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Monday, October 18, 2021

To Pimp A Butterfly and make it socially conscious, too

Guest review of Kendrick Lamar’s new album

When I lived in a dirty, scuffed-up co-op with 15 other college students, our anthem was Kendrick Lamar’s “Fuckin’ Problems.” We would blast it when waking up in the morning, we would yell it across bike paths at passing housemates, we would even play the Kidz Bop version while cooking dinner for each other. It’s only with the release of Lamar’s most recent album, To Pimp A Butterfly, that I realize we had no idea what we were dealing with.

Kendrick Lamar has always been bastardized by the mainstream. His hit singles have been stripped of all deeper meaning—the reflective irony of “Backseat Freestyle” was taken sincerely, the dark commentary on alcoholism in “Swimming Pools (Drank)” was assimilated into the binge-drinking blackout vernacular, and yet another image of the “girls, guns, and money” rapper was perpetuated.

From frat parties to co-op cook nights, it’s clear that our generation loves to misunderstand Lamar’s intentions. It would be quite a stretch if anyone managed to do that with Butterfly.

Lamar’s third album, released March 15, 2015 produced by Top Dawg, Aftermath, and Interscope Records, is an innovative, emotional work of art. Blending free jazz and funk beats with gritty lyricism, Lamar addresses everything from racial oppression to depression.

Although many of the songs work best within the album, as opposed to as singles, the 16 tracks are versatile in nature—intimately personal yet relatable, lyrically thick, yet accessible, and even a few that are heavily political yet danceable, such as Butterfly‘s #1 hit, “King Kunta.”

Centered around the narrative of Kunta Kinte, an 18th century slave whose foot was chopped off to keep him from running away, the song layers modern black power lyrics over a lowrider funk melody. Lamar traces the development of the African man in American society, his change from “a peasant to a prince to a motherfuckin’ king,” while still acknowledging the inherent disrespect for his monarchy—i.e., racism.

Along with an ode to black resilience, many have said the song is also subtle attack on rapper Kanye West, whose idea of lyrical black activism is that he’s made an exorbitant amount of money (West christens his nouveau style “luxury rap”) which, while definitely a revolutionary act for a black man, is the complete opposite of Lamar’s community-rooted lyrics.

In Butterfly, Lamar raps about the ubiquitous “hood” in a way that both waxes nostalgic and holds it at arm’s length distance. While most rappers either glorify or cut themselves off from the neighborhoods they grew up in, Lamar walks the fine line between loving and leaving Compton.

He also walks the line that divides sanity and instability. In this album, Lamar not only talks about his depression, he pours it for the audience straight from a bottle of 100 proof. We drown in it with him on “u,” an almost terrifyingly vulnerable look into Lamar’s neuroses, and track the narrative through “Alright,” “Momma,” and in some of the songs’ outros, which culminate in a poem in the final track “Mortal Man.”

This intimate look into a black man’s depression feels simultaneously voyeuristic and awe-inspiring. The defiance of the social stigma surrounding depression is augmented by Lamar’s blackness—where mental health is already a hushed-up topic, it can be downright taboo in black communities.

Community is also connected with Lamar’s depression—within “u,” Lamar blends his internal struggles with the external, detailing how his guilt at leaving Compton and pursuing his rap career served to push him even deeper into depression.

But Lamar’s goal is not to drag the listener into the same pit in which he resides—in an interview with Rolling Stone, Lamar said, “Anybody reading or listening who may be asking these questions of themselves, just remember: from ‘u,’ you will eventually reach ‘i.’”

“i” is the second to last song on Butterfly, and another one of those heavily political yet danceable hits, featuring the chorus “I love myself/ I put a bullet in the back of the back of the head of the police/ I love myself.”

Suffice to say, it would be a bit of a stretch for Kidz Bop to cover any of these songs, or for frat boys to fist pump along at a party. The album has exploded its way into the rap canon with tracks that challenge, entertain, stimulate and struggle.

Lamar speaks to issues on a level much deeper than whatever Fuckin’ Problems we believe we all have.

Graphic by Jennifer Wu.

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