I wrote this about a month ago, at three in the morning.
The only thing I want to talk about is Kendrick Lamar’s new album, To Pimp a Butterfly. I went to a dinner party tonight with family friends, good people who I mostly like. Before I left I was texting my girlfriend, complaining, “Like, it might be okay, but no one there will want to talk about Kendrick, so what’s the point.”
She ignored me. Sometimes that’s the best course of action.
I’m not a mainstream rap person at all. I respect it, but it’s mostly not my jam. But I also believe that it’s good to listen to a little bit of everything, and to form your own opinions, and that sometimes there will be albums or movies or books that are Important on some level that they’re worth taking in, even if you don’t actually enjoy it. Some might call this masochism. I call it being well rounded.
I’ve found some of my favorite albums this way. Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. Minor Threat’s Complete Discography. Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade. All some of my favorite albums, all things I didn’t like at all the first time I heard them.
None of that has to do with Kendrick Lamar. I’m so disappointed in myself. All I want to do is talk about To Pimp A Butterfly. That’s what I’m listening to as I write. I hope that’s what you’re listening to as you read. You should stop right now and put it on. Don’t worry, what I can say will wait.
To Pimp A Butterfly didn’t take multiple listens to click with me. From first listen I was captivated. I’m just explaining what it was that led me here. Even before I listened it to it, just from reading the hype over the past week, I was prepared for it to be Important.
Kendrick’s last album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city had been Important, appearing on almost every best of the year list I saw in 2012. I know I gave it a few listens, but it never clicked. I’m interested in going back to it now, and seeing what’s changed, me or him.
I’m just a lot more comfortable with rap music than I was a couple years ago, but more indie rap, the stuff you’d expect a queer white feminist from Minneapolis to be into. I love local rap. I like things that are speaking to me, about where I’m from, about where I’m coming from. Mainstream rap is mostly not that.
(Indie rap, much like indie rock, is a genre distinction, not about whether a piece of music is released by a major or independent label. They’re two different genealogies. Kendrick’s first releases were on an independent label, but he was clearly inspired by and interacting with the mainstream.)
As I’m writing I keep on calling him Kendrick, like he’s a friend, like he’s someone I know. If I was writing a record review it would be proper to call him Lamar. If I was writing a record review I would have to start over, and throw all of this out. This is not a review, this is a ramble. This is not a critical evaluation. I think it’s a damn fine album, but I’m not interested in explaining why that is. This is basically a list of all the questions I have.
It has something to do with how intimate of an album it is — I don’t feel as if I know him, not really, but he certainly isn’t a stranger. He’s Kendrick. He’s a character in his own songs. He raps about his depression, his struggle. He makes the listener care about him.
It also has something do with how he doesn’t have a rap name — he’s Kendrick Lamar — that’s who he is. He isn’t trying to hide behind anything. Or at least he’s presenting himself as a real person with a real name, which really is just another way of having a persona.
There are a lot of different places I could start talking about this album, but one thing that jumped out to me is where it sits between the mainstream and everything else. It’s a little bit weird. The production’s doing something cool, and different than anything I’ve heard before. Yet it’s clearly mainstream rap. It’s got that boldness, and the guest stars to back it up. But still. Let’s keep talking.
What I mostly see is that indie rap speaks back to mainstream rap, which just continues to do its own thing, completely unaffected. To Pimp A Butterfly feels different. It feels like it’s aware of the stuff I listen to. I can imagine it as part of a conversation. I value reading and listening widely. I like the idea that he might have been listening to the same weird things as me. I bet Kendrick owned God Loves Ugly on CD. That was one of the first rap albums I ever owned. I didn’t like it, I still don’t really, but it was formative.
There are still lines I love from that album. Like, “Fuck you Lucy, for defining my existence/Fuck you and your differences.” The way he delivers that, “Fuck you and your differences,” it just gets to me. You have to hear it. This can wait.
We need to talk about the figure of Lucy, who shows up in Atmosphere’s work, and also on To Pimp A Butterfly. She isn’t a real woman, she’s a metaphor. It’s weird to see a metaphor move around like this, from Atmosphere to Kendrick. For Slug she’s all these different women without using a name, and the rap game, and his issues with alcohol. Their relationship could be mistaken for love, but it isn’t that simple.
Lucy might also be Lucifer? The woman as a devil? Or just the devil inside. It’s complicated. I’m not sure what I think. “Loving you is complicated,” Kendrick says over and over again on “u.”
Kendrick has said that Lucy is success in the rap business. “Lucy gives you no worries / Lucy got million stories / about these rappers I came after when they were boring.” This is on “For Sale (Interlude).” What makes this an interlude? This seems as much of the heart of it as anything else.
I have rap genius (well, it’s just genius now, they’ve expanded, they’ve gone mainstream) open in another tab. People have just started to pore over these lyrics. This album is a carcass to pull apart, to eat the meat, and label all the bones. But we’re never going to be done with the analysis. We can keep on talking, forever and ever, amen.
Rappers love rapping about rapping, and writers love writing about writing. It’s the same sort of self-obsession. We’re so interesting. The difference is that I can’t talk without tripping over every other word, and these dudes have the balls to stand up and say shit.
Fuck. I like that expression, but it makes me feel like a bad feminist. This whole album makes me feel a bit like a bad feminist. It doesn’t feel slimy or gross, but there’s just a lot of casually misogynistic language that I’ve been trained to side-eye. But there’s respect there too. It’s more complicated than that. “Loving you is complicated.” That’s the hook. Repeat it ten times.
I’m not ready to be critical of this album. I’ve only listened to it like two dozen times. There’s too much going on for me to pick apart everything there is to look at.
I don’t want to write about this album, I want to talk about it. I don’t want to write a careful thoughtful dissection of how some metaphors resonate over multiple pieces, I want to have rambling two a.m. conversations about how cool that is, how there’s something about how different artists are tapping into the same sort of myths, how they’re commenting on each other and the world around them.
I don’t want to write the careful thoughtful scholarly dissection of how To Pimp A Butterfly comments on current American race relations, but I’m interested in reading it. Someone’s going to write a thesis about this album. Its particular moment, released after Ferguson, in the middle of #blacklivesmatter. This is an Important artistic statement, how mainstream rap music is commenting on the state of the union in 2015. I’ve been enjoying this album, I’m fascinated by the production and the personal and the metaphor, but past that there’s a political statement that’s incredibly urgent.
Can we just take a moment and talk about ghost Tupac? He ends the album with a whole conversation where he talks to Tupac’s ghost! What the fuck is that? I can’t tell if it works or not, but it sure is something. Can we talk about how ghosts make the best heros? And how weird it is to cut and paste yourself into a conversation with your ghost-hero?
Do you think if he tried to play this live he’d have hologram Tupac on stage?
Can we just take a moment to talk about hologram Tupac? How that’s a thing that exists? What does that say about mainstream rap?
Can you imagine, like, a hologram Eyedea? As a thing that’s onstage, to see and touch, not just the ghost that I can feel when I walk around the Cities listening to him rap.
Do you want to come over, and sit in my living room with me at two in the morning. We can eat chocolate covered almonds, and listen to Kendrick, and talk about how these Twin Cities are haunted by Eyedea’s ghost, and how mainstream rap is haunted by Tupac, and how rock music is haunted by Kurt Cobain, and how Kedrick is twenty-seven, and I hope good things happen to him. It seems like he’s gonna have a real big year.
The production on To Pimp A Butterfly almost makes me wish I was a person who listens to jazz, which is a dangerous idea that appeals to my fact-brain. There’d be so many details I could fixate on and obsess over.
I just saw Whiplash, which was very good, and also made me want to be a person who listens to jazz. It’s all about how far you’re willing to go, how far you’re willing to press yourself. To Pimp A Butterfly sounds like the kind of album that made its maker bleed. I respect that. He’s trying to do so much, and it’s mostly succeeding. It isn’t perfect, but it’s consistently compelling. Really what more do we want from an artist?
My least favorite thing in the world is boring competency. Kill me before I’m boring but competent. That’s what we’re taught to aspire to, and that’s one of the great tragedies of Capitalist America, or at least it looks like one from here, at three in the morning, listening to Kendrick Lamar. Boring competency is the enemy. People wait at crossroads to sell their souls to devils to avoid boring competency. That damn devil — she’s such a bitch, she keeps us up all night, but maybe it’s worth it if we make something good in the end?
Not just something good, something Important.
Something worth bleeding for.
“Loving you is complicated.” That’s the hook. Repeat it ten times, get a good night’s sleep, and talk to me in the morning.