By Craig Russell Horne
I have wrestled for weeks with this essay. For your context, I began writing this directly after finishing my article on Kanye West. Anyone who understand how I work, I attempt to be as raw as possible. I allow my thoughts and feelings to be presented on a page in real time or as fast as my fingers can carry them. It hasn’t happened this time. I have got up to 2,000 words on some occasions and deleted the whole thing because talking about Kendrick Lamar as an artist and paying such attention to his “To Pimp A Butterfly” album has changed in its impact, not for the first time, following the event in the US on May 25th 2020.
George Floyd was murdered by a man wearing a uniform that stands for the mantra of “Protect and Serve”. His crime was, allegedly, using a counterfeit $20 bill. His punishment for his alleged crime was not a fine, or imprisonment or even the virtue of “having his day in court”. It was to have a knee placed on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he suffocated to death. He told the man sent to “protect and serve” that he couldn’t breathe. He called out the name of his dead mother to protect him as he passed over to the great unknown. He was 46 years old. He lived barely half a lifetime. His daughter Gianna is 6 years old. She will now live a lifetime without someone she can call “dad”. She will spend every birthday knowing that the present bought for her labelled “From Dad” was bought by someone else. She will spend her wedding day being given away by someone who isn’t “dad”. She will graduate elementary school, middle school and college without seeing the pride on dad’s face. She will endure a life time of pain for the “crime” of being Black.
When you read that paragraph and allow it to sink in the way I have over the last few weeks, music isn’t even important. Songs that are written mean nothing. Words are redundant.
So with that in mind, I am now going to write this essay as raw as I possibly can. It will not be edited as all my other articles are because this shouldn’t be clean and well polished. It should be stated in emotion. As we search for something that remotely looks like humanity in this sorry saga, I want to be as real and as human with you as I possibly can.
I said in my last article that Kanye West was the greatest artist of our generation. I would like to present the argument that Kendrick Lamar is the most important artist of our generation. It’s a subtle distinction but a meaningful one all the same. I am exclusively going to talk about “that” album. One of the greatest pieces of art presented in our lifetime. The first ever rap album to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, “To Pimp A Butterfly”.
Albums don’t have a great lifespan. They pop off at first release before steadily plateauing only weeks later and if they have the virtue of being considered “Great” they have spikes across the years as people tune back in for a “Throwback”. ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ has shattered those constraints. Its an album in which every time its thematics and purpose of existing rear its head again, it becomes the “go-to”. Which to that very concept, builds its impact and importance even more as it’s an album directly attacking police brutality and systemic racism, therefore acting as a barometer and a sickening reminder that the issues on that album have not changed. ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ should have followed the constraints of all other great albums that came before it. It should have made anyone listening realise that change must happen now but, it didn’t. Now it is caught in a perpetual loop of Samara, wishing to die but there is unfinished business. It can’t go away because the problem hasn’t gone away. The albums greatness is also its greatest downfall. It wants to follow the natural process an album should have in the modern era but is forced to present its message time and time again. It isn’t simply a great album now, it’s a curse.
In only 1hr and 18 mins long, it provides harrowing detail of being a victim of systemic racism simply for being black, but also gives a concise museum-like experience of black culture. As it dips and dives through hip hop, jazz and blues it blurs the lines of black music throughout history and in an eclectic manner brings them all together as one while the expert level of lyricism both celebrate being black and display the struggle of being also. It makes the album seem as if it has been crafted over generations rather than a couple of months in a studio. Almost calling on ghosts of the past and the people of the present to create something truly powerful. It transcends genre as well as time.
It was not only this that the album achieved, it also provided a spirit which has been championed so much following recent occurrences of police brutality. Education and the amplifying of black voices. On the education argument, hip hop and non-hip hop listeners should have been turned away from the concept of a jazz infused rap album. Pure hip hop fans should hear the lack of 808’s and turn their backs and people who just don’t like hip hop do the same, but they didn’t. It brought together both opinions of those camps and changed their mind. It allowed hip hop fans to see where the music they love came from and where the spirit of it manifested whereas the people who had no appreciation for it could relate to the genres of jazz and funk and see it be used in a modern way and grew an appreciation for the rap and hip hop genre exponentially. Very few bodies of music can be this bold. I made a point in a previous article that Rock bowed down to the idea of being commercial and more ‘pop’ to remain relevant. ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ done the complete opposite and showed it could work. On the point of amplifying black voices, it introduced artists like Thundercat, Rapsody and James Fauntleroy to the wider public while also re-introduced to a new generation artists like Snoop Dogg, TuPac and George Clinton. As I have heard time and time again over the recent weeks, Knowledge Is Power. ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ expanded peoples minds while also channeling their attention to different avenues of the new emerging black arts while providing a pedestal for the old guard who have been proclaiming the same messages Kendrick provided on the album from a time before even he was born.
I want to end this article by talking about the cultural phenomenon this album became in conjunction with the Black Lives Matter movement as the true beauty of this album lies within that. What this album became was both a comfort blanket and a terrifying reality for those of the black community who felt the place that they lived in and the world they had been brought into hated them simply for the colour of their skin. It comforted them in their grief and impassioned them to win this fight. As they seen Eric Garner die or Trayvon Martin murdered, this album was there for them. It understood and empathised with that pain and while you grieved and while you cried it felt your anger but it blared from every car stereo and from every bedroom, “We gon’ be alright”.
All your life you had to fight. Hard times. I’m fucked up. You fucked up but, if god got us then we got be alright. Do you hear me? Do you feel me? We gon’ be alright. We been hurt before. Our pride was low, looking at the world like “where do we go”? And, we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure. But, we gonna be alright.I started by saying music isn’t important. Songs that are written mean nothing. Words are redundant. Those lyrics from Kendrick Lamar’s single, ’Alright’ on the album ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ show me I couldn’t ever be more wrong.