If the phrase “Black lives matter” conjured a sound, it might be something like that of the music heard on Kendrick Lamar’s new album, To Pimp a Butterfly.
Not to try to connect Lamar to a movement of which he’s not necessarily a part, or to artificially box him in, but if we could take that statement on its own and consider just the words, Lamar’s new release might embody the basic humanity of black lives more than any recent piece of black art.
This is an album about losing yourself in blackness—in black experience. It pulses with a reggae-funk beat from its opening moments, beginning with a slow fade-in of Boris Gardiner’s “Every N—ger Is a Star.” It’s the kind of reference that is characteristic of the entire album.
Many rap albums bring in featured artists, but Lamar distinguishes himself by really widening and challenging the idea of what a popular rap album sounds like. George Clinton is present on “Wesley’s Theory” as Lamar fashions Wesley Snipes’ downfall into an object lesson about the pitfalls of black success. On “These Walls,” Lamar brings in Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat. “For Free” offers up rap-as-slam-poetry, again pushing at the boundaries of what a rap song can be. There is almost always the sound of a jazz band heard in the background, giving the album a completely unique sound. In these moments, it feels as if Lamar is summoning a vast range of black inspiration to create something of his own.
But he isn’t only dealing in references and tributes. He’s deeply interested in many facets of black life. On “Complexion,” a kind of ode to black women of all shades of brown, he raps that “complexion don’t mean a thing,” except that the need to make such a proclamation suggests that Lamar knows it must mean something. In this way, the song reads not like a denial of the significance of skin color but like a reaffirmation that black is beautiful in all of its variations.
This complexity—Lamar’s willingness to tackle complicated ideas—forms a thread that runs throughout the album. Even as he raps on “King Kunta” about how he “run the game,” he’s just as quick to tear himself down on “u,” a song that functions as a dark mirror Lamar holds up to himself, questioning how his success has or hasn’t helped the community he left behind. The refrain of “Loving you is complicated” could, in some ways, stand in as a statement about every track, because much of what Lamar raps about is murky.
The second half of “u” is perhaps the most striking and affective moment of all. Lamar assumes a drunken persona, imagining a time when a best friend’s little brother is murdered and during which Lamar is absent. He raps, “Where was your presence?/Where was your support that you pretend?” The song directly calls into question what it means to be black and successful, and what it means when the communities of which you were a part are not enriched or improved by that success. It also demonstrates the tremendous talent and creativity that Lamar holds as a vocal performer. Even as the sound of liquor bottles clang in the background—an audio cue that could come off as hokey in other hands—Lamar’s delivery retains a tight control over the song’s tone.
It’s not all sorrow. On “Alright,” Lamar lets in some light, letting us know, “N—ga, we gon’ be alright,” even while knowing that the police “wanna kill us dead in the street for sure.” In “i,” Lamar offers up a self-love anthem with a chorus that literally screams, “I love myself!” Given the shadows that the album has explored, these sentiments could almost seem naive or simplistic.
But they can also be read as Lamar acknowledging life’s poisonous moments, only to offer the antidote. It isn’t about denying the reality of racism itself; it’s about realizing that black lives can and will go on in spite of it. At the end of “i,” when Lamar tells his audience that he “loves all n—gas,” it feels like a sincere conclusion to a long bout of soul-searching.
Lamar doesn’t appear to offer much in the way of conventional political statements. His status as a “leader” is one he himself calls into question even as he invokes the spirit of Nelson Mandela in the album’s final track, “Mortal Man.” What To Pimp a Butterfly feels like is a young artist working through the complicated contours of what it means to be black in 2015. Lamar has no concrete solutions to offer, but what is clear by the album’s end is that he’s found something in blackness to cherish, something that matters. And he’s called upon every bit of black experience and black inspiration he can muster to tell us so.
Robert Palmer lives in Indianapolis with his wife. He is currently finishing a master’s degree in English literature and hopes to begin teaching in the fall.