Hood Politics



A Review of Kendrick Lamar’s Newest Album.

To Pimp a Butterfly is good, to say the least. So good that it prompted an all-caps tweet from Taylor Swift. So good that “i”, its fifteenth track, won two Grammy awards before the rest of the album was even released. So good that many listeners couldn’t handle the pressure and had to listen to this complicated album many times before stating their opinions on it.

It’s impossible to define what this album is, really, but we can begin to define what it’s not. It’s syncopated, it’s difficult, and it’s not the kind of album you can walk away from without thinking of everything that is wrong with our society. It’s not background music. It’s not easy listening. It’s not just rap, either; “there’s half a jazz band present at all times,” notes reviewer Craig Jenkins in Pitchfork, and guest artists including Thundercat and Anna Wise lend soul and substance to music that is as much about experimentation with sound as it is about controversial lyrics. It’s not just Kendrick’s life story anymore, either, though it is introspective at times; if there is a narrative here, it’s of race politics, or society at large, and the place of recent racially charged murders in national debate is evident. Both Trayvon Martin and the Ferguson protests are explicitly mentioned in “The Blacker the Berry.” The social commentary isn’t quelled for the sake of a happy ending, either, but the album’s finale, a conversation with the ghost of Tupac, is conclusive and even inspiring. Eerily self-referential, Tupac conludes, “We ain’t even really rappin’. We just letting out dead homies tell stories for us.”

“Every n****r is a star,” proclaims the first clip of “Wesley’s Theory,” a brassy sample from the eponymous Boris Gardiner track. Kendrick doesn’t speak until after George Clinton has a verse (and, three lines in, urges us to “take a deep look inside,” which might give those still unsuspecting a taste of this album’s serious tone). “At first I did love you,” K muses, “but now I just want to fuck.” This track is not really about women, though; it’s about industry, and money. “Anybody can get it,” says Dre, “the hard part is keeping it, motherf*cker.” In “For Free,” we are again reminded that every relationship is a commercial venture; the woman character in this song turns out, again, to be “America, you bad b*tch.” “I picked the cotton that made you rich,” intones a self-defensive Kendrick, “now this dick ain’t free.” Kunta, made king in Kendrick’s third track, is most famous because of Alex Haley’s Roots series, a slave who chose a foot amputation over castration as punishment for repeated escape –a “black man taking no losses,” and this is really why he is the track’s main character. “Institutionalized” explores the butterfly motif –and, of course, the cocoon is Compton. “You can take your boy out the hood but you can’t take the hood out the homie,” concludes guest Snoop Dogg.

“u” is dark, sad, and desperate; “Alright” gets spiritual. Where “For Free?” criticizes ostentatiousness, “For Sale?” describes its allure, personified in Lucy, whom we realize is an iteration of the devil. “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence,” begins Kendrick for the third time, adding to this increasingly more central refrain. There is a bit of personal narrative at this point in the album—Kendrick returns home, to Compton, to “Momma,” and in a long second verse, he recites what he knows, beginning with everything and ending with nothing. He certainly knows the duality of racially motivated pride and self-loathing, the latter explored in “The Blacker the Berry” and the former in “i”. “The Blacker the Berry” doesn’t only convey anger, though; it is at once an expression of shame and a call for solidarity. Meanwhile, “i”, the model child and Grammy-winner of the album, is so upbeat it seems to come from an entirely different universe than “u.” It, too, acknowledges depression, though, and behind that bright guitar is an etymological examination of the ubiquitous noun/pronoun used gratuitously throughout the album. “Mortal Man” is a message from K to his fans and a beautiful conclusion to the album. He recites his poem—which gives this song its name—in full. It is obviously a realization of morality, but it’s also a chance for Kendrick to place himself in the historical narrative of black leaders. He expresses the urgency of limited time to a more recent predecessor in an exchange with Tupac, masterfully constructed from clips of a 1994 interview. They discuss the plight of the modern black man and retaliation against injustice. Tupac assures us, “ain’t gonna be no playin’. It’s gonna be murder, you know what I’m saying.” Weaving in this newly gained wisdom as well as his own introspective discoveries, Kendrick finally realizes, out loud, the narrative of the caterpillar and butterfly. By then, though, Tupac is gone.

Hannah Kates ’18 (hkates@college.harvard.edu) is a speck of dust in Kendrick’s universe.