It’s been a while since I’ve heard anything from Kendrick Lamar. Before checking out this new album I took a step back to listen again to the Black Hippy Mixtape and Good Kid In A m.A.A.d City. Both are brilliant collections of work representing where he came from and the guy he wanted to be.
When he was discovered by Dre, Kendrick was acclaimed as the next Biggie Smalls. His potential was greeted with instant fame and recognition but he still remains a breath of fresh air. He’s not just another rapper pretending he remembers his roots, but a proud writer telling stories of trying to get by in an unfair system.
Just one look at the artwork covering To Pimp a Butterfly points towards the political development and progression that this album embodies. It depicts a ghetto stereotype of black men as aggressive, money chasing addicts sitting in front of the White House, with a dead white judge beneath them. Although this position of power is reached, their lives haven’t got any better. The dreams they were told to chase haven’t been realised.
This reflection of black lives in US society is the thread that flows through the whole album. It is a funky and soulful attempt to pull hip hop back to its radical roots of black power and pride. Tracks like “Institutionalised” and “Mortal Man” reflect a feeling of isolation and powerlessness. However, releasing this album in the wake of Ferguson and a new wave of anti-racist activism, he is putting a marker down and calling for others to stand with him.
“Complexion (A Zulu Love)” reminded me of his 2011 track “Fuck Your Ethnicity”; in both there is an unapologetic and unashamed appreciation of the black body. In “I” he asks “how many niggers have we lost…this year alone?” before teaching a black history of powerful African civilisations. This sense of community and pride retains its strength from beginning to end, injecting power into Kendrick’s lines.
Kendrick practically applies his ideas of unity by collaborating with a huge range of artists from Thundercat and Flying Lotus to Snoop Dogg and Bilal. He pieces together genres which the industry tries to keep separate. The album is an attack on the industrial commercialisation of modern music. He attacks those who “should live at the mall” and those who sell out in order to sell a million.
The interludes breaking the album into sections contain underlying themes such as poverty and the “worth of a dollar”. The album comes out at a time of uncertainty for black people, not just in the US, but across the world. Racism is a weapon consistently used by our rulers. In “Mortal Man” Kendrick conducts a time travel interview with the late Tupac Shakur, leaving us with his words: “It’s in my veins to fight back.”