I almost died when I saw Kendrick Lamar headline the final night of last year's Pitchfork Festival at Chicago's Union Park. I'm probably exaggerating, but if so not by much. For one and one-half hours, my body and backpack were compressed into the smallest volume my internal organs and skeletal structure would allow, and from the opening note of "Money Trees" thru the final measures of "A.D.H.D" I was less an autonomous human being than a cytoplasmic fraction of a pseudopod in the mob's amoeboid surge and withdrawal.
The whole spectacle was really more of an exercise in survival. My limbs would respond to King Kendrick's commands to raise up, but would quickly return to cage-in my chest when the vacated space was immediately filled with more bodies and body heat. I tried like hell to focus on K-dot's flow - especially when I could hear him dropping fresh bars over good kid, mA.A.d city's new classics - but that attention span was quickly reassigned to my primordial urge to remain afoot and uncrushed. When "mA.A.d city" kicked into the sweltering abyss with a booming "YAWK! YAWK! YAWK! YAWK!", the whole hundred-thousand plus went fuckin up. The involuntary pogoing that ensued barely veiled our collective physiological need to get up above each other, up to a portion of the troposphere where the oxygen concentration was still 20.9%, up to those finest droplets of water mercifully diffused by security guards before they evaporated into the thin, uncharacteristically dry night sky.
When the set had finished and attendees peeled off one another, dispersing from the othermost layers like dandelion seeds blown into the Second City streets, I stood delirious and awash in sweat of mixed origin. I had lost probably ten pounds in water weight and smelled horrendous. Couple Mac DeMarco records in my bag all bent to shit.. I'd change nothing about it, man. I thought for awhile that I'd never again experience anything that powerful, that big, that important. Even now, I'm at least grateful the set was good enough to make me forget for some time afterward the five hours that had preceded it.
Pitchfork Festival, like Coachella and FYF and, well, every fucking festival everywhere (and indie music on the whole), is really goddamn white. Scroll back through the videos of performances past. It's a stark reality that's difficult not to notice immediately, and it's present not just where you'd expect (ie. Real Estate's set). Four hours before Kendrick killt it, Schoolboy Q blessed the same stage. More alarming than the sheer monochromatic makeup of the crowd's demography, more alarming than the white broad in the penis hat, more alarming than hearing people complain about missing Death Grips was the willingness of all these white motherfuckers to drop the N-bomb recreationally without hesitation or consideration for their whereabouts. Shit, I was shocked enough to see them shouting it out in meter whilst in the throes of Black Hippie fanaticism.
|As advertised. PC: Roger Mexico|
However, it's also pretty damn disingenuous to feign shock at the arrival of this day when the hip-hop world has been hurdling toward it for a hot minute, perhaps since its origin. Like, you gotta know I'm mad hesitant to lay blame on rap music for any/all of our societal ills, especially those most frequently ridiculed by Fox News and the like (gang and gun violence, divorce, teenage drop out or pregnancy rates, etc). But as far as white millennials feeling it's acceptable - or at least acceptable enough for the white privilege shooter's bounce - to say and/or call each other or anyone else "nigga" (including the permutations, variations and shortenings of it) in public or private... for that the hip-hop community bears at least some of the blame for looking the other way and acquiescing the aggressions of perhaps the last demographic that can spend some of its parents' paper on CDs and shows and Spotify Premium accounts.
Seriously, though. Had the murders of Tupac and Biggie Smalls happened today, they may have been a catalyst for something more meaningful. Perhaps there would have been some kind of corresponding discussion about underlying forces political, social and economic that mire disadvantaged communities in cycles of destructive behavior. Maybe we'd have talked about why rap music is integral to our collective culture and why the quote-unquote "black issues" it highlights shouldn't only matter to black people. In '96-'97, though, it provided just the spark suits needed to start pushing party music instead of metropolitan street testimony. To water down rap music and make it palatable to moms in minivans. To make Will Smith's music career a thing. And with every Scott Storch stamped single of the aughts, hip-hop moved closer and closer toward displacing The Macarena as the soundtrack of choice for junior high school dances in the suburbs, refocused to the goal of getting pretty pale wallflowers out on the floor to bump and grind and do awkward movements with their arms. Nelly was there. Luda was there. Ya best fuckin believe 50 was there. If Eminem had been the Motor City Macklemore the labels had really hoped he'd be, that probably would have been the kill shot then and there.
What was ultimately most detrimental, though, wasn't the tectonic shift in the rap landscape so much as the fissure left in its wake, a certain chasm of "realness" (ugh) all but begging to be filled by a tsunami of young white cats waiting patiently offshore for their chance to rush inland and rhapsodize about "authentic" (UGH) hip-hop and lecture at-length about The Great Injustices of Immortal Technique. Turn your back and they're adopting the style and dress, too. Blink twice and they're slinging you their mixtape rife with beleaguered trials of fully-middle-class struggle. Contemporary rap music became a mechanism by which a lot of white peoples I know attempted to legitimize their claim to cool. Obviously, this has been a decades-long battle, but waybackwhen fuckboys of the early 90's rocking Malcolm X Wear had to exist with a straight face alongside The Chronic and AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted. Tyga ain't dropping bodies off Greenleaf Blvd, and Kanye West - who, while arguably the greatest artist of our generation, is still the son of a college professor - ain't never gonna be as cutting and poignant as he was in the pre-Kardashian era.
It's this environment that lets a guy like me karaoke "Nuthin' But A 'G' Thang" to an entirely white audience at the Wrightwood Inn and claim cultural superiority. It's this environment that allows a 65-year-old St. Nick wannabe to immediately erase that memory with flawless, N-bomb laden takes on "Forgot About Dre" and "California Love". (Son was showered with bro-hugs after, too.) That Kendrick Lamar's major-label debut was the first album in what felt like forever to be substantive from start to finish didn't necessarily change much in that respect.
Y'all know me. I've been out here for a stretch calling gkmc a classic. I don't equivocate when I put it in Illmatic territory. Up there with Reasonable Doubt and Ready to Die and shit. The measured, insightful narrative of a youth growing up amid Compton street gang violence, it's the hip-hop reciprocal to John Singleton's Boyz N The Hood twenty years later, rapped from Cuba's perspective with Lawrence's wisdom (and plenty of allusions throughout to make the connection explicit). That being said, it is by all means an inclusive album. There's this moral, intellectual undercurrent running the length of its 68 minutes that allows for the dissociation from the events of the narrative and permits people whose only connections to Compton are KCAL 9 News and Dr. Dre records (myself included) to find commonality. It's easy to pull from the Spark Notes the easily-relatable concept of an upbringing spent overcoming obstacles. When I look back on it, there's also plenty of superficial shit for middle class white folk to latch on to for semi-ironic consumption. Bitch don't kill my vibe? Dreams of getting shaded under money trees? Eiffel Tower-sized, world-fucking dicks? Shit, we'll rep all that. Sign us up. I mean, c'mon, Halle Berry or hallelujah? You already know. All those refrains are uncomfortable enough to be hip or edgy but nowhere near enough so to prevent their hashtagged appropriation on a teenage Twitter timeline or to keep them from being bumped hard af at any southland street corner from my Certified Pre-owned Toyota Prius, feel me?
When viewed within the prism of Kendrick's latest, however, all that feels more inappropriate than it always was. It was hard to know what to expect from 2014's most notably absent album. There was an almost overbearing need for it to say something, be it commentary on fame & fortune or politics or any of a host of inner-city issues, whatever. To be a purely commercial affair in the wake of such an ambitious debut would have felt hollow (though at the same time entirely appropriate given the many, many competing interests).
To my relief, at least, To Pimp A Butterfly is above all else a very black experience. And that means in 2015 that it is a very uncomfortable one, as well. This is by design and true on down to every first and last detail. The title is an obvious play on the one classic novel about racial inequality everyone has read. The cover art - o, gawd, that cover art - is so impossibly inflammatory, ripped right from Sean Hannity's most guarded nightmares. All this said, nothing about the album's packaging or rollout holds a candle to the content contained within. Especially the music, itself. For a man that had first dibs on untold numbers of premier beats that'd have kept him in club rotation for forever, Lamar opted to do almost all the production in-house with Top Dawg luminaries like Terrace Martin, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat (plus many more). The end result was a knotty amalgamation of free jazz and blown out funk that is anything but readily accessible for general audiences (I mean, it's jazz).
It's an act of decided defiance, really. In all the superficial ways good kid. mAAd city could be passively cherry-picked from the surface (DRANK) and milked for maximum profit while leaving message and meaning behind, To Pimp A Butterfly responds by requiring its listeners get down on hands and knees and pull its treasures up by the roots. It demands they have dirt under their nails when they're done. The record doesn't beg understanding so much as mandate it. It doesn't promise enjoyment or satisfaction so much as coax you its way with the allure of that possibility. It's never deceptive regarding its contents, but it's also never forthright about exactly how much is contained beneath the surface. This is why the sunniest moment of the whole record is the twenty-second sample of Boris Gardiner's "Every Nigger Is A Star" that leads it off. It's why the only two tracks that could be considered outright bangers - "King Kunta" and "The Blacker The Berry" - are its most provocative and definitely the two one's white ass ain't trying to get caught singing aloud come the hook. TPAB is not built for or meant to be appreciated through recreational listening. Experiencing this record requires you to be immersed by it, to think about it and set time aside and experience it all in context: the pointed and artful guest spots, the album-length spoken word poem unveiled piecemeal, the ten-minute Tupac "interview" at the end. All this is to say that To Pimp A Butterfly will allow you to like it (because it's really fucking good!), but it's not going to make it easy and it's not going to meet you anywhere close to halfway. To enjoy Kendrick's magnum opus, to rep it in front of your friends and colleagues, you're going to have to learn something about being (young,) black (and successful) in America.
((As an aside: Allowing the Patron Saint of White America to co-opt a couple throwaway verses and tweet out some bromantic bromides is more or less an extension of this method. How many pop tarts were exposed to genuine, uncompromising art solely because Kdot blessed the "Bad Blood" remix? Hard not to see that as a net positive even if all those flirtations were undoubtedly brief. I mean despite her enthusiasm when it dropped, how far are we to assume T. Swift made it into this record, herself? Judging by the absurd racial overtones of her music vids, I'd guess it couldn't have been too far past the George Clinton feature.))
To Pimp A Butterfly is about the State of Blackness in America, so it must be about manifestations of violence. Same as always. The violence that is white corporatists visiting upon the rare emancipated negro all the devices and instruments necessary to return to them what's rightfully their$ ("Wesley's Theory"). The violence that is the socially ingrained, consumptive mindset of groupies ("For Free?"), dickriders and old homies ("Institutionalized") that fuel new black wealth's return to lower entropy lining white pockets. The violence that is skin tone derived self-worth underlying and exacerbating said mindsets ("Complexion"). Lamar spends a lot of the album dealing with the implications of money and wealth and the fame that brought it to him, especially the for-profit food chain in which business interests capitalize on Kendrick Lamar who has himself capitalized on Compton. This battle is certainly not new territory in rap music, but rarely is it so thoroughly and insightfully explored [see: "u", "Momma", "For sale?", and "How Much A Dollar Cost" (Obama say what it do??)]. Temptation and vice vs. the sense of personal responsibility - that's the battle he seems most concerned with fighting and winning (at least in terms of lyrical proportionality).
There is also, obviously, the more literal form of state- and street-sanctioned violence driven largely by the economics of the New Jim Crow. This is the reality that certainly feels more pervasive in the year of our lawd 2015. However, within the context of the record, that verse on "The Blacker The Berry" is about as explicitly indicting as it gets. For the most part these realities are mentioned sporadically and offhand like the accepted, inconvenient truths they are in many communities of color. Whether it be the malicious influx of guns and drugs in the neighborhood on "Hood Politics" or the resultant brown bodies dead in the street on "Alright", its spoken like conventional wisdom, like facts that just are. And yet there's no real battle waged, no multi-song suite exploring motivations or paths of remedy.
The most you get toward that end is on the record's only honest-to-gawd bait-and-switch, the Isley Brother-approved "i", where Kendrick joyously transforms a line from the chorus on the single version (released last year to the "different-but-bad" soft derision and worries that Lamar might follow Brother Nasir's less hallowed footsteps) into one evoking the fantasy of retaliatory cop murder. Outside of that it's just "Alright", Butterfly's emotional center and the adopted rallying cry of several of this year's police reform movements. It's the song he closed with during his Kunta's Groove Sessions tour, and when I caught him at the Wiltern in November it's the one I honestly thought was going to bring the building down or cave in the floor or both. It's an anthem because it's power is matched only by its simplicity, and yet even the success of that song cannot overshadow the fact that it's not about triumph or victory in the traditional sense. It's the celebration of perseverance in the face of all this bullshit. Four centuries of it. And it's the promise of another four, if need be.
Ultimately, though, To Pimp A Butterfly is about reclamation. It's about returning Kendrick Lamar to the emotional and moral mooring of his hometown and its people. It's about returning black matters and black sound to hip-hop and intertwining them in a way that prevents their separation by assimilative forces of the market. In the aforementioned "i" it's about reclaiming the N-word not just from the mouths of whites but from the context constructed by their ancestors, entirely, and returning it to a position of power, respect and authority. The album may not be as flawless a masterstroke as its predecessor. However, its missteps are mostly in its eagerness to overstate its point and force the myriad dots to connect themselves before the Genius nerds had a chance to flex (see: the pedantic reveal of the caterpillar metaphor that grew on me over repeated listens, the explicit unveiling of the homeless vagrant as God Hisself on "How Much A Dollar Cost" that did not). Small yams given its size, scope and importance.
In 2015, Kendrick Lamar still King.
In 2015, Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive.
|*Probably not, but fuck it PIMPS ONLY|