By Joseph Young
Nearly nine months after its debut, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly remains a hot topic on several social media sites and music blogs. After recently breaking the record for most Grammy nominations for a Hip-Hop artist, with eleven nominations, Lamar’s Butterfly continues to resonate with its listeners. While Kendrick’s poetic flow; collaborations with Snoop Dog, George Clinton, James Fauntleroy, and Rhapsody and melodious vocals from the likes of Lalah Hathaway and Sza are successful in creating 16 consecutive tracks of pure bliss, the real success lies in the complex truths embedded in each track. Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album paints the complexities of blackness and gives voice to the struggles and truths that all African Americans must face in the fight for social justice. The entire LP is characterized by a struggle to navigate the constant challenges of being “woke” and black in America today. As author James Baldwin once said, “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Years later, Baldwin’s assertion still reigns true. Given the rise of police brutality, victimization of black women, gentrification, cultural appropriation and numerous other issues facing the black community, being socially aware and black has become increasingly difficult. However, Lamar relishes in the truth of the black experience and legitimizes the feelings of frustrations felt by woke black folk.
On the album’s introductory track, “Wesley’s Theory,” Lamar bluntly describes the exploitation of black artists by the music industry. The track opens with a sample from Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is A Star.” While Kendrick does reference his own experiences with the exploitation of black artistry, the incorporation of Gardiner’s ’73 track manages to establish a parallel between black artistry and black lives. That is, the exploitation of black artistry is a result of the larger exploitation of black lives. Gardiner’s harmonious exclamation that “every nigger is a star,” establishes a common ground between Kendrick’s experiences in the industry and the struggles that have come to characterize the black experience. In addition, Kendrick Lamar defamiliarizes both his experience in the industry and the black experience by comparing them to a typical high school relationship:
Lamar refers to a past relationship in which he misconstrues teenage lust with the feelings of love. In fact, Lamar admits that ultimately his love subsided almost immediately after achieving sexual gratification. This relationship, whether it is an actual past relationship or past feelings toward the music industry, demonstrates an intersection between infatuation and exploitation. Just as Lamar claims love in order to achieve sex, the industry and American society claim infatuation with black culture in order to achieve monetary profit. This imagery is further conveyed later in the song when using the language of the oppressor Lamar states, “And everything you buy, taxes will deny/I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five” (Lamar “Wesley’s Theory”). In this line, Kendrick references actor Wesley Snipes’ notorious reputation of tax evasion, after an attempt to avoid paying nearly $7 million in taxes, Snipes was sentenced to three years in federal prison. Lamar uses the plight of Snipes to demonstrate the willingness of the government to punish those that dare resist their claim to a percentage of income. Rapper Kendrick Lamar merges the intersections of infatuation and exploitation, and the past predicament of Snipes to arrive at his properly named “Wesley’s Theory.” Although it is merely the opening track, Lamar’s theory serves as a much-needed truth to the black masses of America. Even with the rise of black pioneered television shows and movies and the rising popularity of Hip-Hop, the economic exploitation of black lives and culture continues to transpire in plain sight. Kendrick reminds us of the existence of the infatuation/exploitation dichotomy in American culture. In this day and age it is important for African Americans to remember that despite all progress, the economic exploitation of blacks as demonstrated by the circumstances of Wesley Snipes, remain a major problem in modern society. Despite whether Snipes’ evasion was justified or not, it demonstrates a willingness of African Americans to attain and retain wealth. While western culture often constructs this desire for wealth as innate, it is in fact the aftermath of continued economic subjugation of Blacks caused by chattel slavery.
Immediately following his newly established theory, Lamar refuses to be an accomplice in the economic exploitation of black artistry and lives. On the track “For Free? (Interlude)”, Lamar demonstrates the opposition towards African Americans that resist western perceptions of black people as being prioritized with cars, clothes, and money through the vocals of a female actor. The mindset of the female character, voiced by Darlene Tibbs, parallels the American treatment of Black lives. In addition to the nation’s history of exploitation, the American judicial system has continued its disregard for the livelihood of its African American citizens. In fact, the only Black people valued in American society are those with sports and music careers. As a result, western perceptions of blackness are fixated on notions of wealth and lavish lifestyles. Unfortunately, this common misconception clouds the minds of blacks and whites alike. In addition, it also has a number of negative effects: the most notable of them being the attempted embodiment of these stereotypes by members of the black community. While citizens with old money have the bank accounts and lavish lifestyle to prove it, some Black people often feel as if they need material things in an attempt to keep up with appearances. Ultimately, this behavior enriches the already wealthy private owners while simultaneously widening the wealth gap. In addition, it maintains the public persona of blacks with stereotypes such as the welfare queen. However, Kendrick Lamar rejects these misconceptions with the expression:
Not only does Kendrick Lamar reject the notion of a Black identity centered on lavishness, but he also reveals the hypocrisy of western society’s misrepresentation of blackness. As a direct response to western perceptions of African Americans as is given voice through Darlene Tibbs, Kendrick establishes the institution of slavery as evidence of the nation’s hypocrisy. Lamar uses his, and countless other African Americans, presence in the United States to allude to the abduction of slaves from the western coast of Africa. He goes onto refer to the diet restrictions of chattel slavery during which slaves were given portions of meat deemed inedible by their white counterparts. In addition, Lamar asserts that centuries worth of exploited labor has cemented the economic status of black citizens; thereby, making upwards nobility nearly impossible. Furthermore, Kendrick reveals the cyclic nature of the black experience by juxtaposing the restrictions of welfare with the dietary restrictions of chattel slavery. In both cases, the dominant culture regulates the type of a relief they provide to the impoverished; however, neglecting their own active role in the economic subjugation of America’s Black population. Lamar boldly ends his assertion with the assertion, “oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton that made you rich/Now my dick ain’t free” (Lamar “For Free?”). With this expression Kendrick goes straight for America’s jugular. In a time during which our culture is consumed but our struggle is systematically belittled, Kendrick Lamar points references slavery’s major contribution to capitalism and the nation’s current powerhouse status. Simply put, Rapper Kendrick Lamar is calling America out and he has receipts.
As 2015 comes to close, it is imperative that we carry lessons learned from Kendrick’s LP into the New Year. While rapper Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is far from immune of criticism, Lamar’s sophomore album places the truths that woke black masses find to be self-evident at the forefront of the American consciousness. As the fight for social justice continues, do as King Kendrick and place assurance in the legitimacy of your struggle and don’t be afraid to call America on their role in the current plight of African Americans. Most importantly, remember that at the end of the day “we gone be alright!”
Lamar, Kendrick. “Wesley’s Theory.”To Pimp A Butterfly. 2015. CD.
Lamar, Kendrick. “For Free? (Interlude).” To Pimp A Butterfly. 2015. CD.
Joseph Young is a freelance writer and education enthusiast. He recently received his Bachelor’s of Arts in English from the University of Mary Washington, where he cultivated his interest in the literature of oppressed and marginalized groups. Over the course of his academic career he has researched the intersections of race, gender, and class in both musical and literary genres. Joseph is a native of King & Queen County, VA and hopes to further cultivate his interests and skills to benefit his hometown.