Not too long ago, I wasn’t a fan of hip-hop. Now, I see Kendrick Lamar as a soldier in a genre that I once despised.
Growing up, I was never a fan of rap music, and for what I thought were solid reasons. The lyrics didn’t seem to relate to me, and the colorful language bothered the sheltered pre-teen in me. I disconnected, tuning in with the people and music that seemed much more like me. As a white suburban kid, that means I dove into rock, punk, and emo at a young age, music with messages about growing up and finding hope in the world amidst every problem.
Then, in 2012, Lamar released Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, a hip-hop record that dwelled on just that. Hearing great things about it, I gave it a chance and never looked back. The album was still centered on Compton gang life and had its fair share of n-words, but its connection became absolute when I realized how much the rapper and I have common – even with how different our circumstances are. Lamar spoke of both his faith in God and faith in the world by looking at all of the battles – physical and spiritual – he encounters every day. I couldn’t say enough good things about it; unlike what I typically thought rap to be, it made me think, bringing up lots of potent themes. Its storytelling kept my interest piqued for nearly three years.
My high anticipation for a new record from the hip-hop star settled when he released To Pimp A Butterfly in March of this year. If GKMC was a story of growing up and thriving in an environment that’s not always a positive influence, then TPAB is about everything life outside of Compton has offered Lamar since he became an adult. He sees things at a national level, and when he bridges that gap between his hometown and everyone else he pieces together the dividing walls that in turn are worth being broken down.
Things blast off with a socially-in-tune song, “Wesley’s Theory,” then go on to be a bit more personal with the following interlude and “King Kunta.” Lamar so effectively views his world through a large and small lens, which leads to interesting connections and even some comical interpretations, like his lines in “For Free?” His writing has only become tighter since GKMC, and the time he spent working on this album makes it an immaculate adventure. What I’m beginning to realize, however, about Lamar’s words is that they don’t just exist for the sake of existing: there’s purpose to every line, regardless of how serious, dark, extreme, or sarcastic they might be. For someone who grew up on such heart-on-sleeve lyricism, there’s immense substance in TPAB that I can latch onto.
The same type of war that resided in GKMC is still going on, and that’s the inspiration by which this record operates. The biggest upside and downside of humankind is our individuality. Thus, there’s conflict everywhere on TPAB, from the relations between man and woman in the second song to the monstrous delivery in “The Blacker The Berry,” a reaction to racialized self-hatred. It’s an interesting foil to the celebratory “i,” and the differences draw up an interesting correlation between such vast differences; the same differences that initially drew me away from hip-hop in the first place.
With the amount of diversity found on TPAB, from its smooth instrumental textures to its guest stars and memorable skits, Lamar’s able to make lots of connections. It’s what helps the record come together. He throws in lots of hints at what exactly he’s trying to get at, culminating the experiences that sculpted the release in a mindful way. “But while my loved ones was fighting the continuous war back in the city, I was entering a new one / A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination,” he says on closer, “Mortal Man,” the album’s most important track. He’s discovering what exactly it means to live by discovering what it means to die. So many have put down their lives before him; he name-drops MLK among others before piecing together clips of an interview with 2pac to make it seem like he’s having a conversation with the rap legend.
The 2pac interview displays the important role Lamar is taking on today, closing out an album that’s incredibly black through and through. He got me into rap, as I’m sure he’s helped so many others use it as a stepping-stone for the genre in modern times. Lamar brings up tons of social issues, some of which tend to be focused on race, but then ends things with a little discourse on the heart of everything. The metaphor about the caterpillar and the butterfly is ultra-relatable, even for someone coming from my background.
That final metaphor brought back my days listening to GKMC and discovering the beauty in hip-hop for the first time – and that’s in its vivid storytelling. For years, I was distracted by the color of the performers, whether I wanted to admit it or not. Even though black rappers and I naturally have a lot of differences, Lamar speaks on this album of the dangers of maintaining a dividing wall just because of that. It’s a shame, since there’s so much worth exchanging amidst our uniquity; I once heard someone say the beauty in sharing ourselves is that both sides get more in return. There are a lot of people in my life who subconsciously think differently, not giving certain kinds of music a chance, and thus not giving certain people a chance for the same reasons.
My judgments on hip-hop remind me of the way lots of people see punk and metal, saying it provokes violence and only goes in circles when speaking about death, hate, and negative things. Lamar shows that you can’t judge an entire genre on stereotypes. Sadly, we do the same too often with people. It’s what makes me afraid with the current racial divide that exists in America right now.
Sometimes it’s subtle, but it takes the more blatant forms, like the Oklahoma fraternity deal, for the public to notice. And in the midst of events in Ferguson, Lamar and 2pac are right about the fight escalating. To Pimp A Butterfly surely is foreseeing the future, with the harms of such civil issues possibly becoming much less civil in form. But what’s so incredible about the record, apart from the supreme jazziness and catchiness, is that it dissects modern America to show exactly how losing respect means we’re losing ourselves.
If you find this album, I hope you can use it to find yourself. In a world of diversity and relationships, where can you fit in? More importantly, how can you use who you are to understand who everyone else is?