who get you will love you for getting them.
2. Don’t self-plagiarize.
With its jazz-infused grooves and Black Lives Matter-inspired lyrics, To Pimp a Butterfly was considered one of the seminal hip-hop records of the last decade. It would have been very easy for Lamar to have knocked himself off and recreated that album’s feel and message and raked in the bucks.
He didn’t. By stretching himself creatively, he recorded a masterpiece and made himself a cultural force.
In business, we love versions and reboots because they play to built-in audiences, bring in reliable cash and reduce risk. But putting out version 11.0 of the same app does nothing but lock you into mediocrity.
Great entrepreneurs make big bets, disrupt, turn their back on what worked, and innovate ferociously. The world bows to true originality.
3. Do what speaks to you, not what promises a quick payday.
Growing up in Compton, Lamar witnessed gang violence, poverty, and all the other ills of America’s black urban neighborhoods. Because of that, his success has left him feeling conflicted about making it out of the ‘hood while others didn’t.
His lyrics constantly explore questions of hypocrisy, fallibility, and moral weakness. Those aren’t popular, party-ready topics for a hip-hop superstar, but they’re what he cares about and his passion has made him the poet laureate of the streets.
Every great entrepreneur starts because of passion. You have an idea, a vision that you can’t shake. If you’re lucky, that vision makes it past funding rounds and marketing decks and the like. But often, visions get watered down because they’re “not commercial.”
Greatness means refusing to let that happen. The only person you can create for is yourself; play to your audience and it’s over. So make a brand or product that will light up your customers. If you’re “Meh,” they will be, too.
“His lyrics constantly explore questions of hypocrisy, fallibility, and moral weakness. Those aren't popular, party-ready topics for a hip-hop superstar, but they're what he cares about and his passion has made him the poet laureate of the streets.”