Pearl Boshomane hails 'To Pimp A Butterfly', a Grammy-nominated album by a muso unafraid to say what he thinks in a time of oversensitivity to racial politics
Last year was Kendrick Lamar's year. The 28-year-old rapper released an album so universally acclaimed (it topped several year-end "best of" lists) that for someone to whisper "it's not that good" would get them labelled "hater".
Don't get it twisted: the album in question, To Pimp a Butterfly, is certainly not for everyone. In fact, it can at times be very hard to swallow for its raw emotional intensity.
The album, the main reason Lamar is nominated for 11 Grammys this year, is the kind someone will listen to 50 years from now and get a pretty good sense of what was going on in society in 2015.
Pop culture-wise, To Pimp a Butterfly came out at the height of the "New Black" phenomenon (when a number of prominent black artists and celebrities pretty much told other black people that their mindset victimised them more than their circumstances).
It came out when artists such as Common and Pharrell Williams were preaching kumbaya vibes, all while countless black Americans were dying at the hands of white police, while movements like Black Lives Matter were as necessary as they were villianised by All Lives Matter types (the same people who embrace this "New Black").
At the end of 2014, 14 years after his previous great album, soul crooner (or "R&B Jesus", as critic Robert Christgau called him) D'Angelo had surprised the world with a new album, Black Messiah. Like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On 40 years before, Black Messiah was a heart-rending, beautiful lament for the state of civil society's attack on blackness and black people.
To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar's third album proper, was released a few months later, and it pushed the concept even further. It would be easy (and perhaps lazy) to compare Butterfly to previous hip-hop albums that are unashamedly black: Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet (1990) springs to mind, as does Mos Def's Black On Both Sides (1999).
Kendrick's major label debut, 2012's g.o.o.d. kid, m.A.A.d city, was a coming-of-age album that explored his upbringing in the dangerous California city of Compton (the city that also bred great rappers like Lamar's mentor Dr Dre, Ice Cube and The Game).
Its follow-up, Butterfly, takes us back to an era when hip-hop was public enemy number one in the eyes of white America and its lawmakers. While not quite as frightening to conservative America as rap group N.W.A.'s 1988 debut Straight Outta Compton, To Pimp a Butterfly is an unapologetically black album in an age when mainstream musicians run screaming from all things sociopolitical (and especially racial politics).
If Kendrick sweeps the Grammys on February 15 2016 (as he's expected to), this will be the blackest moment for the awards since Lauryn Hill won five gongs for 1998's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
The significance of his possible win is not lost on Lamar.
Shortly after the nominations were announced, he told the New York Times: "I want all of them. Because it's not only a statement for myself, but it's a statement for the culture. They're all important, because of the foundation the forefathers laid before me. Nas didn't get a chance to be in that position. Pac. So to be acknowledged and to actually win, it's for all of them."
So what exactly is it that's so black about To Pimp a Butterfly? It's the way he owns and parades his blackness when black people are encouraged to shed everything about it. It's the way he refuses to subscribe to respectability politics (for instance, how racists will say a black man shot by police officers shouldn't have worn a hoodie, the same logic as blaming rape on short skirts).
The 16 tracks are, to simplify it, a rap version of the James Brown classic Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud. It has empowering anthems like the first single, i, (which won him two Grammys last year) and the groovy King Kunta. The former is about having self-love when the world around you tells you otherwise, the latter a reference to the slave Kunta Kinte, a fictional character from the novel Roots. It's a far more poetic version of Drake's Started from the Bottom, about going from a struggling rapper to running the game (slave to king).
One of the album's most abrasive moments is the intense The Blacker the Berry, in which Lamar spits lines like: "I'm black as the moon, heritage of a small village/ Pardon my residence/ Came from the bottom of mankind/ My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide/ You hate me don't you?"
Later in the song, Lamar utters what has become one of his most polarising lines: "So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street/ when gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!" The idea of black-on-black violence as a comparison and reaction to acts of white-on-black violence is problematic because the former does not stem from oppression and systematic racism like the latter. But no one said Kendrick was perfect.
His trip to South Africa (he toured here in 2014) made an impact not only on Lamar, but on his music too. He makes references to Xhosas and Zulus (and particularly the historical conflict between the two) on the album, and an interaction he had while in the country is the inspiration for album standout How Much a Dollar Cost.
The track, which US President Barack Obama named as his favourite song of 2015, tells the story of an encounter Lamar had with a homeless man in Johannesburg who asks him for R10 (the dollar in the title). Lamar wrestles with his selfishness and guilt over a delicate, jazzy beat.
Another song the country inspired is Alright (watch the music video below; warning: offensive language), which has been chanted at several protests across the US as an affirmation that, no matter the struggles and challenges we face as black people, even when the police are shooting at us and when we're hungry and weary, "we gon' be alright".
Talking about the inspiration behind the song, he told MTV: "They struggle 10 times harder and was raised crazier than what I was. Going out there really inspired me. I wrote a lot of records out there. Just going to South Africa and being able to move around out there like I did. That was a turning point."
In a cover interview with Billboard, Lamar said the album made a bigger impact than he expected: "I guess I'm just speaking words that need to be heard in these times."
To Pimp a Butterfly is not just a work of art about owning and embracing who you are, no matter how uncomfortable it makes those around you feel. It's a message of hope. It's a reminder that even though the world won't tell you that your black is beautiful, it really is and you don't need anyone's approval to know it. It's an aggressive acceptance of your blackness.
GRAMMY REPARATIONS DUE
Kendrick Lamar has a short but eventful history with the Grammys.
After he released his critically acclaimed major label debut album, g.o.o.d. kid, m.A.A.d. city, in 2012, he was nominated for five Grammy awards in 2014.
His nominations were in the categories Album of the Year, Best Rap Album, Best New Artist, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and Best Rap Performance. It came as a shock to many when he failed to win in any category. But what was even more shocking was who beat Lamar in the Best Rap Album category: Macklemore.
The term "white privilege" was used a lot across social media and in thinkpieces following Macklemore's win: how was it that a white guy who many rap purists felt made pop rather than rap, and certainly didn't make an album half as good as Lamar's, ended up winning such a prestigious category?
Macklemore himself said he shouldn't have won, and sent Lamar an apology text (which he shared on social media): "You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It's weird and sucks that I robbed you (sic)."
In 2015, Lamar won two Grammys for his single i, but he didn't bother to show up to the ceremony.
Now he's been nominated for 11 Grammys (seven are for his individual work, while the other four are for collaborations with Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Flying Lotus).
This could be the Grammy committee trying to rectify its mistakes of 2014 - but it's not like To Pimp a Butterfly isn't worth all the nominations it has received.
This is - both according to critics and Kendrick himself - the artist's best work.
To Pimp a Butterfly is Kendrick Lamar's Guernica.
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