To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar

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I was in the car last summer with my friend and a Beatles song came on. In light of this story, it might be kind of shameful that I don’t remember which song it was, but I do remember that it was a relatively famous one, one that you’d hear on a Greatest Hits compilation. My friend who was in the car with me is black, the importance of which will become apparent in a moment. I asked this friend if he liked the Beatles. He told me he’d never really listened to them. I jerked the steering wheel and crashed into the side of a Wendy’s.

Okay, not really, but I probably did jerk the steering wheel just a little bit. I asked him if he knew the song that was on, and he said no. I slammed on the brakes and immediate was rear-ended causing a ten-car pile—

Okay, okay. The point stands, though. The Beatles, arguably the greatest rock band in the history of pop music, were as inconsequential to my friend as if they had never existed. Now, we can argue about the Beatles’ quality, but it would be hard to argue against their influence. Pop music was irreversibly altered by their music. Only the Beatles could inspire such a hyperbolic statement without anyone blinking an eye when they read it.

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At the time, I was struck by the idea that the disparity between my love for the Beatles and my friend’s indifference to them had to be linked to the difference in our races. I’m not saying the Beatles don’t have black fans or that all white people like the Beatles. But my friend and I gravitate toward different music, and the people that make our preferred music tend to look a lot like us. He tends to gravitate toward hip-hop and R&B, and while I also enjoy those genres, I tend to listen more to rock and alternative. Again, neither of us are representative of every single person in our respective races, but I do think there’s something to the idea that black culture venerates different forms of artistry than white culture.

Up until that moment in the car, I don’t think it had quite hit me how separate black culture and white culture can be from one another. Come to think of it, I grew up listening to largely all white music. I discovered some black artists later on in high school and college, and I consider some of them among my favorites. But overall, my entire musical experience growing up was white. Call me naïve, but I think it took me until last summer to realize how helpless I am when it comes to writing about black music.

So now we come to Kendrick Lamar and his new album, To Pimp a Butterfly. No matter your race, Butterfly is a tough nut to crack. It’s 16 tracks long, and each track is dense with information. But it was specifically challenging for me to listen to. There are crucial references to Kunta Kinte, a real-life man from Gambia whose life was immortalized in a 40-year-old TV miniseries I’ve never seen; Zulu, an ethnic group that populates wide swaths of southern Africa; and the origins of the word “ni—a”, which, incidentally, also makes plenty of appearances on this album- just so you know, if hearing black people use that word offends you.

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Lamar’s last album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was one of the more exciting albums in recent memory, a self-contained autobiography about Kendrick’s coming-of-age in Compton. On good kid, as well as on his debut, Section.80, Lamar demonstrated a knack for bending his voice to the will of the record. He sounds different on every track, chirping over a freestyle beat like “Backseat Freestyle” and sliding all over the drunken anthem “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. good kid had it all as a complete album statement and as a collection of individual songs that managed to become hits.

Each song on Butterfly sort of meanders from beginning to end. The closest comparison is Andre 3000’s side of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, even down the dependence on neo-jazz. The difference is that where Andre’s vision on Love Below was muddled, Lamar’s is always clear. Andre was reaching for the same acid highs of enlightenment in love that Jimi Hendrix’s guitar-playing achieved. Kendrick just wants to tell his story.

Butterfly does tip its hat to hip-hop’s history several times, shouting out Kendrick’s L.A. predecessors Snoop and Dre, with Snoop even guesting on a song. The album spends a lot of time in Compton, a city unfortunately known in popular culture more for its storied gang culture than its hip-hop. Kendrick has a complicated relationship with his hometown; what famous person doesn’t? But Compton is a more complicated place than your average hometown, and Kendrick’s conflict with Compton comes to a head near the end of Butterfly on the three-song opus of “The Blacker the Berry”, “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”, and “i”.

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It’s here that I have to be careful. You see, I want to say that Kendrick Lamar is expressing something very personal on this album, a statement that climaxes with those three songs. I want to say that he’s exorcising personal demons through both the biting lyrics and the psychedelic instrumentation. I want to say that the inner conflict that he’s projecting effectively stands in for the black experience as a whole.

But that’s too easy. That’s the reading of a white man with little to no experience with black culture, and it’s an analysis that’s essentially meaningless coming from that white man. I’m not saying I can’t comment on To Pimp a Butterfly. I think it’s a masterpiece. I think it is an epic statement of the black experience in America. I’ll listen to it at least a hundred more times before the end of the year. But I can’t pretend to analyze it any further or to assign to it importance that I can’t wrap my head around. Lamar’s created a singularly black experience that I can enjoy, but I can’t get inside of it.

I’m also not saying that Kendrick didn’t make this with a white audience in mind. I think Kendrick’s smarter than that. I think he’s aware that people repurposed his songs from good kid as party anthems, singing “Get a swimming pool full of liquor, then you dive in it” lustily, and I think he knows a lot of those people were white. White people are going to listen to Butterfly, and they’re going to have their stereotype of “angry black men” turned on its head. It’s precisely Butterfly’s distinct blackness that should compel anyone who’s white to dive into it. There are few more effective ways to grow empathy in your heart than art as personal as this.

I have a feeling that Kendrick, like Kanye, will eventually be perceived as an artist with influence on the level of The Beatles, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Kanye certainly doesn’t think it’s an exaggeration; he’s got a Beatle on two of his newest singles. Kendrick doesn’t think it’s an exaggeration; Butterfly feels like the album of an artist reaching for importance, grabbing it, and wringing it dry. It’s an album made by and for black people, but no one needs to hear it more than white people.

Cinderella (2015)

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If releasing a live-action version of the Cinderella story sounds like a corporate, money-making move by Disney, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. But corporate, money-making moves can still involve good art and entertainment, regardless of what Michael Bay would have you believe. This year’s Cinderella could have been a delightful fairy tale that used filmmaking magic to conjure an empowering story out of the original cartoon’s bare bones. Unfortunately, it gets just close enough to make you wonder exactly what could have been.

Lily James is the titular heroine, forced to be a chambermaid by her stepmother, played by the inimitable Cate Blanchett. Once Ella’s father dies, his new wife and stepdaughters treat Ella horribl…oh, you know the story. They keep the key elements the same. One difference in this version is that Ella meets the prince (Richard Madden) in the woods before the ball, which is nice, because he falls in love with her for what she is, as a beautiful woman on a horse, rather than a beautiful woman in a ball gown.

Actually, the movie really does get their relationship right; it’s one of the main pluses about Cinderella that they emphasize that the prince loves her as she is and not because of one magical moment in a ball room. They also get the stepmother right, largely thanks to Blanchett’s empathetic portrayal. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the movie is uneven, especially the sequences involving magic. Director Kenneth Branagh adds weight where only lightness was needed by extending the transformation sequences so you can see every detail of the computer-animated spellwork. He also could have reigned in Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother; her darker, creepier tendencies are distracting in a movie so dependent on its warmth. With James a delight in the lead role, Blanchett’s superb turn, and the strong central relationship between Ella and the prince, there’s a lot to like here. Too bad Branagh (and, more likely, Disney) didn’t realize it was enough.

The Epic Vision of Interstellar Only Goes So Far

I wrote about the great Interstellar and its limits over at my church’s blog. Check it out here.

Trailer of the Hour: Spectre

This might be my most anticipated movie of the year. Yes, ahead of Jurassic World or Age of Ultron or even Furious 7, which are all exciting in their own right. I’m not taking anything away from them, but this James Bond franchise is doing something entirely different right now. You know what you’re getting from a Bond movie; you know it’ll have just as much thrilling action as the rest of those franchises. But the Bond movies under Sam Mendes, who directed the great Skyfall, have made the significant addition of a compelling storyline to go along with all the franchise’s prerequisites. Even when past Bonds have tried to go for something a little more serious, their stories never carried much weight. Daniel Craig’s Bond, especially in Skyfall, doesn’t mind a little heavy lifting.  This trailer, void of any action at all, focuses far more on continuing Skyfall‘s more personal story, combining the finer points with breathtaking imagery. That combination is what made Skyfall the best of the Craig Bond movies, and it bodes well for Spectre.

McFarland USA

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“What do you do for fun?”

“What?”

“Like, what do you do in your free time?”

Shrug. “Nothing. I help my mom take care of my baby sister.”

This is a typical answer I get when I ask my students about their hobbies. I work as a speech-language pathologist in Oklahoma City, and the three schools I’m at have a large Latino population. I’d say my particular schools are about 80% Latino, 15% black, and 5% white. One of my principals, before I had decided to work in Oklahoma City, told me one of the reasons working in OKC was so rewarding was that the kids in Oklahoma City don’t have access to the same services as the kids in Norman or Yukon. This was integral to my decision to work for OKC Public Schools.

We’re getting dangerously close to Great White Savior territory here, so let me clarify a bit. Other factors in deciding to work for OKCPS were convenience (all my schools are really close to Norman, so my commute is minimal), financial (more money than any of the suburban areas), and situational (Norman offered me a middle school, but OKC offered me two high schools). I didn’t enter into this job with a hero complex. I only set all that up in that above paragraph to provide context for this: McFarland USA moved me to tears.

Granted, that’s not hard to do. I’m pretty teary-eyed in movies in general; it doesn’t take much. Even cheesy Disney sports movies lacking much in the way of realism about the way the world really works (i.e. last year’s Million Dollar Arm) manage to elicit tears from me. But McFarland USA, for all the general sports-movie clichés it rides to its inspirational finish, has something more substantial at its heart: a true appreciation for the people populating its story.

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Kevin Costner stars as a football coach with a temper problem who moves his wife (Maria Bello) and two daughters to tiny McFarland in sunny Southern California. The town is so Hispanic that apparently its restaurants don’t serve hamburgers, only tacos- thankfully one of the only “Gee whiz, those Mexicans!” moments in the movie. Costner’s character’s name is Jim White, which would be too perfect except this is a true story and that’s really his name. As White’s family struggles to acclimate to the town, you start to worry it’s the movie that thinks all the Mexicans look like thuggish gangsters and not Mr. White.

But then director Niki Caro (the magical Whale Rider, North Country) turns her attention away from the White family, and McFarland USA becomes a surprisingly rich painting of Latino-American culture. White notices all the high school boys running to and from the fields where they work as pickers and convinces the principal to let him start a track team. The track sequences are exciting, especially as the meets pit the Latino boys from McFarland against preppy white boys from schools with far more money. But more exciting are the lengths Caro goes to draw the audience into McFarland’s everyday culture, filling out the movie with warm supporting characters like the parents (Diana Maria Riva and Omar Leyva) of the three Diaz boys on the team, the flustered Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez), and a hospitable shopowner (Danny Mora). As the movie rounds toward its finish line (yep), the Whites have fully integrated into the town’s culture, so that McFarland USA becomes about how the track team reflects the culture of its city rather than its coach.

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Most movies like this want to address stereotypes head on, but Caro eschews preaching in favor of letting the reality of the Hispanic culture in this town speak for itself. It’s an effective decision; you come away from McFarland USA with a sense of how wrong the stereotype of the “lazy minority” is. I’m sure it’s tempting to assume any minority’s lack of privilege stems from their own effort rather than unequal opportunity. McFarland USA blows by this argument without a passing glance.

My principal, the one who convinced me to work in Oklahoma City, he told me once that a lot of the students at my school don’t do their homework, not because they don’t want to, but because there’s nowhere in their homes to do it. I grew up with a room of my own and extra rooms to work in if I wanted to. Some of my students share one room with all their brothers and sisters, and they’re expected to cook meals because their parents work two jobs. It would be nice if McFarland USA could change the hearts of a few people who went to see it expecting a Kevin Costner movie. What they’d really get is the rare movie that’s as insightful about Hispanic culture as it is inspirational as a sports movie.

Song of the Hour: “Get Better” by Frank Turner

If you’re familiar with Frank Turner, you’re used to his folk-punk style by now and to the way he tries to fit too many words into every stanza in his charming, English way. You’re probably also used to the themes he tends to favor, like recovery and brotherhood. For reference, see the songs “Recovery” and “Oh Brother” from his last album, 2013’s Tape Deck Heart.

No, subtlety isn’t something Turner does, and “Get Better” isn’t any different. In fact, “Get Better” may be the least subtle song he’s every released. One listen in, though, and you won’t care about subtlety or nuance. He’ll beat it out of you, and you’ll ask for more. Call it “Fifty Shades of Frank”.

“Get Better” is the spiritual sequel to “Recovery”, the best song from the great Tape Deck Heart. If “Recovery” took place at the bottom of the 12-step hill, “Get Better” is halfway up. There was hope in “Recovery”, but it was muddied by despair. There’s no despair on “Get Better”; it’s all hope, which, for a song with “We’re not dead yet” in the chorus, is quite a feat.

Quick Take: Calvary (2014)

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With the glut of so-called faith-based movies last year in wide release, none of which were well-received by the mainstream media and only a few of which have even pleased evangelical Christian audiences, Calvary steps in as a welcome surprise. Neither preachy nor patronizing, Calvary is the story of an Irish priest, Father James (Brendan Gleeson), who is told in a confessional that he will be murdered in a week’s time. He seems to know who it was that threatened him, but he opts not to report the name to the police, instead going about his next week normally, loving the members of his parish and debating the merits of Catholicism with the townspeople. If the premise sounds gimmicky, director John Michael McDonagh and his cast manage to find the tenuous tension beween a whodunit and real-life stakes, capturing a small-town feel without adopting a condescending tone. It wouldn’t work without Gleeson’s steadiness in the central role; watching him stand firm in his faith in a real world not often seen in the movies deserves its place among cinema’s great pleasures.

Quicker take: Probably a stronger base of faith than any of last year’s “faith-based” films.

Quick Take: Fury (2014)

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Sometimes I think we pressure war movies into being the next Saving Private Ryan. If you go back and watch Ryan, it’s clear that no war movie is going to be the next Saving Private Ryan. So we need to judge new war movies by different standards, rather than holding them up to that instant classic that pieced together all kinds of ideas about war and American manhood into one cohesive force. Fury has a lot in common with Ryan, but director David Ayer (the great cop movie End of Watch) is telling a fundamentally different story.

Ayer has demonstrated a knack for capturing the nuances in how men interact in his past movies, including Watch and his screenplay for Training Day, and Fury is in line with that sensibility. Logan Lerman is a green soldier originally assigned to a desk who is now thrown into the fire of war with the crew of a tank led by a grizzled Brad Pitt. The rest of the gang is filled out by Shia LaBeouf as the Bible thumper, Jon Bernthal as the wild card, and Michael Peña as what basically amounts to the dependable minority, all archetypes that wouldn’t hold up outside of the context of this one crew but that fill out Fury nicely thanks to Ayer’s ear for how men who live and die together talk to one another. Even when Fury‘s plot devolves into unlikely, only-in-the-movies feats of heroism, the strength in the characters’ relationships holds the movie’s other spare parts together.

(h/t One.Perfect.Shot for the pic)

February 2015’s Album Misses

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Bob Dylan, Shadows in the NightEven on paper, Bob Dylan making an album of Frank Sinatra covers sounds weird enough to be awesome. Maybe you’re not a Dylan fan, but I am, so the idea of him interpreting straightforward classic pop songs seemed kind of fun. Unfortunately, instead of being quirky, Shadows is just boring. Dylan’s lyrics and his distinct voice were always his strength, and when you take out half of that equation, it no longer adds up to much of anything. It doesn’t help that these songs were made famous* by the best singer of his or any generation, and Dylan is unable to take them in any interesting new directions.

*These aren’t really very famous Sinatra songs, but you get the point.

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Skrip, Renegades Never DieI’ll admit my experience with Skrip’s music is limited at best. I’ve only heard his last mixtape, The Und_erscore II, but I thought it was some of the best rap music released in 2013. I was looking forward to what Skrip could do with a full album’s worth of production, but instead of the brilliant pop-culture-sampling from Und_rscore, Skrip has backed his skillful verses with EDM-baiting beats. I guess this could have been pulled off, but Renegades has the whiff of Andy Mineo’s last album, Heroes for Sale, which filled out its instrumentation with metal riffs and guitar solos. They’re both albums by good rappers who committed too much to musical styles that don’t fit their flow.

Quick Take: Enemy (2014)

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When Enemy ended, I immediately went to the Internet to figure out what the hell the ending meant. I saw one critic call it the scariest ending of any movie ever. I don’t know about that; it’s certainly up there among the most unsettling. Unsettling is a good word for the film as a whole, as we follow Adam (Jake Gyllenhaal), a college professor who has discovered a local actor who looks and sounds exactly like him. There’s clearly more going on here than a simple case of curiously accurate doppelgängers, since the creepiest music in the world is laid over the whole movie and creepy spiders are in every other scene and creepy spiderweb imagery infects the whole movie. Denis Villenueve, the director, also directed the more straightforward Prisoners, another movie committed to a very particular mood. Maybe Enemy suffers from underdeveloped characters or an occasionally opaque plot. But, overall, Villenueve and his cast do a great job of sustaining the movie on atmosphere alone. Besides, Villenueve isn’t going for coherence; he’s more interested in exploring themes of totalitarianism and conformity.

Quicker take: Eek, spiders!