For the past week, I’ve been trying to digest Kendrick Lamar‘s latest release, To Pimp A Butterfly. With elevated poetics that celebrate blackness, thoroughly discusses depression, and picks up right where good kid m.a.a.d city left off, one thing is clear from the jump – this is a soul album. Or maybe it is neo-soul. Possibly jazz-funk. Okay, it is some combination of the three genres. For the past week, I’ve been surveying a variety of opinions on the album. My friend’s fifteen year old son said he appreciated the intellect of the album, but ultimately thought it was musically boring, especially when compared with GKMC. I guess the slam poetry aesthetics aren’t his thing. Fair enough. My boyfriend compared it to that of Dead Prez and Nas, respectfully pointing out that Kendrick isn’t the first man to make a record of this caliber. My best friend said she thought it was just as much about depression as it was about blackness, noting the unifying power of the music. She’s white and states she can relate to aspects of the album. And, for the past week, I’ve been trying to figure out my own feelings surrounding the album. It isn’t easy listening, it is just as much angry as it is celebratory and brutally honest. I am hesitant to call this a black power album. It is empowering to the black community, sure. But, perhaps this is a black unity album.
So, what do I make of this? I feel like every other writer, writing a think piece on an album, trying to make sense of an artist’s words. I never write think pieces on albums – not because they are unimportant, but because it overwhelms me. Should I take you track by track? Should I hold your hand as I tell you what this album means? Do I maintain my credibility by listing every single song sampled on this album? Should I tell you about “Negus“? As Clover Hope points out, “each song could have a thesis,” so do I even attempt to unpack this body of work in a web article? Should I tell you what “to pimp a butterfly” means when Kendrick blatantly states its meaning at the end of the album? My mind wanders, lost in this culture that I am apart of but have never felt connected to. Not until now.
The album opens with a Boris Gardiner sample, crooning “Every nigga is a star.” And there is definitely a hint of a hard “er” on the end of nigga. By my third listen, I realize that this is the first album I have connected to as a black woman. It’s the kind of album that, whether I like it or not, I cannot deny that my coffee-colored skin comes from my black father, that my hair that I tease into big soft curls is naturally wound into tight coils, that regardless of the overwhelming disconnect I’ve felt from my father the majority of my life and despite being one of the only black girls in the small valley I grew up in, I am black and I can’t run from it. This feeling isn’t frightening nor overwhelming and that leads me to wonder how it feels to be afraid of one’s own blackness. I wonder if I will ever fear my blackness. I recognize that one’s relation to their own race is unique. I recognize the privileges I benefit from – there’s a hefty list between my racially ambiguous appearance and my white mother. In the same breath, I also recognize that there is no sliding scale to race. Being mixed doesn’t make me any less black than my father. We’re still black. I still flinch when that hard “er” is tacked onto “nigga.” And, then I wonder, if I were white, would I still be writing this article? In a way, I suppose I am coming to terms with what it means to be black listening to black music. I don’t want to insinuate for a second that this record is anything close to my story. Nonetheless, this album is an American story.