To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar
“I remember you was conflicted” — the first line of the poem that Kendrick Lamar repeatedly recites in a slow-reveal across the length of To Pimp a Butterfly — captures exactly how I feel about it. This album makes me angry. Angry at how unapproachable (in a jazz-based rap sorta way) a lot of the songs on the album are. Angry at how women are treated in all of the videos from this album. Angry at the myriad of difficulties and frustrations that Lamar is rapping about. Angry for being a middle-aged white American male, a major source of most of those difficulties and frustrations. Angry at being culturally disconnected here in my Pacific Northwest bubble, removed from that pain and unaware and unmotivated as to how I can most easily understand what it is that Lamar is rapping about. Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates only gets me so far. “Conflicted” is a perfect way to sum up how I feel about it all.
Musically, this album is alternately great and terrible. There are some fantastic songs, and Lamar is clearly a talented musician, but there are also songs that are patently unlistenable, that I end up skipping when I listen to the album. I can’t remember the last time I felt the need to skip a song on an album. I just don’t do it. But Lamar found a way to push me over the edge.
My favorite song on the album is “King Kunta,” but the video for that song made me more angry, and I couldn’t put it at the top of this post.1 “Alright” is a great video, even if the song isn’t my favorite. I love watching Lamar float around, and balancing on that light pole. It’s black & white. Without the music it would still make for compelling watching.
This album clearly gets me thinking about a lot more than just music. I recommend watching this short interview with Lamar from MTV earlier this year. The dialogue Lamar kindles is the main reason Butterfly is on the Top 31. I can’t say I love it, and I doubt I’ll listen to it a lot going forward, but by bringing these conflicting issues to the fore, he’s opened up something we all should consider with ourselves at one point or another. Without it is to remain privileged, closed off, removed. I’m working on that. I hope you are, too.
1. You can watch the video for “King Kunta” here if you’d like. It’s generally safe for work, and clearly I have my own issues to work through (thank god for therapy). There are two other videos from the album available for viewing: “i” and “These Walls,” both of the same unwatchable ilk as “King Kunta.”↩