Last September, Kendrick Lamar dropped the single “i,” which quickly spread rapidly in the black community as a long-awaited positive representation of their life and culture. Black excellence, black positivity and black love all converged on one celebratory track and equally celebratory music video. So when the full album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” dropped six months later, the conscious culture of “i” served as a lens through which the album could be understood. But to take “To Pimp a Butterfly” as mere celebration is to shallowly interpret the lyrical content of the album. There are many things Lamar does right here, but his attempt at conscious rap falls flat.
The album starts out with a track co-produced by hip-hop electronic artist Flying Lotus, whose futuristic sounds are best known from bumper music between Adult Swim programs. This futurism combines with a pastiche of mid-20th century jazz and the soulful funk developed in the late ‘60s to create a map of where black artistry has been and where it is going. The album is an emblem of Afrofuturism’s potential — black people are moving forward, and this is where they are going.
Overall, the sound production is excellent. The old and new balance each other in interesting ways. Only the second track, “For Free?”, betrays the seamlessness of the combination, as its swanky lounge styling teeters on caricature.
Lamar uses his iconic and individual voice to assume several personalities throughout the album. His sounds transform between that of an otherworldly being, a funky band leader with Thundercat and an aggressive messenger on “The Blacker the Berry.”
In the same vein of American author James Baldwin, Lamar transparently expresses the complexities and causes of black anger in the United States, especially on the anthemic “Blacker the Berry.” Yet, in this song — and on the album as a whole — there is a mixed message swinging between the apologetic amelioration of blackness and the respectability politics of whiteness.
“Complexion (A Zulu Love)” criticizes the prevalence of colorism in the black community by proclaiming “complexion / complexion don’t mean a thing.” Then in “The Blacker the Berry,” complexion means everything: “I’m African-American, I’m African / … Came from the bottom of mankind/ … / You hate me don’t you? / You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture/ … I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.”
Lamar unrelentingly proclaims his background and culture, asserting the positivity found within it. Yet, the track ends with the bold proclamation of hypocrisy within those who mourned Trayvon Martin’s death while also participating in gang violence.
This theme continues through the end of the album with a sermon-like inclusion of Tupac Shakur’s denunciation of gang violence as well.
The question remains, though: In light of the problem of gang violence, is it at all related to police brutality? Is the connection between acting respectable and deserving respect as strong as Lamar suggests? Overall, it seems call to goodness, while rooted in good intention, is just another permutation of the respectability politics enforced on African-Americans from whites — thus diluting any amelioration he had attempted in the same breath.