Some art is tailor-made for a moment in history.
In 2004, Kanye West’s The College Dropout captured the self-identity crisis of middle-class America in the midst of ultra-consumerism, racism in a ‘post-racial’ society, and the search for spirituality in an increasingly-secular world. Brother Ali’s Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color was the perfect encapsulation of 2012, weaving a narrative around the presidential election, Islamophobia and the ongoing War on Terror, and income inequality in the aftermath of a recession. Now that America is in turmoil once again, many are asking the question: who’s making music for the times?
“When [artists like Harry Belafonte and Phylicia Rashad] are all gone, who’s going to be the leader?” Jamla artist Rapsody asks. “Who’s going to carry on that torch? It’s gotta be somebody, otherwise we are doomed if we don’t have anybody to continue that on, and talk about those issues, and stand for something, and fight, and pick up where they left off, and continue to march in the streets.”
Kendrick Lamar’s time is now.
No major label artist – save for perhaps J. Cole – is close to matching Kendrick’s significance in the midst of what’s happening in South Carolina and (more broadly) the United States, and what has unfurled in the last half-decade after the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and many others. To Pimp a Butterfly is at once the encapsulation of this world of racial tension and a catalyst for its change. It’s brash, it’s unapologetically black, and most importantly, it’s a message of self-love and reassurance when, around the hip-hop landscape, those messages are so few and far between.
First, the album cover. At a time when grumblings about a black man in the White House are bubbling just under the surface across the United States, Kendrick puts the manifestation of this unspoken tension on full-display – behold, black men with wads of cash and bottles of liquor, posing over a dead judge on the White House lawn. It’s a brash statement, forcing listeners to confront the elephant in the room: Black people are in the White House. Deal with it. The justice system is broken. Fix it.
Just as unapologetically black is “The Blacker the Berry,” a single Kendrick released mere hours after winning his first two Grammys. The spotlight was on him, and he seized it, making clear he wasn’t pacified after being accepted into music’s elite. He raps about the scrutiny black people face in America, and the tortured position of helplessness and guilt it leads to. As Grantland‘s Rembert Browne reflects, “through this song, he carries with him traces of his outspoken, black music-making ancestors, from Nina Simone’s tone and overall focus to Tupac Shakur’s self-aware perfection.”
Regardless of your takeaway of the song – whether you agree with Kendrick calling for greater accountability for himself (and by extension, the black community) in supporting and nurturing black lives, or think it unfairly blames black people in a system that was designed for them to fail – it’s a song that makes you feel something. You can’t ignore the issue any longer.
“I’m African-American, I’m African/ I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village/ Pardon my residence/ Came from the bottom of mankind/ My hair is nappy, my d–k is big, my nose is round and wide/ You hate me, don’t you?/ You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture/ You’re f–kin’ evil, I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey/ You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me.” – Kendrick Lamar on “The Blacker the Berry”
Perhaps more important than the album’s bravado and pride, Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly touches on self-love in a way that so few hip-hop albums do.
“There’s a lot of music that’s ‘you ain’t shit if you ain’t got this. If you ain’t f—kin’ this bad b—ch, you ain’t shit. All the broke n—as is this…’” says fellow Los Angeles-based musician TiRon. “There’s a lot of ‘in order for me to be dope, you gotta be wack.’ There’s nothing to make you feel proud of yourself … There’s only stuff to make you feel arrogant or cocky about yourself.”
Along comes a song like Kendrick’s “i.” It was the Compton native’s first single off TPAB, and the first glimpse listeners had heard of new Kendrick since the behemoth that was 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. At the time, many criticized the single for playing too much to radio appeal. Put it into the context of filling a glaring hole of self-love in black music, however, and it takes on a new light. Here’s how Kendrick describes the song’s purpose to Hot 97:
“I wrote a record for the homies that [are] in the penitentiary right now. I also wrote a record for these kids that come up to my show with these slashes on [their] wrist[s] saying they don’t wanna live no more. If I say something this blatant, this bold, this simple, they can take reaction from that – they can lock your body, [but] they can’t trap your mind … For the people outside, they have something more to live for – it starts with yourself first, and you won’t be thinking all these negative things that [are] completely corrupt in your brain.” (via)
“And I love myself/ (The world is a ghetto with guns and picket signs)/ I love myself/ (But it can do what it want whenever it wants and I don’t mind)/ I love myself/ (He said I gotta get up, life is more than suicide)/ I love myself/ (One day at the time, sun gon’ shine).” – Kendrick Lamar on “i”
“It’s very powerful message,” says TiRon. “When you say ‘I love myself,’ it comes from a place of knowledge – I love myself because I know myself – and when you know yourself, then you can see yourself in everything around you.”
That knowledge-of-self and cultural awareness reveals itself in Kendrick’s visual and musical pièce de résistance: “Alright.”
First, the song. It’s a message of reassurance in the face of despair – not altogether different from Spirituals sung during the American slavery era. It’s also a direct commentary on the ongoing conflict and increasing disconnect between police and the black community.
Wouldn’t you know/ We been hurt, been down before/ N—a, when our pride was low/ Lookin’ at the world like, “Where do we go?”/ N—a, and we hate po-po/ Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho/ N—a, I’m at the preacher’s door/ My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow/ But we gon’ be alright.” – Kendrick Lamar on “Alright”
Kendrick touches on this again in his performance at the BET Awards. At a time when the national debate surrounding the Confederate flag is at its peak, Kendrick raps from the top of a vandalized police car with a giant American flag waving in the background. The symbology is clear – and for some, like Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera, it’s an uncomfortable message.
Of course, how could it not be an uncomfortable message? It’s a message intended to shake the status quo.
“Hip-hop is not the problem,” Kendrick tells TMZ. “Our reality is the problem of the situation. This is our music. This is us expressing ourselves. Rather than going out here and doing the murders myself, I want to express myself in a positive light the same way other artists are doing, not [by] going out in the streets. Go in the booth and talking about the situation and hoping these kids can find some type of influence [from] it in a positive manner.”
At last comes the music video – the ultimate form of self-expression and storytelling.
Steeped in symbology (churches, fires, police cars, bodies lying on the pavement… anything ring a bell?), it snaps everything into place. It also shows Kendrick’s acknowledgement of his (fair or not) assigned role as hip-hop’s “saviour.” In the video, he’s a messianic figure, flying above the streets below, preaching from the top of a lamppost, getting shot down by a police officer, and then smiling before the camera cuts to black. It’s a lot to unpack and make sense of, but there’s plenty to take from it all.
The most simple takeaway: who else is more socially-relevant in hip-hop than Kendrick right now? Who else with as big of a platform is daring to make the kind of statements he’s making?
Speaking on Kendrick’s performance, Rivera commented, “this is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years. This is exactly the wrong message.” In effect, Rivera’s statement proves the opposite of his point. To provoke a reaction that strong, Kendrick must be doing something right. He’s forcing America to have the conversation it has swept under the rug for decades.
“[Rivera’s criticism] is really diluting the real problem—the senseless acts of killing these young boys out here,” Kendrick responds to TMZ. “For the most part, it’s avoiding the truth … Me being on the cop car, that’s the performance piece after these senseless acts. Of course I’m gonna be enraged about what’s going on out here. Of course I’m gonna speak on it.”
One thing is certain for as long as Kendrick Lamar is speaking on it:
We gon’ be alright.