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.
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.
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”.
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.