by: Jeremy Rist
There are certain moments that happen in one’s lifetime where you instinctively remember where you were and who you were with when the shit went down. These moments happen infrequently, but when they do, they are magical. In my life, for example, I will always remember where I was and who I was with when I first realized how transformative a single instrument could be while listening to Jimi Hendrix’s Machine Gun with my Dad in the driveway. I also remember seeing The Roots live for the first time. As a non-musical example, I remember where I was and who I was with when Duke won the National Championship in 2010. I thought that as I got older, experiences like that might never happen again. Much to my surprise, one of those moments happened to me the other day and it came from an unlikely place.
Kendrick Lamar’s second album, To Pimp A Butterfly, came out unexpectedly on Sunday, March 22nd. It is a Hip-Hop album with elements of many different genres including spoken word, jazz, and funk.
It is not for White people.
I’m a White person and I felt almost like I was eavesdropping on a conversation. Thankfully, I was able to listen to this conversation and I can honestly say I am now a better person for it. To clarify, this album was specifically for Black people in the sense that it discussed issues that are important within the Black community. No matter how much White people try to sympathize or empathize, we will simply never understand. This is not from some sort of lack of trying, but simply because we have not experienced the same things on a generational scale. Our lives were incredibly different as recently as 100 years ago. To this day, they remain different because of that. Systematic racism is a real thing and it really effects Black people on a daily basis. Nowadays, it doesn’t always take the form of angry White people screaming insults, more frequently it is felt in inheritance, the deployment of assets and capital. These are problems specific to all non-White communities. This album is for them.
This is not to say, however, that this album is not universal. Music is universal and this album is “music.” It casts out vibrations just the same as any other record would. Kendrick even acknowledges the power of these vibrations in Mortal Man, “In my opinion, only hope that we kinda have left is music and vibrations, lotta people don’t understand how important it is.” While definitively a “Black” album, “To Pimp a Butterfly” still has meaning and significance to a larger audience.
That larger audience, witnesses to the album, is global thanks to Hip-Hop’s increasing popularity. In large part to the groundwork laid by the originators of Hip-Hop, the world is now aware of the genre. I studied abroad in Vietnam in 2010 and kids over there were crazy about Hip-Hop. Not many of them were rapping, most of them were into breakdancing, but nonetheless, they loved the music. I was recently in Europe as well and attended a tribute night to the late producer J-Dilla and it became clear to me that people all over Europe understood and listened to Hip-Hop on a very deep level. Hip-Hop’s originators and members of the Zulu Nation, notably KRS-One, have gotten so important that they have officially declared peace to the United Nations in 2001.
This brings us to an interesting point about Hip-Hop. It is a multi-faceted art form designed to include everyone. In this way, it can bring in the maximum amount of people possible to the proverbial table. When Afrika Bambatta and his friends developed Hip-Hop in New York, it was designed to lure kids away from gang violence. Because of this, the art form needed lots of different activities that anyone could be involved in. If you couldn’t DJ, you could spray paint. If you couldn’t emcee, you could breakdance, and so on. At the core of Hip-Hop’s original mission, the idea was to destroy gang violence and the gang-life-mentality that was harming the Black community. This was (and is) a tall task that Hip-Hop was up against.
Combating gang-life is where Kendrick’s TPAB continues the initial idea behind Hip-Hop, ending gang violence. However, Kendrick is so intelligent that he takes it a step further. He’s not just interested in Black gangs, he’s interested in taking on the entire country of America. The Bloods and the Crips, the two most notorious Black gangs, are red and blue. The Republicans and Democrats, the two most powerful political parties, are red and blue. This leads to Kendrick’s line in Hood Politics:
“From Compton to Congress / Set trippin’ all around /
Ain’t nothin new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodicans/
Red state versus blue state which one you governin’?”
To me, this is the single greatest rap line of all time.
Not only does it hearken back to the early days of Hip-Hop when combating gang life was of the utmost importance, it yanks us forward to today where the same type of “fuck the other guy” mentality is corroding our politics and destroying our country. This line, and this album, is a declaration that Kendrick Lamar is one of the most progressive thinkers in our time and dare I say it — a prophet.
The funny thing about how dope this album is is that he literally answers the question for you when confronted with nonbelievers. For example, my mom is not particularly interested in Hip-Hop. There are songs she can tolerate, but on a whole, she isn’t interested. So when my mom sees me freaking out about a Hip-Hop song or a Hip-Hop album she just looks at me and shakes her head. Internally, she’s asking the question, “Why do you care so much?” The answer is generally, “I don’t know, it’s cool.” The answer now is, “Because I just learned about a prophet.” That’s a super heady answer to provide someone! Not many people in the world are ready to discuss what the merits should be for a prophet in our day and age. After this album, I think we are faced with this question. How are we going to react?
The end of the album finishes in the most direct way, asking the question of will you or will you not follow this man:
Want you to love me like Nelson, want you to hug me like Nelson / I freed you from being a slave in your mind, you’re very welcome / You tell me my song is more than a song, it’s surely a blessing / But a prophet ain’t a prophet ’til they ask you this question / When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan? / When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan? / Want you look to your left and right, make sure you ask you friends / When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?
My answer is yes, but honestly, I’m confused as hell.
Where Kendrick Came From and the GOAT Question:
Hip-Hop heads have long been interested in studying the “game” of Hip-Hop to see who was on top. This is the same way people watch the NBA and discuss who the MVP is. Die hard Hip-Hop fans can have endless conversations about who was the greatest of all-time and what exactly that means. The funny thing about these conversations is that they always took place with the understanding that there wasn’t anyone new in the picture. It was Tupac or Biggie. It was Nas, Eminem, or Jay-Z. When I would have these arguments with fellow Hip-Hop enthusiasts, it was always heated and fun, but it often ended with the agreement that it depends on what you are listening to Hip-Hop for. If you were listening to lyrics for pure flow and entertainment, Biggie or maybe Eminem was your guy. If you were listening to Hip-Hop for answers to complex social issues, then Tupac was your guy.
This is where Kendrick has inserted himself into the conversation, complex social issues. Not only was Kendrick arguably on top of the rap game after his verse on Big Sean’s Control, he had solidified himself as worthy when he dropped the best rap album of last year with good Kid, m.A.A.d city. In Control, he laid out his declaration for what he was about to do to the rap game. He set the legends to one side and told everyone else to stop. Here are some examples of what he did in that verse and look at the people he compares himself to. Keep in mind, this was at a point in Kendrick’s career where he was very much “on the come-up.” To mention names like these can often backfire:
Judgement to the monarchy, blessings to Paul McCartney / You called me a black Beatle, I’m either that or a Marley / I heard the barbershops spittin’ great debates all the time / Bout who’s the best MC? Kendrick, Jigga, and Nas / Eminem, Andre 3000, the rest of y’all / New niggas just new niggas, don’t get involved
Kendrick laid out his mission in this Control verse. As a prophet, he predicted what he would do in the future. He talked about becoming one of the best rappers of all time and then dropped two albums that solidified that. He showed respect for the past but he showed he wasn’t stuck in the past. He had the strength of a good leader. He was not to be fucked with. Kendrick was trying to lead the rap game and in that process is trying to lead us, the fans, along with him. What that Control verse did to the entire Hip-Hop landscape was like a verbal checkmate. He pushed all the right buttons so that a response was impossible. You either bowed down to Kendrick or you looked like a fool.
There was a time in the Hip-Hop world, (about maybe a week ago, but it feels like the distant past now), where Kanye West seemed to be on top of the game. Kanye made the dopest beats and his rhymes were incredibly good. He had a new project coming out with a lot of energy and celebrity behind it. His performance at the Brit Awards seemed to solidify him as a creative force that was somewhat untouchable. However, post-TPAB, Kanye now seems stupid to me. In a way, Kanye was to Hip-Hop what Andy Warhol was to art. He had reached high levels in the genre with his self-awareness, his discussion of commercialization, and anti-materialism, yet he did nothing about it. The same stuff he was aware of as a problem, he continued to contribute to. He made a song called “New Slaves” as an example of this awareness of rappers’ current situation, but was recently attacked for being a “new slave” by the hacker group Anonymous in a scathing Youtube video. Kanye is not a prophet, he’s for profit. He’s more interested in marketing and making things for people to buy than anything else.
That’s not to say that I put Kanye at fault for not being a prophet. Everyone can’t be a prophet, it’s not in the cards. Everyone doesn’t have the ability to channel higher powers, but it seems Kendrick does. (Kendrick has also made a song appropriately called HiiiPower).
However, this high power that Kendrick channels seems to come from a complicated source. One thing that I’m not really sure how to feel about is the fact that Kendrick seems to have admitted to killing a person, and not in a metaphorical way. Let’s face it, after this album, it seems this is a done deal. On his previous album he asked the question:
If I told you I killed a nigga at 16, would you believe me? / Or see me to be innocent Kendrick you seen in the street?
Yet on this album he really comes out and says it. Knowing how violent LA can be and how violent that area of Compton is, this might actually be true.
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? / Hypocrite!
I don’t think this is some metaphorical killing. In a way, he used this album to get ahead of a potential murder charge. Considering where he is coming from and particularly the line of rappers he comes from (Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Shug Knight), it is not unreasonable to think this killing is real. After all, Mortal Man positions itself as an answer in song form to Kendrick’s fans if the proverbial shit was to hit the fan. Shit hitting the fan in this circumstance might be an impending murder trial. Now that he’s declared himself a prophet, it feels appropriate that he’s asking his fans for unending support and predicting things. How much will people really listen though? What will happen if a real murder trial ensues?
The only other emcee to push the genre of Hip-Hop to this point is Tupac. And fittingly, mysteriously, and magically, Tupac appears at the end of the album.
The craziest thing about ending the album with a direct conversation between Tupac and Kendrick is that he used what has now become Hip-Hop folklore to further his prophetic cause and solidify Tupac’s. Anyone who is familiar with Tupac and the mysteries surrounding his death is also familiar with the rumors that he is still alive. If we didn’t have the Internet to cross-reference obscure interviews immediately after hearing this album, we wouldn’t even know this right now. Imagine hearing this album pre-Internet. Shit would have been nuts. As is, it was already nuts because I listened to it without knowing at all what was going to come next and simply hearing Tupac’s voice at the end of Mortal Man gave me the chills. Tupac truly was a once in a generation type of person and it seems the next one has now revealed himself.
All hail King Kendrick.