If the grand conversation around race were to be neatly divided into “before” and “after” Ferguson, then Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly would have to be regarded as something of an artistic landmark, a stunning musical distillation of the post-Ferguson mood. I am inclined to agree with Rolling Stone’s Greg Tate when he writes: “Thanks to D'Angelo's Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015 will be remembered as the year radical Black politics and for-real Black music resurged in tandem to converge on the nation's pop mainstream.”
Lamar’s album has far exceeded all expectations. In its first day of release, To Pimp a Butterfly became the most heavily-streamed album in Spotify’s history, racking up a reported 9.6 million listens on that day alone. It’s the first hip-hop or R&B album since Beyoncé to spend multiple weeks on top of the Billboard charts, and has already been certified Gold.
Much of this can be attributed to the buzz generated by pre-released singles; “i” won two Grammys and the contrast between that track and “The Blacker the Berry” certainly kept listeners guessing (Taraji P. Henson has great taste). But past that, this is an album that is being engaged with a very notable amount of seriousness. The internet is already overflowing with analyses of To Pimp a Butterfly that sincerely place it in the lexicon of great contemporary Black literature. At least one college professor has dropped everything to teach the album in class. (Whether this is sheer coincidence or the teacher consciously decided to make a reality out of Lamar’s prediction “It'll be taught in college courses — I truly believe that" isn’t clear. Either way, it’s honestly deserving.)
And all of this, it should be noted, is in the midst of an America that is still described as “post-racial.” Granted, it’s a description that is only believed by the most blinkered or right-wing, but the ideological implications of it still hold sway over large segments of the culture industry. Among a great many writers and listeners there is still a strong desire to think of hip-hop as “redeemed,” as if the contradictions and anger that gave rise to it are no longer a real factor. To Pimp a Butterfly leaves very little room for such mental gymnastics.
In some ways, it’s an album whose meaning is still being determined, still in flux. If To Pimp a Butterfly is so profoundly rooted in the moment, then where this moment ends up pointing will shape how the music is listened to years from now. That being said, the album nonetheless merits ever-growing discussion in the here and now, demands it even.
The following are, in that spirit, some roughly sketched thoughts on the content, meaning and context of To Pimp a Butterfly. They are intended to spur discussion rather than be a final word, which, in any event, is a long way from being written.
1. How it sounds
This is a viscerally beautiful album. Saying this, I don’t just mean that its beauty is visceral, but that minus the viscerality, To Pimp a Butterfly simply wouldn’t be as alluring. Even the album’s more contemplative, calmer moments seem to possess a raw vulnerability that can (and does) break forth without warning. And yet there is also a perfect sense of timing and flow at work here, the anger and pain woven into the groove of the beats.
This ever-simmering sense of frustration vaguely parallels the time-frame of To Pimp a Butterfly’s recording. Lamar and the album’s team of producers and musicians took their time here, with the process spanning from 2015 to 2015. It’s an auspicious time-frame, held up on one end by the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and on the other by the rebellions that followed the non-indictments of the cops that killed Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Lamar has, like all of us, had the time to sit and think, reflect on and stew in the implications of a (not so) new reality.
Plenty of writers have averred that Lamar’s 2014 trip to South Africa has also played a major role in the feel of the album, and there is something to this. One gets the sense both lyrically and musically that K. Dot is conscious of “returning to the source” for answers to his own problems and those of the world around him, though that “source” doesn’t just take the form of the mother continent. The influence of funk and jazz on the beats, however, certainly creates a through-line of Afrocentrism on To Pimp a Butterfly.
Hardly anything new as far as the history of hip-hop goes. But another, more esoteric explanation for the jazz/funk centrality on the album may be the connected artistic history of the two genres. It is not for nothing that the first generation of surrealists, fascinated as they were by the power of Freudian psychology to buck the repressive hyper-rationality of post-Great War capitalism, also championed the blues as an authentic expression of inner turmoil.
Funk and jazz, the blues’ ancestors, have similarly occupied the imaginations of artists looking to give materiality to the immaterial. It’s not quite clear whether the choice of sounds on To Pimp a Butterfly was Kendrick’s alone or more collectively made, whether it was a conscious decision or more instinctual. There’s little denying however that both provide a thrilling and effective vehicle for the raw emotionality that drives the album’s songs.
2. Lyrical themes
"I remember you was conflicted"
Speaking to Rolling Stone in March, Kendrick spoke about the album’s title: "Just putting the word 'pimp' next to 'butterfly'… It's a trip…” In a later interview with MTV, he elaborated on the title’s meaning “I just really wanted to show the brightness of life and the word “pimp” has so much aggression, and that represents several things. For me, it represents using my celebrity for good. Another reason is, not being pimped by the industry through my celebrity.”
The notion that something as supposedly pure and free as a butterfly be subjected to something so aggressive as being pimped obviously conjures a stark image. (Who is the butterfly? Who is the pimp?) Kendrick’s penchant for complex wordplay and juxtaposition is well-known, but on To Pimp a Butterfly he’s playing with elements that often outright contradict each other. Dualities are rife throughout the whole album.
Naturally, being progressively pulled between two irreconcilable poles is liable to tear an individual’s psyche apart. But the way in which the first half of To Pimp sets the stage for this conflict isn’t just personal; there is an obvious societal dimension too, blurring any border between the individual and the political. (Insert obligatory reference to Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia here) There is a clear sense coming from the dichotomized imagery of both “Wesley’s Theory” and “King Kunta” that the experience of having “made it,” far from reflecting some sort of historic redemption, merely highlights that which still remains left behind in color-blind America:
- I’mma put the Compton swap meet // by the White House
- If I was the president // I’d pay my mama’s rent
- It’s a recession // then why the fuck he a King of Diamonds?
- Confidence in yourself // breakin' on marble floors
- You preached in front of 100,000 but never reached her // I fuckin' tell you, you fuckin' failure — you ain't no leader!
It’s a literary tactic that redoubles the effect of funk and jazz: striking us with the notion that “this doesn’t make sense” and then asking us what if it did. The resulting narratives are as thrilling as they are harrowing.
"Until I came home"
After about the fifth time our protagonist recounts his “I remember you was conflicted” monologue, we hear that he has decided to “go home.” Some writers have equated “home” with Africa, which seems plausible, but what is clear is that it’s a turning point for the album. If the first half of To Pimp focuses on the opposite forces of the outer world shaping our protagonist’s inner turmoil, then the second half turns all of that inside out.
Kendrick’s lyrical contradictions become broader on this second half, more far-reaching, more macro, not just found within lines but between verses and even songs. The Garvey-ite treatments of Africa frame references to inner-city life in “Momma” and “Hood Politics.” The psychological chasms span “from Compton to congress,” reaching between “DemoCrips and ReBloodicans.” The subtle reflections on colorism in “Complexion” segue into the provocative aggression of “The Blacker the Berry”:
Came from the bottom of mankind
My hair is nappy, my dick 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 fucking evil
I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey
ou vandalize my perception, but can’t take style from me.
There is plenty here for prudish culture warriors to decontextualize and denounce, and that’s likely the point. If the psycho-social dimension can be extrapolated without testing the limits of credulity (and I think it can) then there is a distinct impression of W.E.B. DuBois’ double-consciousness at work here:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
It is therefore significant that the closing song, “Mortal Man,” uses references to Nelson Mandela as a focal point: a man whose early radicalism and militancy was whitewashed over later in life — and in death — in favor of the image of a well-behaved man of peace. If Mandela was once the symbol that demanded the world to choose a side, the manipulation of his legacy seems to be Kendrick’s double-consciousness reflected and enforced on a global scale.
“The ground gonna open up”
The closing sequence of To Pimp a Butterfly merits its own analysis. The choice to use a reimagined interview with Tupac Shakur as the album’s coda reveals its original iteration as Tu Pimp a Caterpillar (Tu-P-A-C). As “Mortal Man” fades out, we hear Kendrick relate his “I remember you was conflicted” speech one last time, then realize it’s a quasi-poem he’s reading out loud before asking Tupac about his ground metaphor. Tupac obliges him an explanation:
The ground is gonna open up and swallow the evil… That’s how I see it, my word is bond. I see — and the ground is the symbol for the poor people, the poor people is gonna open up this whole world and swallow up the rich people. Cause the rich people gonna be so fat, they gonna be so appetising, you know what I’m saying, wealthy, appetising. The poor gonna be so poor and hungry, you know what I’m saying it’s gonna be like… there might be some cannibalism out this mutha, they might eat the rich.
I think that niggas is tired of grabbin' shit out the stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, uh, bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that. I think American think we was just playing and it’s gonna be some more playing but it ain’t gonna be no playing. It’s gonna be murder, you know what I’m saying, it’s gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831, up in this muthafucka. You know what I’m saying, it’s gonna happen.
It’s as provocative and controversial; it could also have been said yesterday as easily as it was twenty years ago. And all of this, significantly, takes place over a sample of American jazz artist Houston Person’s version of Fela Kuti’s “I No Get Eye For Back” subtly wafting in between the conversation. It’s almost as if the sense of dialogue between Africa and African America has been handed over to Tupac before being dropped in front of Lamar. And as Lamar asks Tupac his last question about what it takes for the caterpillar to become the butterfly, he realizes that Pac has disappeared, leaving us with no easy answers.
3. About that Reebok commercial
Has the magnificence of this album been somehow sullied by Lamar’s decision to work with Reebok? At least some people seem to think so. To be sure, Reebok’s ad campaign is at the same time savvy and flagrantly transparent. One can almost hear the advertising execs’ deflection: “Sure the shoes are sweatshop made, but they are associated with a conscious self-reflective artist who’s had it with the mowing down of Black people. Your purchase won’t change much, but it will make you feel better and more relevant.” It has a more to do with the aestheticization of politics than the politicization of art.
So no, the “Reebok revolution” isn’t ultimately congruent with whatever coming Black revolution Kendrick (or any of us for that matter) may want to see. But denouncing him for the ad campaign is about as pointless as defending him for it. We may not like that he is the butterfly being pimped, but how we feel about it is ultimately irrelevant. All of us end up getting pimped in this world and all the moral superiority in the world won’t change that.
What will change that is cultural space being carved out that is both conscious of and opposed to racism and capital. That doesn’t happen with an album, no matter how good it is. Even the mere existence of a movement — militant and unapologetic though it may be — doesn’t automatically create that space.
4. The aesthetics of Black Lives Matter
Perhaps the biggest question then is whether the Black Lives Matter movement — or whatever movement is may gestate into — will ultimately provide that space. Lamar’s own take on that movement is my no means clear cut. If his comments to Billboard about Ferguson are indicative, then he very well may still be swayed by the same respectability politics that the bulk of most heavily involved activists have rightfully opposed. There are, however, debates raging within the movement over its direction, about what it means to stand in solidarity and what it means to stand up to the full spectrum of a deeply embedded American racism. In short, activists are asking what it means to wield real social power. What does it mean to be unabashed and militant arbiters of radical social change?
Again, this finds its echo in To Pimp a Butterfly. In another time and place we might be tempted to call the album avant-garde in its sensibilities, but this presupposes that there is anything remotely close to a coherent avant-garde in the here and now. Some notable and brilliant possible candidates notwithstanding, no such artistic movement has yet gained the confidence or influence to step out in front and declare itself worthy of the title. Instead, we content ourselves with such taciturn labels as “experimental” when talking about music like this, with little regard for the fact that eventually an experiment must reveal some sort of logical conclusion which reshapes the way we view the world.
At its strongest, Black Lives Matter has shown itself willing to take this task quite literally, asking how a collective consciousness might not just rise above the fence but converge over it. The blocking of highways, the projection of the names of those murdered by cops onto the sides of jails, the wonderful invasions apparently insouciant spaces with “Black Brunch.” This is a movement has proven its willingness to disrupt, refusing to feel its anger and pain on the invisible margins and juxtaposing it with the vapid “business as usual” pretense of slick prosperity and equal opportunity. If doing so ultimately tears apart and opens up the American psyche, then all the more room to finally deal with its demons.
In the meantime, Lamar’s question remains: How much must a caterpillar eat before it can finally become the butterfly?