I stare across the intersection at a matte black BMW. From its open windows resonates a heavy, thudding bass, beating against my chest like an erratic pacemaker. The driver is a man roughly my age, wearing stark white sunglasses, and reclined to the point of supine. Emanating from the labored speakers is “Gangsta Gangsta” by N.W.A. Watching the car retreat in my rear-view mirror I stare at the surroundings. This is not Compton. There are no “gangstas.” There is, however, an elementary school, a yoga studio and an upscale grocery store specializing in imported delicacies. This is the First-World exemplified, our cars blare songs about life in the ghetto. I pass a furniture boutique and a frozen yogurt parlor, pondering the discordance. These classic rap songs were written in a different world. The world-weary rappers are speaking to a nonexistent demographic in this comfortable, university-educated suburb.
When I was 12, turbulent with the nascence of teenagedom, Bob Marley became my idol. His redemptive energy and loving ideals were both alluring and invigorating. Hell, I even tried to grow dreads. Researching more into the man and his message, I slowly began to grasp the tenets of Rastafarianism. Behind the slinky reggae-vibes are black empowerment ideologies including Pan-Africanism and Garveyism. The music encourages the solidarity of something that I simply cannot be. Given that, I believed there was little room for me, a privileged white boy. I shampooed my hair and the cause was lost. For years this estrangement translated over into the hip-hop community. I stuck to my alt-rock comfort zone and left race out of the mix.
Now I stand upon the edge of a new threshold. In three months I will leave my childhood home to study in a new, unexplored city. I will abandon familiarity to embrace a larger world. Again I find myself hungry for guidance and edification. Coincidentally, on the day that my university acceptance letter arrived, Kendrick Lamar released his third album, To Pimp a Butterfly. I never intended to pay it much attention, but popular opinion quickly changed my resolve. Rolling Stone labeled the album “a masterpiece of fiery outrage…” while Spin deemed it “the Great American Hip-Hop Album.” With track names like “The Blacker the Berry” and “Complexion (a Zulu Love),” it is evident that race plays a central part in To Pimp a Butterfly, and this praise left me fearful. I was concerned that the poetry and its power would evade me. Would I be like a parrot singing a peacock’s tune? Would I be lost somewhere in the Great Divide between artist and audience? As the acclaim continued to accumulate, my curiosity won over. I settled in for a listen, the importance of which could not have been foreseen.
The truth unraveled slowly. It took three listens before any cohesive meaning could be pulled from the dense instrumentation and lyricism. With each listen it became increasingly clear: Lamar uses the album as a vehicle to frame issues central to African-American society while simultaneously delivering sweeping, universal themes applicable even to me, the titular white boy. Take, for example, the track “Institutionalized”, where Lamar propounds upon the enslaving power of money and the danger of wealth, advising self-evaluation and entailing positive action with the colloquially profound quip, “shit don’t change until you get up and wash yo’ ass.” In “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” Lamar urges unity through black society in opposition to colorist schisms that have existed since the forced cultivation of cotton. To a greater extent, he is equally exhorting harmony amongst all races, whether “dark as the midnight hour or bright as the morning sun.” I found the release encouragingly relatable.
That is not to say that Lamar shies away the jarring and emotive elements of modern black America. The first track, “Wesley’s Theory, uses Wesley Snipes as a metaphor for the African-American artists that are marketed and “pimped” for profit. Lamar criticizes the American political structure’s interactions with African-American populations on “Hood Politics,” suggesting that “they give us guns and drugs, calls us thugs” yet are no different than “DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans” themselves. “The Blacker the Berry” addresses racial prejudices existing in Western society, alluding to both the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri and the killing of Trayvon Martin. On multiple occasions Lamar mentions the slave-industry and its insidious remnants, most notably on “King Kunta,” the title itself a nod to a slave from the 18th Century. The album’s closure, “Mortal Man,” mentions Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X as fellow “butterflies” that faced condemnation and tribulation. There is also direct reference to Marcus Garvey, as Bob Marley did three decades earlier. It is unquestionably an album crafted for “import[ance] in black culture;”, yet it is neither intransigent or exclusionary.
Ultimately, I never found my place with To Pimp a Butterfly. It is like I’m watching a baseball game in which Kendrick Lamar masterfully wallops every ball pitched his way. Although I am merely a bystander, I am still able to marvel at the display and delivery of skill. While he’s not hitting the balls for me in the stands I smile and applaud as they sail overhead. Above all, To Pimp a Butterfly is a soaring and searing album, with production, flow and lyrical intricacies meriting all praise. It may rightfully deserve a spot amongst the canon of black empowerment music, beside Fela Kuti, James Brown and Bob Marley. Whereas I was once discouraged by such properties, I now feel privileged to have experienced this album. My position in life may not have changed but my perspective has. I might drive the same paved roads as the black BMW but as Lamar asserts, “you ain’t gotta lie to kick it…/you ain’t gotta try so hard.” To Pimp a Butterfly is a stirring and empowering epic, even this privileged white boy agrees.