Street Dreams: Deconstructing Kendrick Lamar's Dream in "Backseat Freestyle"

Street dreams are made of these
Niggas push Beemers and 300 E's
A drug dealer's destiny is reaching a ki’
Everybody's looking for something
Street dreams are made of these
Shorties on they knees, for niggas with big cheese
Who am I to disagree?
Everybody's looking for something

It was the second single released from Nas’ critically acclaimed 1996 album “It Was Written.” The album sold over 4 million copies and is Nas’ most commercially successful album to date.  The album also features as the original single, the hit song “If I Ruled the World.” Both singles, explore the dreams and wishes of oppressed inner city youth who desire some sort of transcendence. “Everybody’s looking for something.” The statement is true no matter where you are or who you are, but it's especially true for those who are impoverished and oppressed. It’s the quest for meaning, purpose and actualization. But it’s that elusive actualization that is so poorly defined and almost impossible to traverse for those who lack resources and opportunities. Thus actualization takes on new forms. These are not sweet dreams, they’re “street” dreams. There’s an immediate acknowledgment that other (more positive, desirable) dreams are inaccessible, and thus unattainable. It is here that Kendrick Lamar’s dream comes into view.

The very first lines are a heavy, bass-filled drawl of a pronouncement:

Martin had a dream

Martin had a dream

Kendrick have a dream

He's very aware of the significance and sacredness of Martin Luther King's dream and it’s manifest in that he repeats it, but then, juxtaposed against Dr. King's dream is his own dream. And the question is what is it that Kendrick dreams about? What is it that he longs for?

Now this concept might in and of itself be troubling for a lot of people because they might be really disrupted by the concept of Kendrick Lamar having the audacity to place his personal dreams up against the likes of the great and honorable Martin Luther King however Martin Luther King himself said that his dream was deeply rooted in the American dream. and the American Dream is pretty simple: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people; two kids, a picket fence and a golden retriever.

Is it possible that Kendrick Lamar's dream is in any way divorced from the American dream? Do little poor black boys and girls in the hood desire life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? At the core of every human dream is this desire and quest for transcendence. There is the need to attain some level of actualization and success. And so the question again is, what is it that Kendrick Lamar dreams of? What is it that he longs for?

Before we dive too deeply into his dream, I think it's very important for us to first establish the context in which this song is played out, or rather, the context in which this “event” happens.

The event of the freestyle session illustrated in this particular track is a small part of the wider narrative that is the album’s storyline. Yet, the wider sociological context is that this is a typical story of a good kid in a bad (maad) city. He has great qualities, talents and opportunities, but his environment threatens to derail and destroy his future prospects. This is the typical urban teen from an impoverished neighborhood. He’s old enough to drive, but not independent enough to stay out as long as he wants. He’s very insightful, but surrounded by some ignorant people. He has a stable home to an extent, but his neighborhood makes him very insecure and unsafe.

In the context of the album’s storyline, the backseat freestyle happens when he links up with his friends. His mom let him borrow the family van to make a quick run, but like the typical teenager he stays away too long and makes the poor decision to go hang "wit da homies" instead of returning mom's car. The track that follows “Backseat Freestyle” is "The Art of Peer Pressure." The grand theme of “Peer Pressure” is that anything bad can happen when he's "wit da homies." It's while they're ridin, hangin, smokin together that they do what all young brothers in the hood do to pass the time...freestyle. His homeboy told him when he got in the car (during interlude at the end of preceding track) that he got those fire beats so be ready to spit some rhymes. The freestyle really features what every freestyle does. Lots of bragging and boasting and posturing. After all freestyles are simply...dreams. Martin had a dream. Kendrick had a dream.

And so here comes the dream. And as much as things change, things stay the same. I’m certain I’ve heard this before.

All my life I want money and power

Respect my mind or die from lead shower

Money, power, respect is what everybody wants. Speaking of money, sex and power, Richard Foster asserts, “No issues touch us more profoundly or more universally. No themes are more inseparably intertwined...Money manifests itself as power. Sex is used to acquire both money and power. Power is seductive, and is often the root quest of sex. Power is frequently used to manipulate wealth, and wealth is used just as frequently to buy power. The connections between the three are almost endless.

It was the famed nineties rap group The Lox who said:

It's the key to life.

Money, power, and respect.

Whatchu' need in life.

Money, power, and respect.

When you eatin' right.

Money, power, and respect.

Help you sleep at night.

You'll see the light.

It's the key to life.

This is at the heart of every “street dream.” Every oppressed and impoverished young person longs for a day when they too will receive the wealth and respectability of the downtown executives and hollywood stars. However, the harsh realities of the inner city mingled with the culpability of those very same downtown executives have helped to create a deep cynicism among the urban poor. The oppressed roll their eyes at yet another campaign promise of the local and federal politicians. Urban youth mumble under their breath whenever they see one of those C.O.P (Community Oriented Policing) promos. And all of this cynicism and disdain comes from a long history of systematic subjugation. And so Kendrick Lamar prays an unspeakably harsh and foul prayer. Yet it’s one that resonates in the heart of every impoverished inner city youth.

I pray my d*** get big as the Eiffel Tower

So I can f*** the world for seventy-two hours

The lyrics are horrendously graphic and profane maledictions; yet they embody a deep personal longing for socioeconomic and political parity. Notice how he doesn’t pray for enlarged reproductive organs so that he might pleasure himself at the expense of another young woman. His sights are far wider and outrageous and excessive. He has his sights set on the entire globe. His desire is that the entire world be utilized as a tool for his gratification.

The irony in the lines is that the Eiffel Tower is historically understood to have served the purpose of a giant radio communications tower. However, one might also argue that it could also represent a sort of modern day phallic symbol. In either case, it represents the power, productivity, progeny and ingenuity of the dominant group. Kendrick’s desire is that his own power would match that of the dominant group, so that for at least three days he might have the same kind of access and opportunity, power and productivity as does those whom he and his friends are subject to.

Yet, his posture is not one that is simply hopeful, but also deeply cynical. He invokes the words made famous by Tupac Shakur in his 1995 song “F*** the World” when he said:

{They tryin to say that I don't care}

I woke up screamin, "F*** the world!"

{They tryin to say that I don't care}

Just woke up and screamed, "F*** the world!"

{They tryin to say that I don't care}

Uhh, I woke up and screamed, "F*** the world!"

{They're tryin to say that I don't care}

Just got up and screamed, "F*** the world!"

The song was released as a part of Tupac’s album entitled Me Against the World. The album (as does the song) embodies an obvious ethos of protest and rebellion against the dominant system and prevailing norms. He preaches in the song against poverty, mass incarceration, jealously and the judgmental attitudes of those that seek to marginalize him because of his lifestyle and past experiences. His response is to spurn the entire system.

This is a very popular concept in Hip-Hop. Several artists have since recorded songs under the same title including: Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, Ace Hood, Young Jeezy, among others. Probably most famous is the hook from the song “The What” on classic debut album of the late Notorious B.I.G. The lyrics of the hook echoed the sentiments of Tupac’s lyrics when he said:

F*** the world, don't ask me for s***

And everything you get ya gotta work hard fo’ it

Honies shake your hips, ya don't stop

And niggaz pack the clips, keep on

Impoverished youth are hostile towards any system or environment that causes them to feel threatened. They do not embrace the world, the government or even their own schools because they are hard pressed to see themselves as having any sort of positive or powerful use for it or role in it. So they decide to spurn it altogether. The alternative is a sort of hedonistic posturing that one assumes and promotes. We’re gonna die anyway. We might as well enjoy ourselves and live each moment like it’s our last. Milk this life for everything we can. YOLO! And this is the general perspective behind Kendrick’s dream in “Backseat Freestyle.” Throw all caution to the wind. Let’s dream we’re invincible equalizers of all the world’s injustice toward us. Let’s imagine that the world were at our mercy for seventy-two hours. After all, you only live once.

The corresponding music video to the song is just as telling if not more than the lyrics themselves. Some are often troubled but the immoral and destructive images in this video as well as so many others like it. We almost enjoy this weird sense of self-assured pride that we don't condone or participate in such despicable behavior and often miss the message altogether.

It's a lot like the scene in the film Boyz N the Hood when little Chris says to his friends, "You wanna see a dead body?" What elementary or middle school student says "yes," and then proceeds to actually go and see it? It speaks to the loss of innocence that happens at such an early age in the inner city. Along with it comes the dehumanization and desensitization that is the result of having experienced such copious quantities of vice, trauma and demoralization.

One of the most powerful images in the entire video is when Kendrick is leaning against the rear driver side fender of a classic convertible automobile at the start of the second verse. Next to him near the opened driver side door is a voluptuous female; scantily clad and dancing very provocatively to the music. One might not notice that Kendrick never even glances at the young woman while she dances. It reinforces the concept that the ultimate pleasure and release he seeks will most likely not be satisfied by the simplistic seductive advances of a woman. Women are utilized in the song as tools for gratification. Yet, the ultimate gratification is to assert a level of power and control over the entire world.

He trots the globe while his father sits at home doing drugs, complaining about a set of dominoes and ogling females. In the video, this is the scene just before the scene with the dancer. There's a contrast of his past home limitations and his present-day pursuit of his dreams and goals. While his father sits at home smoking marijuana, he stands in the very shadow of the Eiffel Tower. In that moment he has accomplished a kind of transcendence in that he has stretched beyond the expectations and limitations of his home life.

Nevertheless, for some there is still the challenge of the destructive and immoral lyrics. They struggle with how these images serve a quest for transcendence and actualization. Have you ever had the flying dream? The flying dream is often experienced by a person who in the waking hours are experiencing high levels of success, exuberance and the like. Kendrick’s dream pictures him flying. He is invincible. He exclaims:

G****** I feel amazing d*** I'm in the matrix

My mind is livin on cloud nine and this nine is never on vacation

Hop in that Maserati and vroom-vroom I'm racin’

From feel amazing, to living in the matrix, to living on cloud nine, racing luxury cars and a nine millimeter handgun by his side that never takes breaks even while his head is in the clouds; this is all an elusive, elaborate dream, and we’re only three lines in. The irony is that according to the storyline of the album, none of this is actually happening. The car that he's actually driving is a Chrysler Town & Country minivan from the early 2000s that he borrowed from his mom. And keep in mind, that his mother is already leaving angry messages on his voicemail given the fact that he should have returned the family van long before now.

As the freestyle (and ultimately the entire album story) continues it becomes more and more apparent that the dream does not match his life. He rhymes about his gun and a willingness to shoot to kill, but as it turns out, he's not even carrying a gun. This is evidenced in the interlude where he's terribly beaten by some gang members for simply being in the wrong neighborhood.

He raps about his exploits with multiple women, “wifey, girlfriend and mistress…” but in reality the only girl on his mind is Sherane--who ironically is the young lady he’s on his way to visit when he’s beat up by the gang members. These and several other instances are evidences that these whimsical lyrics are simply wishful thinking. It’s the way he pictures a world where he’s in total control. But this is exactly what dreams do. They formulate for us an alternative reality that we can control and partake pleasure. Dreams allow us to picture the world in a frame that is favorable to us.

It important to note how even though his desire is to control the entire world, the actual details of his dream are so base and earthy. The nut and bolts of his dream aren’t very lofty at all. It’s really an exaggerated expression of the typical life of inner-city youth. One might argue that even though his ultimate aims are grand, he lacks the vision and sophistication to clarify his aims in terms other than the ones that are local and familiar. And here again we get to see the constraints of the context. It isn’t until the final verse that he says,

I'm never living life confined, I can feel you even if I'm blind.”

He toys and flirts with transcendence all while he is obviously limited by his circumstances and patterns. The pursuit of power and respect is limited to the exploding chamber of a handgun. On the other hand pleasure and enjoyment is relegated simply to sexual prowess and the quantity of sexual exploits. It’s often been said if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. He says, “I can feel you even if I’m blind,” but his rhymes are evidence of shortsightedness at the very least. The young brothers sitting in this car have little better to do with their time than to sit around, smoke, and think of clever, braggadocious rhymes to bombastic beats. There are no mechanical engineering clubs in the hood. There are no entrepreneurship programs for teens in Compton. There are no international travel clubs for inner-city kids. What’s even more sad, is that often times the city is teeming with these kinds of programs, but the kids that need them the most simply don’t know they exist, or they don’t have access to them. And as the scripture says, “where there is no vision the people perish.”

The end result is that we end up doing, being and living the very opposite of the dream we envisioned. And it’s not simply because of our bad behavior, but it was often because we didn’t have access to the resources that would help to position us for a fruitful, productive and honorable life. Near the end of the album his mother leaves him an additional voicemail. This time she is more sober and reserved. She’s not angry about the van anymore. She’s more reflective and proud. She lovingly encourages and urges him:

If I don't hear from you by tomorrow, I hope you come back and learn from your mistakes. Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton. Let 'em know you was just like them, but you still rose from that dark place of violence, becoming a positive person. But when you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement, and that's the best way to give back. To your city... And I love you Kendrick, if I don't hear you knocking on the door you know where I usually leave the key. Alright? Talk to you later, bye.

These days, the real life Kendrick Lamar is living the dream. News outlets recently reported about his recent trip to the White House to meet the President. It’s deeply ironic that a poor kid from Compton would make such an impact on the world that he’d be summoned to the nation’s capitol to meet the most powerful man in the world. What’s even more ironic is both of them are black. And now Kendrick’s dream and it’s juxtaposition to Martin’s dream much more sense. No one thought either of these were possible. But, we’re not dreaming. This actually happened. This is real life. It’s amazing how far freestyling can actually take you. Now the challenge for us is to find a way to make the White House, the Eiffel Tower and the rest of the world accessible to every kid who is crazy enough to dream it. If you can see it, you can be it. If you can believe it, you can achieve it. I suppose the first step is to help them focus and see something fresh and new; to see visions and dream dreams.