What with the country being in the midst of a second civil rights movement and, possibly, on the cusp of an out-and-out revolution in the burn-it-all-down-and-start-all-over sense for realz, Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” released in mid-March and deservedly declared a classic almost immediately, feels like the only album that currently matters, whether it should be or not.
An omnidirectional protest album and a functionally Christian rumination on responsibility, “To Pimp A Butterfly” takes on institutionalized racism, the terrifying hustle of capitalism and how that ties to the trappings of fame, self-doubt, and the targeting of young black men by the police.
Opening track ‘Wesley’s Theory’ (dedicated to Wesley Snipes who went to jail for three years for refusing to pay his taxes, which, the actor explained, was a protest against taxation) begins with a brash declaration of self-worth by way of a hissing, soaring sample from the 1973 soul song, Boris Gardiner’s ‘Every Nigger Is a Star.’ Gardiner’s song was pretty much saying the same thing as ‘Shining Star’ by Earth, Wind, & Fire (“You’re a shining star/ No matter who you are”), released two years later, it just didn’t pull its punches and in that sense is a precursor to hip-hop’s specialty of eschewing subtlety and making its messages very, very obvious.
“To Pimp A Butterfly” is an album full of songs that say precisely what they mean, like ‘Every Nigger Is a Star.’ For that reason, it is “improper,” and impropriety is a radical act right now because broken windows have more value than broken spines. And it isn’t enough for thousands to take to the streets and demand the police stop killing people; protesters are too often told to protest politely. Absurdly, bad words matter more than bad cops.
And retrofitting soul and funk itself is a radical act in light of an uptick in egregious white appropriation and lazy black-pop signifying in this supposedly “post-racial” era. “The funk,” for Lamar, as it is for P-Funk figurehead George Clinton and G-Funk maestro Dr. Dre (both of whom appear on ‘Wesley’s Theory’), is sacred. It isn’t just something you dip your hand into, pull out a few pieces, and smear all over your body for cool cred, which is what Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke did when they jacked Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give It Up’ on 2013’s massive hit ‘Blurred Lines.’ They sanitized the funk and Kendrick will have no part in that. Tellingly, the first “To Pimp A Butterfly” single was the cloying ‘i,’ which piggybacked on ‘Blurred Lines’ success thanks to its obvious Isley Brothers sample. For the album, it has been radically remixed and clouded with difficult crowd chatter and lo-fi noise.
But separate from its heady throng of references and its sonic affronts, Lamar frames the simple act of a black man rapping as political and more importantly, an obligation to the voiceless. From ‘Hood Politics’: “I don’t give a fuck about no politics in rap my nigga/ My lil homie Stunna Deuce ain’t never comin’ back, my nigga/ So you better go hard every time you jump on wax, my nigga.”
In March, Clover Hope over at Jezebel wrote a piece titled “The Overwhelming Blackness of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly,” and it beautifully asserted the significance of “To Pimp A Butterfly.” “This is a special album, and that won’t change,” Hope wrote, “But I already need a break from it. I gotta get away from it. Its blackness is way too vast.” Sadly, Slate’s Carl Wilson responded with “How should white listeners approach the ‘overwhelming blackness’ of Kendrick Lamar’s brilliant new album?,” shifting the focus from blackness back onto whiteness, taking Hope’s title as a threat. Ignoring Wilson’s honky neurosis, which is neither interesting or all that important given the larger discussion at hand, “To Pimp A Butterfly” isn’t all that controversial of a record anyway. It’s a masterpiece no doubt, an artful hybrid of black art, but very little of what is said on this record is shocking and it leans hard on the kind of ideas that white music critics and white rap fans and the white schlockmeisters who run record labels should be accustomed to, thanks to rap’s pre-Puff Daddy politicization at least.
On “To Pimp A Butterfly” highlight ‘The Blacker The Berry,’ which stitches together the tics of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad and N.W.A.’s Dr. Dre, Lamar, who calls himself “the biggest hypocrite in 2015”—a burst of honesty and an attempt at critique-proofing—croaks out rage against the institutionalized racist machine (“This plot is bigger than me, it’s generational hatred/ It’s genocism, it’s grimy, little justification”) and then wanders back to the argument that change begins with the individual. “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street when gang-banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?” he asks. It’s a powerful plea for personal responsibility but it also finds Lamar conflating two issues (violence against unarmed black men and gang violence) and offering only a slightly hipper kind of respectability politics. It is the rhetorical peak and nadir of the album.
In that sense, like Lamar’s previous album “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” which told a day in the life of a young confused Compton boy and placed most of the blame on gang culture—it seemed unwilling to consider the reality that gangs exist largely because the police do not do what they’re supposed to do in black neighborhoods and local government has removed any infrastructure or opportunity—“To Pimp A Butterfly” is admirably naive. Back in January, Lamar said this to Billboard about the protest movement that arose following the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown: “When we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting—it starts from within.”
At the very moment in which we have somebody willing to construct a swirling protest album like “To Pimp A Butterfly,” it doesn’t feel like it’s saying what needs to be said. “To Pimp A Butterfly” is a masterfully executed shrug—the hip-hop version of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” It’s rare for a record to feel both prescient and passe at the same damn time, but then again, change is coming fast right now.
Kendrick Lamar plays the Sweetlife Festival at Merriweather Post Pavillion on Saturday, May 30.