In North Charleston, South Carolina, there’s another unarmed black man shot dead by police. This time it was caught on video. This time the victim was unambiguously running away from the police officer. This time that police officer appears to have attempted to plant evidence near the body of the black man that he shot to death.
This isn’t the first time a black body has been shot down by those tasked with serving the common good, and it won’t be the last.
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a sprawling, vibrant, ambitious, challenging piece of black art. If good kid, m.A.A.d city was like The Godfather – an instant classic released to universal acclaim – To Pimp a Butterfly feels more like a late Kubrick film. It’s obscure, thematically dense stuff; its closing dialogue between Kendrick and a long-dead Tupac Shakur is only slightly less surreal than David Bowman flying through kaleidoscopic space and transmogrifying into a Star Child.
But is it what we need right now?
I need to take a minute and talk about Neymar.
Neymar! Neymar da Silva Santos Junior! – that brilliant pixie-sprite of samba creativity that dragged a somnolent Seleçao into the semifinals of last June’s World Cup tournament. Neymar is known primarily for his preposterous soccer skills, his preposterous haircuts, and his preposterous transfer to Barcelona – a transfer that deposed one club president (!), led to allegations that Neymar’s father was given a London orgy in exchange for his son’s transfer (!!), and that finally ensnared Barcelona’s top leadership in a tax fraud lawsuit in the Spanish courts (!!!).
Even if you track international soccer pretty closely, there’s a good chance that you haven’t heard very many sordid details about the drama surrounding his transfer. It helps that Neymar is utterly incandescent every time he steps onto the soccer field, but it’s vital that Neymar is also a Global Brand. He sells headphones, cellphones, and televisions; more importantly, he also sells the vague intersection of enterprising nouveau riche upward mobility and social barbarism that is Qatar’s oil-fuelled experiment with the beautiful game.
Part of being an international icon is being really, really good-looking, which of course the junior Neymar is. See for yourself! And this is where things get interesting. Here’s Neymar as a kid. Here’s Neymar as a seventeen-year old wunderkind, just before being swept up into a vortex of European club scouts and Nike endorsement money and the hopes and dreams of an entire country. (Credit for pointing out this phenomenon, here.)
Do we want to know how many more millions of dollars Neymar is worth to Coke – and FIFA – with straightened, blonded hair and skin lightened by several more degrees of latitude away from the Equator?
This is not a criticism of Neymar! In his shoes, I would do the same thing; I practically have! Scroll down to see the photo of me at the bottom of this page. Like Neymar, I am mixed-race, like him, I look much more “white” today than I have in the past, like him, I live above the 38th parallel. I just don’t get out very much.
The point is that there’s a naïve story that we tell ourselves about the intersection of economics and race. It’s just a market inefficiency, to be racist. What of the excluded customer base? the untapped worker pool? Think of all the profits lost at the “whites only” lunch counter! Little is said of opportunities made for predatory lending practices and rapacious systems of permanent incarceration – to say nothing of a nation built on the sting of the lash and the prick of the cotton thorn. That’s how black people in Ferguson become sources of city revenue for police officers to exploit, not citizens for them to protect.
Set against this backdrop, you’ve really only got two choices as a black artist or celebrity.
The first is what I’ll call the Michael Jordan option, or, the “Republicans buy shoes, too” option. It’s the idea that the best way to get ahead is to make “blackness” – whatever this amounts to – largely accidental to your public persona. This is the surest way to cultural acceptance. It’s impossible to criticize the first wave of black American cultural powerbrokers for choosing to minimize their blackness when we elected our first black president just six years ago, when just six of 1,645 world billionaires are black, when just two Supreme Court judges have ever been black, when only six black United States senators have been elected since Reconstruction, and so on. That Barack Obama saying to his cashier, ‘Nah, we straight,’ can spawn thinkpieces in the New York Times indicates that we don’t live in a post-racial society, but rather one in which prominent black people are sufficiently tolerated, so long as they act appropriately “white”. Jay-Z is “not a businessman, he’s a business, man;” this is a deliberate, cultivated attitude on his part.
The other option is to record “Strange Fruit” on Commodore Records in 1939. It’s to say “this is a showtune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet,” while Nina Simone’s mostly white audience laughs (nervously?) at “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964. It’s to be unapologetically black, and to integrate that into the art that you create. It’s almost impossible to imagine Drake writing a song like “Black Skinhead” and leveraging his cultural cachet to premiere that song on Saturday Night Live; that, whatever his other faults, is why Kanye West is just a different caliber of artist.
Rap music twenty years ago was unambiguously black music. Now it’s just popular music, where on the radio artists like Macklemore and Iggy Azalea coexist with Pusha T and 2 Chainz. It’s therefore increasingly possible for rap artists to become enormously successful without directly implicating their race.
I said that good kid, m.A.A.d city was like The Godfather; they’re both magnificent pieces of pop-art. Everyone appreciates the simple pleasures of “leave the gun, take the cannoli” and the closing baptismal scene. The Janet Jackson sample and Drake verse on “Poetic Justice” and the virtuosity of “Backseat Freestyle” resonate just as viscerally. These pleasures aren’t gratuitous, but instead serve (for Kendrick) his depiction of 90’s Compton and his struggle against its power to corrupt and destroy. It’s an album that opens with an invocation of the precious blood of Jesus and ends with Kendrick stuntin’ with Dr. Dre over a Just Blaze beat, with robberies, dominoes, murders, and baptisms in between. It’s really something.
Importantly, it didn’t commit Kendrick either way as to how he’d position his nascent superstardom. good kid, m.A.A.d. city was autobiographical, not political. It was a hypermodern blend of Drake’s confessional Snapchat-rap with classical West Coast styles; it’s like looking through a box of somebody else’s old home videos. From there, Kendrick could do anything. Would he soften up his edges and take the Jordan route? Or make things grittier and realer, which might alienate a potentially vast audience?
Kendrick seemed to take the safe path, initially. On the back of a wave of critical and commercial acclaim – and some high-profile guest spots – Kendrick proceeded to call out damn near every up-and-comer in the rap world out by name, something nearly unprecedented since Biggie and Tupac died. Instead of backing down, Kendrick doubled-down a few months later, “tuck[ing] a sensitive rapper back in his pajama clothes”.
That’s the classical path for rappers climbing Mount Greatest Rapper Alive: show off your technical proficiency, knock some heads, take on the current title-holder. And there are some hints in his 2014 discography that point to this being his plan – his guest spot on Jay Rock’s “Pay For It” full of the ‘King Kendrick’ bravado that gets you lionized as a rapper – but mostly last year was a year of silence from one of the most vital voices in hip-hop.
Maybe it was the mounting death toll that switched his focus away from purely commercial success – Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Walter Scott, you know the names – or maybe it was his plan all along. What I can say is that while the world seemed to be burning down around us, while bodies rotted in the streets and police formed barricades and we were crying out for some kind of leadership and consolation, Kendrick was quiet. Then, a month after the Michael Brown killing, he released “i”, a song whose “I love myself” mantra and focus on Kendrick’s struggles with depression seemed out of touch with the rage and hurt many of his listeners were feeling at the time.
Five months later, he released “The Blacker the Berry”, and the scope of his project began to clarify.
The next month, To Pimp a Butterfly was released on Interscope Records.
The first 45 seconds of To Pimp a Butterfly are taken up by the sound of a needle on vinyl, and then forgotten 1970’s soul singer Boris Gardner singing the hook to the theme song of a failed blaxploitation movie called “Every Nigger Is A Star”.
“Every Nigger Is A Star.” Six times, over a beautifully smooth soul beat. It’s the perfect epigraph for an album so aggressively, inalienably, beautifully black, an album unrelentingly focused on a message of positivity and uplift.
That’s just the through-line, though. This album sprawls, a bit like Kendrick’s hometown of Los Angeles.
For the first five songs, though, Butterfly feels like a typical post-breakout album, shot through with Kendrick’s characteristic introspection. It’s preoccupied with fame and its attendant vices: sex, money, power. “Wesley’s Theory” meditates on the fact that escaping the “hood” doesn’t mean an escape from servitude; it’s only the masters that change. “King Kunta” is another riff on the King Kendrick motif and the first whiff of black politics on the album; Kunta Kinte, famously depicted in the TV miniseries Roots, was a rebellious slave who repeatedly attempted escape and chose to have his foot cut off rather than be castrated as punishment. “Institutionalized” deals with being trapped in a cycle of greed and envy; “These Walls” with using celebrity to take advantage of someone else for sex.
Kendrick rapped on good kid: “Money, pussy and greed; what’s my next crave/whatever it is, know it’s my next grave.” It’s not surprising that these introductory songs end poorly. What’s shocking is just how poorly they end. “u” depicts Kendrick in a drunken, suicidal depression, launching salvo after salvo of terrifying accusations at himself. He blames himself for his sister’s teenage pregnancy and the shooting death of a best friend; he sees himself as a man trapped seeking vice while the community he left suffers. It’s an incredibly powerful song, and it’s the first major shift in the album.
There have always been Christian undercurrents to Kendrick’s music, and it’s at this point that he begins to identify these temptations toward suicide and vice directly with Satan (here, “Lucy”). He spars with the devil over the course of the next few songs, taking refuge in his home (“Momma”), his past (“Hood Politics”), eventually being humbled before God and asking for mercy (“How Much a Dollar Cost?”).
It’s telling that it’s only at this point that the album becomes overtly political. It’s as though Kendrick felt he needed to fix himself before he could turn his attention to broader social problems (echoing somewhat Matt. 7:3-5). “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” follows in a long tradition of black music agitating against colorism, for beauty standards that celebrate all forms of black-ness. It’s a direct rebuke of the Neymarization of blackness; it’s here that it becomes clear that Kendrick’s primary focus is not the accumulation of wealth or prestige, but the creation of black art for the promotion of black culture.
It’s “The Blacker the Berry” that directly responds to the madness and terror that’s enveloped our society for the past eight months. It’s a protest song; it’s almost offensively black; it’s fire and fury and anger distilled to their rawest elements. It’s the kind of song where he’ll rap about the size of his penis, about eating “watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid”, and about being “black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan.” He raps about the institutionalization of hatred and the exploitation of black communities by powerful interests. He flips what was meant as a positive affirmation of blackness – “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” – into a predator’s sick joke.
These strands of the album are tied together near its end, through a reworked version of that maligned early single, “i”. It’s really nothing more than a jammed-out riff on the Boris Gardner sample at the beginning of the album, but after all of the personal and political turmoil that Kendrick has laid bare, it feels enormously cathartic to hear a joyous chorus singing simply: “I love myself.” It’s a love that, pace the first verse, is only enabled by God’s love. It can’t help but feel like a deeply political statement in these days of turmoil, for a boldly black man to enter into the public square and unashamedly love himself for what he is. And it’s obviously lovely on a personal level, for someone who has clearly reached depths shown on “u” to rise to the heights of “i” – that’s a magical thing.
It’s clear that Kendrick thinks that the way forward for black people in America is through the model expressed both in the structure of the album and through “i”: self love first, then, through that love, structural change. His artistic accomplishment is to have effectively united his personal issues with depression and suicide with our social issues with institutional hatred and violence; it’s well beyond the scope of this article to pronounce on the correctness of this analogy. At the very least, it’s deeply consoling and uplifting to have a black artist willing to take chances and make this kind of music, especially in the social climate we find ourselves.
Turns out, we got the Kendrick Lamar album that we needed, even if it isn’t the one that we deserve right now.