The Overwhelming Blackness of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly


I’ve never felt my blackness more than I have in the past three years. Never been more proud and fearful of what it means. I’ve never had to think so deeply about it than in these past years. Never realized how deeply people see me, nor thought it was possible to feel much blacker.

True, I’ve felt black almost every 365 days of my 31 years—as much as I can remember. Dark and black. But I’ve never felt this black. When I wake up and look in the mirror or walk down a street. When someone compliments my skin tone or hair. When I’m expected to be things, I feel black. When D’Angelo’s album drops divinely. When Common and John Legend win an Oscar. When Kanye performs with a squad of black men on a stage in London. When President Obama blinks. When Ava DuVernay says anything at all. Whenever another little brother from another is shot. When reality happens. When I try to escape it.

Kendrick’s new album (To Pimp a Butterfly, released on Sunday just after midnight) is music that makes you hyper-aware of this blackness. There’s a Color Purple reference. A song called “Complexion” (with “A Zulu Love” in parentheses). There’s a “ghost of Mandela” line. A song called “King Kunta.” And “Institutionalized.” And “Hood Politics.” There’s funk, there’s soul. There’s 40 acres and a mule, Gators, cotton picking, Richard Pryor. Master, chains, jigaboos, queens, Africa, naps, and that Brazilian wavy 28-inch. Rapsody. Linen, Mutombo, and keeping it gangsta. The album art. There’s: “I love niggas/ I love all my niggas.” There’s a song telling us we’ll be alright. Live music that sounds like the instrumental version of a march or a good cry. The album starts with a Boris Gardiner sample: “Every nigga is a star.” And then he raps about getting a nut and how we “should’a never gave niggas money.” It ends with an imagined 2Pac interview outro. It’s the essence of Dis Tew Much.

This initial feeling is suffocating. I don’t know what all this means yet, so I’d rather not make this neat, like I usually do. Rather than search for terms to describe what I like and dislike—right now, even the obnoxious spoken word is a cool thing—I’m just focusing on the blackness of it, which one of my colleagues rightly predicted. “The Blacker the Berry” made it clear that this was Kendrick’s very intention, to reach this far into darkness and make it inescapable. He grew out his mini-fade into short twists, the first of many tell-tale signs. The anxiety and reality of having to dissect all this blackness in a sensible, meaningful way through words is paralyzing. How do you capture the detail and the overwhelming visibility of invisibility? Can you do the blackness justice? Can he? Can I?

That apprehension is overruled, as usual, by a nagging desire to drain the brain of its thick thoughts. It’s a force that compels you to at least attempt to analyze—and ultimately judge—a wholeness that’s impossible to capture. I’m sure Kendrick felt the same force of all the monsters that have made themselves more visible to me in these past few years. I’m sure he felt his surroundings pulling him into blackness. This album seems like he felt it. It sounds less meticulous and unsettled than his debut, good kid, m.a.d.d. city, like it’s grasping for meaning that may never come. It’s as sad, if not more.

At least, that’s the feeling of listening to it in the middle of the night, minutes after its release and then in the morning over and over, and then all day. Feeling his—our—blackness wash over, and having to pause in the thick of it. Having to pause it right at “Every nigga is a star.” Next to the angst of “u”, “i” takes on a new, blacker meaning than just a single about self-love, when he raps, “I been dealing with the pressure since adolescence.”

That first night, by the time I get to track five, “These Walls,” the carnal Bilal record with Anna Wise and Thundercat, my emotions are drained and I’ve been forcing my eyes open, surfing Twitter, seeing Spike Lee references, swift takes, claims of a classic and Dashiki jokes. I’ve already fallen in and out. Dozens of relevant essays, books and brilliant psychologies about being swirl together. The countdown to Kendrick think-piece hour has me anxious because I don’t always want to assimilate into that first rush. In fact, as an over-thinker, I hate it. I’d rather take my time.

But I can’t. This blackness comes at me fast. I instantly decide that “Alright” is my jam because it has a positive pull to it. I also wonder if I’m being overly dramatic and overreacting. Am I so pre-hyped that I’m blinded? Do I like it? For now, it feels special. I have to review this, I guess. But it’s too much. I have to think about being black, I guess. I have to research all this blackness and fall into that, too. All the musicians and all the samples. Every track has its own damn thesis.

I still can’t remove the knot in my throat at the thought of having to consume this or the feeling that this type of music provokes. It’s funny how much the suffocation of writing about it overlaps with the reality of experiencing it, and how Kendrick has managed to capture that: The dailyness and beauty of black. I decide that my feelings are valid because I’m not alone and because it’s so depressingly and joyously familiar to have to consider your identity over and over, in new ways.

As much as the technicality of this is intricate, as music critics we tend to neglect the bodily aspect of it and get lost in descriptions. There is a clear physical reaction to this. It is sickening in a good way. This is a feeling that can, in just one way, be summed up with this lyric: “Loving you is complicated” There are so many other lines weighted by this gravity:

• “Everybody wanna cut the legs off him, King Kunta/ Black man taking no losses” (“King Kunta”)
• “Dark as the midnight hour, I’m bright as the mornin’ sun/ Brown skinned, but your blue eyes tell me your mama can’t run” (“Complexion”)
• “I’m trapped inside the ghetto and I ain’t proud to admit it/ Institutionalized, I keep running back for a visit” (“Institutionalized”)
“I know everything, I know Compton, I know street shit, I know shit that’s conscious” (“Momma”)

The Blacker the Berry” made it clear that Kendrick was reaching for high art, so I knew I’d be forced to make all my invisible feelings real once again and do so through the course of 16 tracks, like I do every day of my life. I love music that moves me, that literally makes me get up, and that’s what black music inherently does to us. I know that’s what music in general does, but this is different. The experience of listening to this album while black boils down to the rawness of those rhythms, which is the entire point of funk and blues, a mixture of noise that somehow creates culture. It has all the unfathomable complexity of a 500-page book.

Deeper themes of community, power dynamics (between men and women, black and white), utter otherness and the comfort of home blast you in multiple phases. There will be some more things I like and don’t like about this, later. What does he mean, “complexion don’t mean a thing”? To Pimp A Butterfly? I don’t love it. I don’t love some things Kendrick says in life. “Playing the victim only works so long,” he told the New York Times this week, which is a partially misguided truth. What am I supposed to make of that? Or this:

Mr. Lamar, who now lives in a condo not far from his old neighborhood, said he was not prepared for the uncertainty and depression that came with being accepted as a voice of his community. “You can tell a person about fame and fortune all you want, but until you’re really in it and you know the person that you can become …” he said, trailing off.
“I know every artist feels this way, but in order for it to come across on record for your average 9-to-5-er is the tricky part,” he said. “I have to make it where you truly understand: This is me pouring out my soul on the record. You’re gonna feel it because you too have pain. It might not be like mine, but you’re gonna feel it.”

He felt obliged to unpack some of his silly statements. I know this feeling of facing blackness. It hits you internally and externally. It’s a reality that’s been heightened by nonstop death. And in this job, I’m compelled not only to confront it, but to also try and present this despair with clarity, over and over. Kendrick’s trying to do this, too—using blues, naturally, as a therapeutic weapon of enlightenment.

I have to mention how much this music means to me as a soul head. Hearing Bilal and Lalah Hathaway. James Fauntleroy, George Clinton, and Ronald Isley. And the poetry slam vibe of it that really tests your patience for cheesiness. Kendrick’s literary approach to album-making encourages an immediate rush of thoughts at the same time that it defies it. It makes you think about the meta act of experiencing music as a writer. It makes me consider the cycle of blackness in my life. It makes me want to fall into it even deeper. It makes me consider how that otherness gets flipped if you’re listening to this album while not black—how you might consider it overwhelming in a wholly different way. Is it a relieving sense of detachment? That’s not a feeling I know.

This is a special album, and that won’t change. But I already need a break from it. I gotta get away from it. Its blackness is way too vast.

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