When Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize today, I think more than a few people probably dismissed it as somehow the committee trying to be trendy but that the award itself is undeserved. They’re wrong. For me, the question is not whether he deserved it, but why it had to wait until 2016’s DAMN, when 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly is, from where I sit, the true masterpiece (admittedly, I sit somewhere pretty lacking in hip-hop knowledge).
A few years ago I was at the AP grading in Kansas City. I was talking with a guy whose name I’ve forgotten – he was a grad student (most of the most interesting people to talk to at the AP grading – to me anyway – are on the college side). Sort of half white hipster, half white stoner from a mountain state. I was talking his ear off either the unit in my AP class about code-switching, race and language policy. Because I’m really proud of that unit so I tend to talk people’s ears off about it.
Anyway somehow he gets a word in and says “you should listen to Kendrick Lamar. To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s like Dubliners, but in Compton.”
Now he barely knew me, and I hadn’t even yet talked his ear off about James Joyce yet (another subject I’ll hold forth on if you don’t stop me). But when he put it like that, since either Dubliners or Ulysses is my favorite book in the English language, it left an impression. He also told me there was a kind of radical etymology of the n-word offered in between tracks, and that I should make to listen to the whole thing, not just the popular songs.
I made a mental note, and later in the summer, got to the album. To be honest, the first time I listened, I had trouble. I grew up listening to punk, post-punk and grunge. There are a lot of ways that music is confrontational and challenging to its audience, but something that’s almost entirely absent from all of it is sex. The Clash may actually never speak to it. Nor REM, Sonic Youth or Nirvana. The Pixies or the Ramones? Occasionally. So when I heard the opening moments of “Wesley’s Theory,” the first track on To Pimp a Butterfly, specifically the line “at first I did love you, but now I just wanna fuck,” it felt uncomfortable and embarrassing to hear through my headphones. Even the album’s title seemed to rest on a sexual metaphor that felt somehow too intimate. Later on when I listened to “For Free,” the second track, the refrain “this dick ain’t free” also didn’t sit well.
But – As I made my way through the album, past those opening tracks, something else opened up. I’m not sure what happened to that initial discomfort, something I’ve come to see as a kind of armor placed at the outset to deter people like me, but I listened through. The middle tracks felt less uncomfortable but I didn’t quite hear the point.
Now I very specifically remember getting off the red line at Roosevelt, walking to get my son from daycare, when I was listening to “The Blacker the Berry,” almost at the end (track 13).
There was something absolutely electrifying about this track. The sample itself has a chilling, minor-key terror behind it, and “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” felt like a pretty new idea in the world – a daring and odd way to start a song. When I came to the final climactic moment –
So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a n— blacker than me?
I was actually in tears. The amount of emotional energy – real, intense, sincerely rendered, vulnerable pain – that was compressed into that final turn – it overwhelmed me. It sat with me. It entered a level of my consciousness from which it hasn’t really receded.
Here, I thought, okay. This is what that nameless guy back in Kansas City wanted me to hear.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I’m at a new job, working at a school I’ve been hired to but only barely understand. I’m making small talk with one of my classes and I say “What should I listen to?” I remember one kid – call him Alan (all names are changed) – he was a very serious-minded Latino kid who whipped out his phone and started scrolling through playlists he had assembled. He mentions Kendrick, and he says “To Pimp a Butterfly? You have to listen to ‘Mortal Man.’ That’s where he explains all of it, like really breaks it down.” One of the things I liked about my new school almost right away is that kids seem ready to have conversations like this with me for whatever reason. A few other kids in the class perk up and offer their opinions about it. That year a big music question on a lot of their minds, I learned right then, was “J Cole or Kendrick?” Another student, Jameson, a black kid who had rarely spoken before that in class, said he thought both were all right, it just depended if you were feeling more chill (J Cole) or more hyped up (Kendrick). Still a third (JD) – more outspoken than the other two, also black, said “what you really want to hear is Kendrick on Good Kid/MA.A.D City. ‘The Art of Peer Pressure.'”
I file all of this away, and spend a lot more time riding home on the el, looking out the window, watching the north side drift by (especially when I can snag a front-facing seat on the purple line) and listening intently to To Pimp a Butterfly, an album that’s more than 75 minutes, thus actually too long for me to finish on my commute. I do things like take a longer walk home so I can finish it. Over the span of a few weeks, I gradually absorb it – come to memorize lyrics, listen hard enough to hear them when they’re harder to make out because of the speed or the production— one day it dawns on me that that originally awkward line “at first I did love you, but now I just wanna fuck” is sexual, yes, placing this into the genre of a spiteful breakup song – but also have recognized it’s introducing an extended metaphor: “you” becomes the United States, “love” is about patriotism and the internalized vision of unity he has held, and “now I just wanna fuck” means “I’m done with all the romanticized image of this country, my place in it and what it is supposed to mean for me – now I just want to get paid.” There are hundreds of other references to US history, especially black history, laced throughout the album’s 16 tracks. “This dick ain’t free” becomes not just a sly put-down of a nagging, materialistic girlfriend, but a protest about the exploitation of the black body through the history of the United States, made clear by that song’s masterful conclusion, a spoken-word explosion that never fails to make at least one of my students jump out of their seat the first time they hear it. Its final rhyming pair, a conclusive couplet worthy of anything you will find in Shakespeare, is stark in its implications:
Oh America you bad bitch
I picked cotton that made you rich
Now this dick ain’t free.
Once you start to hear that, meaning proliferates and doubles back on itself. Allusions unfurl. Motifs suggest multiple, hybrid and still internally consistent interpretations. When you step back to read the album’s hundreds of lines, parse them, unpack their references, puns, metaphors, repetitions— you get to a point where you realize you can’t hold it all, it’s too big to comprehend in that way. I’ve only ever really experienced that – and the emotional punch that would seem to be the opposite of complexity – in one other context, and, just like my stoner-hipster conversational friend had said – it was when reading Joyce, especially Ulysses. And I don’t just mean that as a comparison that suggests they’re both “complex”– they are — but also that the nature of their complexities is very similar, and pointed towards a similar end.
Both Lamar and Joyce integrate “high” and “low” culture in a dizzying, overloaded, hyper-allusive and entirely idiosyncratic whole. The residue of motif, imagery, allusion, pun, and the like are probably impossible to grasp all at once, I can only really get different senses of coherence each time I listen. And both Joyce and Lamar intend the comprehensive indictment of a system, one which, as Lamar puts it, is “based on apartheid and discrimination.” Joyce’s targets are the British empire and Catholicism, mutually reinforcing powers that have destroyed his hundreds of thousands of his countrymen’s lives; Lamar’s are the United States’ scheme of racism, white supremacy, capitalism and all the religious and cultural manifestations of those huge forces, which have done the same. Joyce has Stephen Dedalus say “I am the servant of two masters” (i.e., the pope and the king and all they represent). When Kendrick says “Oh America you bad bitch/I picked cotton that made you rich” he has something just as grand and seemingly indestructible in his sights. Both authors hold the whole system in view the whole time, and explore the subjective experience of living within it, and somehow use the latter to interrogate the former, sifted through the filter of a consumer culture whose signs and significations are both maddeningly shallow and also pregnant with critical possibility.
If you think I’m reading too much into this: I keep coming back to this passage from “Ab-Souls Outro” on Lamar’s earlier Section.80:
“See a lot of ya’ll don’t understand Kendrick Lamar
Because you wonder how I could talk about money
Hoes, clothes, god and history all in the same sentence
You know what all the things have in common
Only half of the truth, if you tell it
See I’ve spent twenty three years on the earth searching for answers
Til’ one day I realized I had to come up with my own
I’m not on the outside looking in
I’m not on the inside looking out
I’m in the dead fucking center, looking around
You’ve ever seen a newborn baby kill a grown man
That’s an analogy for the way the world make me react
My innocence been dead
So the next time I talk about money, hoes, clothes, god and history all in the same sentence
Just know I meant it, and you felt it
Because you too are searching for answers
I’m not the next pop star
I’m not the next socially aware rapper
I am a human motherfucking being, over dope ass instrumentation
Kendrick Lamar” (Ab-Souls Outro, on Section.80).
or more minimalistically, this:
“the mind of a literate writer but I did it
in fact you admitted it once I submitted it
wrapped in plastic (“Momma” on To Pimp a Butterfly).
The Joyce/Lamar parallel goes much deeper I think – obscenity, the blending of the sacred and the profane, the materialism, the density, apparent commercialism and finally both of their initially sexualized veneers – but I won’t belabor the point now.
In that English class, we were slated to read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a text I had read and taught many times. But as I had listened so many times to To Pimp a Butterfly, this sense emerged that both of these were texts of liberation, where a self-assured yet vulnerable black male voice told his story of his emergence from slavery to freedom. So while we were reading Douglass, we listened to one song each day until we were done.
I asked the students to do something simple and experimental – every day, we’d read a part of Douglass, and listen to a song from To Pimp a Butterfly, and I’d ask students to write down a quotation from each, and draw some kind of a connection. Any kind. I had no agenda except the vague teacherly intuition that these sources were telling a similar story.
What they came up with was powerful in its imperfection. They did not offer coherent theses, but instead pulled strings in both texts to cinch them together. A very particular strain I remember growing out of one girl’s ideas (call her Janet). Janet had spoken very frequently before the class about the idea that black people couldn’t experience depression, even though she, as a black girl, did. And hear she found, in both of these texts, both men forthrightly acknowledging their depression. Others discovered a pattern of religious belief (and critique of false religion) shared across the 150 years that separated these texts. The nontraditional way in which each claimed to have acquired their learning was a big trend. Hypocrisy was a shared theme. Every day it was something oblique but real.
Since then I’ve tried to treat the album as its own thing, not ancillary to Frederick Douglass, and we’ve come to explore themes through the lens of the documentary 13th. And as I’ve worked with now three sets of students going through this process, this is (in extreme summary) what I’ve made of this album. Though I’ve written a ton already, I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Here’s my findings in one paragraph:
The multi-layered “Wesley’s Theory” opens the album and sets forth several hugely resonant motifs through the lens of the record industry’s desire to commodify Lamar’s abilities. “For Free?” expands upon the historically gendered basis of that commodification, rooting it in slavery. “King Kunta” advances the first glimmer of the solution/resistant stance the end of the album will cash in on – it’s about African ancestry (i.e., Kunta Kinte, not Toby) and experience deployed as a counter-narrative to “Uncle Sam.” Tracks 4-10 explore the first-person experience of Kendrick’s life in much more depth, and they are woven together by a cumulative tale, a few lines of which are revealed in each retelling. – “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence…” – it eventually swells to a full poem. Each reveal between songs expands the themes introduced on tracks 1-3 and connects them to Lamar’s personal experience. Tracks 11-16 set forth a slate of increasingly radical indictments that imply alternatives, exploring selfishness by returning to Africa on “How Much a Dollar Cost,” examining colorism’s origins in the slavery period on “Complexion”, internalized forms of white supremacy on “The Blacker the Berry,” and then finally the self-affirmation of “i” (which has that fascinating coda about the n-word, itself a kind digressive appendix that recreates the argument of the album as a whole in an oblique context). “Mortal Man,” indeed does, as Alan said to me 3 years ago, break it all down, using the language of a kind of double eulogy for Nelson Mandela and Tupac Shakur, one that expounds a final plea for Kendrick’s audience to learn from history, “unite and stop the enemy from killing us.”
I can’t do justice to the complexity of all of that in one paragraph but that’s my best try, and I’ve barely even delved into the poetics of it at the line level, but that’s my best try for a Tuesday night.