Deconstructing ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’
Yesterday, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar dropped his third full-length album – a full 80-minute journey detailing the fractured racial landscape of America, but from a markedly personal perspective. Against a backdrop of African American disillusionment at racial profiling and institutional discrimination, there perhaps could not have been a better time for Lamar to weigh in on the conversation. Prior to the albums release, the T.D.E frontman had received criticism from his peers for comments he made on the killing of unarmed teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson last year. To Pimp A Butterfly, however, allows Lamar to not only clarify what he meant, but also to delve into numerous facets of America’s racial dichotomy. In short, King Kendrick is a master of his craft and this album will likely go down as one of the most important Hip Hop albums of the decade – but why?
When i was released in September of last year, many feared that its upbeat, radio-friendly vibe was a worrying sign of what was to come on Lamar’s then-untitled album. Yet, the song’s empowering message of self-love was soon juxtaposed by the eerie Blacker The Berry – the second single off his sophomore offering – which dealt with altogether more sombre topics, such as racism and black on black violence. On this track, Kendrick Lamar delivers the devastatingly powerful final lines:
“So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
Sonically and thematically these two tracks were polar opposites, but when we are presented with To Pimp A Butterfly in full, they become surprisingly complementary. When speaking on the killing of Mike Brown, Lamar said, “when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?” It lacked the usual eloquence of which we’ve come to expect from him but, when placed in the context of the thematic nuances of his new album, his comments seem less inflammatory and more intelligent.
On first listen of To Pimp A Butterfly, I was reminded of a conversation between black feminist intellectual, Bell Hooks, and rap legend, Ice Cube, in the book, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. In that conversation, the duo riff on concepts of black self-love, with Cube commenting: “It’s hard to be black in America. Look at all the images that run across us, from television, school, just everything in general… They put everybody in such a bad light. It’s mainly their fault, our self-hate. We got to really fight to love ourselves.” This fight, at its heart, is the same self-love that Lamar preached on i. It is a psychological antidote to continual oppression and degradation, which Hooks, Cube and Kendrick all believe has powerful potential.
In Hooks and Cube’s conversation, the former N.W.A. member goes on to state that achieving this mind state, as a culture, is the key to black unity. “all of our problems [will be] solved ’cause we’re able to trust each other and go into business with each other,” he says. This sentiment is one which is echoed on To Pimp A Butterfly’s mammoth 12 minute closing track. “If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us,” Lamar says on the penultimate line of a poem which is echoed and expanded upon throughout the album. Yet, this line is punctured by an element of self-doubt –which is woven throughout several of the album’s songs – when he says: “But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another nigga”. In light of this, i is representative of the complexity of Kendrick Lamar, as he fights to love himself, occasionally achieving it, only to have it tempered by bouts of self-loathing and insecurity, as articulated on u.
The contradictions of To Pimp A Butterfly reflect the contradictory nature of American society, where those who are meant to protect us are just as likely to gun us down if our melanin levels are too high. Each juxtaposition is presented with simplicity – it is not preachy, but makes us genuinely ask ourselves questions about the complexity of race in America. And much like his Mike Brown quotes, Lamar does not necessarily tell us what we want to hear. His admission that the “only hope that we kinda have left is music” as a force of change is stark and depressing. Particularly in a country with a President that hustled the Hip Hop game to gain election in 2008. But Lamar is correct to an extent – for all his photo-ops with Jay Z and the occasional brushing off of his shoulder, Obama has largely sidestepped racial issues during his presidential tenure. There seems to be few avenues to exert black influence on society other than through music.
“We send these children out into a world that does not value them, does not value blackness,” says Hooks. It would seem that Kendrick is trying to reverse that, but is aware that it can only be achieved through some form of unity. Prior to the album’s launch, Lamar said that its title wound one day be taught in college courses. If we use To Pimp A Butterfly as a theoretical framework for understanding the deep-rooted racial issues of America, it certainly couldn’t hurt.