I See You, Kendrick Lamar

(Note: as I mentioned a few weeks ago, occasionally this blog will deal with things that aren't necessarily "education" issues. Today, I discuss a hip-hop album that I believe has deep historical significance. The album also is relevant to what's happening right now, both in terms of social change and music. Next week, I'm going to pass the mic to another writer who is going to tackle the contemporary perspective.)

To Pimp a Butterfly, hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar’s second studio album, makes me feel like a teenager again. While the album is dense enough to demand a literary critique, it is the raw turmoil in a young man’s soul that resonated so deeply with me when listening to this album over and over.

Lamar has a predictable sense of anxiety in this sophomore outing. Specifically, it is the kind of anxiety coined by longtime torturer of Yale undergraduates, Harold Bloom, in his book The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom suggests that a great artist, particularly in his formative stages, will struggle to balance the “influence” of his forebears against his own unique voice. Other essays have broached this concept in relation to contemporary hip-hop, and Wilfredo Gomez on New Black Man goes so far as to say that:

These collective anxieties of influence, propel both fan and artist forward in generating excitement … This unspoken, yet readily acknowledged nostalgia lies dormant in between rhymes as it exposes further arguments about the tangible and intangible qualities that separate hip-hop artists from rappers.

Within the first few tracks of the album we get three generations of that nostalgia. First, George Clinton anchors us two musical epochs ago, when his funk provided a gritty counterpoint to the prevailing R&B mindset of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He catalyzed a lyrical tradition of defining culture in quasi-pathological terms, inviting us to dance in the “Cosmic Slop” of urban America. Outkast inherited that tradition for a while, and Lamar seems to be picking up where they left off. Lamar goes back an additional generation in “For Free?” where his syncopation sounds like Charlie Parker. Lamar’s repeated pleas that “Loving you is complicated” on the track “U” have more in common with Ornette Coleman than J-Cole.

The first track ends with Lamar beginning a poem that spans the whole album, which we later learn is being addressed directly to Tupac Shakur, an elder who wasn’t afraid of struggling on tape about his own vacillations between “keeping [his] head up” and adopting a more militant posture. Lamar’s first lines to Shakur are:

I remember you were conflicted
Misusing your influence

This nods to the Bloomian kind of anxiety, while also revealing the anxious depression within Lamar about how far his music ought to go to express his angst, a personal struggle that Lamar has acknowledged outside of his music. Shakur himself became more and more assertive in his political message as he left Digital Underground to pursue a solo career, and Lamar is looking for his political footing here. He says relevant things about the condition of our country and of blackness, including on “Mortal Man” where he almost begs us to let him tell the truth, saying:

The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it
Let these words be your earth and moon
You consume every message
As I lead this army make room for mistakes and depression
And with that being said my n***, let me ask this question:
When the shit hits the fan, is you still a fan?

He’s similarly conflicted when offering young boy advice in “Momma”: 

I met a little bot that resembled my features
Nappy afro, gap in his smile
Hand me down sneakers bounced through the crowd
Ran a number on a man and woman that crossed him
Sun beamin’ on his beady beads exhausted
Tossin football with his ashy black ankles
Breakin’ new laws, mama passed him on home trainin’
He looked at me and said, “Kendrick you do know my language
You just forgot because of what public schools had painted
Oh, I forgot, ‘Don’t Kill My Vibe,' that’s right, you’re famous
I used to watch on Channel 5, TV was taken
But never mind you’re here right now don’t you mistake it”
It’s just a new trip, take a glimpse at your family’s ancestor
Make a new list, of everything you thought was progress
And that was bullshit, I mean your life is full of turmoil
Soiled by fantasies of who you are I feel bad for you
I can attempt to enlighten you without frightenin’ you
If you resist, I’ll back off quick, so go catch a flight or two

Lamar, having enjoyed commercial success, returns to the community he left to warn the next generation of the dread that comes with understanding the injustice of the world around them. The message is both racial and economic, which is hammered home in Skakur’s revolutionary words in the album’s coda, a sentiment passed down to him from his mother, who was an active member of the Black Panther Party. While Lamar’s political sentiment is not original, it’s not necessary for him to tread new ground. It’s his position in a contiguous history that’s important here, because as T.S. Eliot posited in Tradition and the Individual Talent:

We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously … No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.

In searching through his elders for influence, Lamar quite literally adopts a whole range of voices on the album as he struggles to find the one that most suits him. His voice wavers least on “The Blacker the Berry,” which uses inverted stereotype and cliché as his ammunition. If Mos Def had put the entire calculus and emotion of Black on Both Sides in a single song, the result might be this track. Lamar here is more explicit in his search for the right political mentor: 

So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers
Or try to celebrate February likes it’s my b-day
Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET because urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street
When gang banging make me kill a n*** blacker than me?

The unabashed political message is a welcome return to the notion that even commercially viable hip-hop can have a point of view. It is a third mentor, Dr. Dre, that brings us back to the last era when this was true of hip-hop, as troubling times demand difficult conversations. Dr. Dre’s presence might as well be begging us to reflect on 1992, when he and other spinoff artists from NWA dominated west coast rap, and this country was having its last major conversation about race in the wake of the Rodney King verdict.

I’m just old enough to have been politically conscious for the riots of 1992, and I was proudly listening to Dr. Dre’s first outing, The Chronic, on my Walkman the following year. The violence of that era’s rap was reflective of the violence that still haunts black communities today. When Dr. Dre, on To Pimp a Butterfly, says “remember the first time you came to the house,” he may as well be reminding me when he introduced me and a generation of outsiders to the reality of his own community, in which I will always be a visitor. While I grew up as a white adolescent in Camden County, New Jersey, I wasn’t unusual in blasting hip-hop during my moodiest moments in my parents’ basement.

It’s hard to escape the reality that the same issues that defined Lamar’s childhood in Compton in the 1990s didn’t disappear, they just relocated or went ignored by folks whose lives aren’t touched by violence everyday. In Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, and other cities in this country, a new generation of civil rights leaders struggle to “enlighten’ you without frightenin’ you,” as Lamar counsels the boy in “Momma.” Too Pimp a Butterfly reminds me that the things about the world that drove me nuts as a teenager are still worth struggling over, even if we haven’t made enough progress since George Clinton asked us to become “one nation under a groove, getting down just for the funk of it.” Party music has always been more complicated if you’re paying attention, and so has been the condition of America.

If the album’s lyrics shove me back to adolescence, I’m snapped back to the present by the album’s coda. To Pimp a Butterfly ends with Lamar asking questions to Shakur, a feat Lamar accomplishes by remixing extant Tupac interviews. The result is a fascinating look at both Lamar’s anxiety and the continuity of voice across generations. The album ends with Lamar reading Shakur a different poem that “a good friend” wrote, and in his purest exhibition of Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence,” Lamar begs for the dead rapper’s approval, which is not forthcoming. It’s another version of J-Cole’s desperation in “Let Nas Down,” where idol worship leads to emulation, imitation regret, and ultimate acceptance.

Before he disappears, Shakur encourages Lamar, who at twenty-seven is already older than Shakur was at his death, to use his voice while he has it. The dead rapper warns the aging Lamar that, “You don’t see no loudmouth, thirty year old mother***ers.” I took that admonition personally. Great writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Melissa Harris-Perry remind us that you can, and in fact must, continue to provoke once you pass thirty.