Reader’sDigest: October 2017Oneday, I was scrolling through various sites on the internet aboutuniversities, like many of my sixteen-year old peers do. As I waslooking at information about Harvard, I saw a link about a rapper,named Kendrick Lamar, whose album would be archived in the HarvardLibrary. The name of the album was To Pimp a Butterfly, and it wasmade in 2015. I was rather surprised, because this album had gottenso much cultural significance in a span of less than two years!Isaw various reviews of the album, with many critics hailing it as a”masterpiece”. Honestly, I never had a good impression of hiphop, due to the unnecessary profanity in songs. However, I gave thisalbum a chance. The album cover was very intriguing, with variousblack people celebrating in front of the White House alongside awhite man lying down as if he was dead.
It seemed very lengthy too,with 16 tracks and the time length being almost 79 minutes. Thus Iassumed that it would be a dense album before investing my time inlistening to it.Aftergiving this album a listen, I was shocked. In a good way, of course.I realised this was not an album dishing out tracks, but it is anexperience. A very cohesive experience for a person to embrace theperspective of a black person and view their struggle.
It is dark anddesolate, yet cathartic and empowering.Takefor example the song “Alright”,a track that has garnered attention as a protest song in the “BlackLives Matter” movements. The first lyric itself is a reflection onthe struggle of black lives, saying ‘allmy life I has to fight’.However, the chorus is very uplifting, with Pharrell, an artistfeatured on the song, repeatedly saying ‘wegon’ be alright’.
It is such a song where the empowerment roots from pain. In otherwords, it is a perfect protest song.Thereare many moments of optimism. The title of the song song “KingKunta” comes from the name of a fictional slave. However, Kendrickemphasises on the “king” part of the title and empowers himselfwith his success as a black man in the industry. He has done thatsimilarly on the song “i”, where the chorus joyfully repeats “Ilove myself” as well as lyrics to be carefree about what brings youdown and what people think about you. He even gives an acapella aboutwhat the definition of a black man really is.
Thereare many moments too where the opposite topics are being said. Theintroductory track, Wesley’sTheory(referencing Wesley Snipes, an actor who faced imprisonment due totax fraud), is about how black people are targetted due to success.The first verse is from the perspective of a successful black man,and the second is from the perspective of capitalist society thatbrings him down. Very good usage of narrative skills, indeed!Thesong ‘u’,is the polar opposite of the song ‘i’.The first half consists of manic screams and another repetitivechorus saying “lovingyou is complicated”.The “you” that he is referring to, in fact, is himself.
Kendrickhas a defeatist attitude on the track, calling himself a failure andthat no ones needs him in the world. On the second half, he becomesintoxicated in alcohol and starts reasoning why he’s in such adepressed state. Kendrick seems to be the most pensive when he isdrunk: an excellent representation of irony. I love how this song isabout depression due to lack of self-confidence, a topic that israrely covered in hip-hop.Thereare also various concious topics about God, Lucifer and hypocrisy.
Thesong “TheBlacker The Berry”is an aggressive cut about him being “the biggest hypocrite of2015”. This is shown where he contradicts celebrating black pridewith racial self-hatred. This amplifies the chaos in the album.Oh,but what about the profanities? Well yes, the language tends to bevery abrasive, with all the songs having many cusses. However, thecusses are used as a form to liberate the aggression Kendrickaccumulated inside him. He also emphasises on the usage ofAfrican-American Vernacular English alongside various slangs of theirheritage that other races don’t even know. It feels like animmersion into the psyche of Kendrick, which is why he seems moredescriptive and convincing than his contemporaries.However,the part that resonated with me the most are the two poems written bythe rapper and a friend of his.
The first poem is rolled out onselected tracks in chronological order, and Kendrick recites what hesays from beginning till the part which introduces the subject of thetrack. It is the last track where he finally recites the whole poem,and he suddenly understates the poem into something a person couldrelate to. Very antithetical, but then he says this because he issupposedly saying this piece to 2Pac, a rapper who is an inspirationto him and who actually died many years back.
Obviously it wasstaged, but it is a very intriguing piece as it is like amentor-to-student moment. After a conscious question-answer session,Kendrick then introduces the written piece, where he talks about theevolution of a caterpillar into a butterfly and uses it as a metaphorfor a black person’s life and that being a prisoner on the streetand flying free are the same thing in the current times. However,2Pac doesn’t reply, thus meaning that Kendrick can’t get all theanswers to everything.Thisis a very conceptual album. I realised it is a “modern classic”because there are so many vital topics relevant in the currentscenario. No matter how chaotic, contradictory and challenging it is,it will stand the test of time, because it’s an allegory to thechaotic, contradictory and challenging world we’re in after all.