Lamar's new album calls society to reflect on raceBy Chisolm Allenlundy | 03/23/2015 11:24pm
Last week, Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” surprised listeners across the world by becoming available on iTunes and Spotify a week before its scheduled release. The album broke Spotify’s single-day streaming record when 9.6 million people streamed it on the first day and, in the process, fundamentally altered what it means to make popular music with a message.
This is not a review, although if it was I’d give “TPAB” a perfect or near-perfect rating, much like nearly every other major music reviewer has. No, Lamar’s new album presents us with an opportunity to think about something much deeper than a critique of the music itself. Rather, the Compton rapper has tempted fans everywhere to consider that from which the music sprung: our society.
Lamar isn’t content with thinking about society as some abstract concept with which we aren’t familiar. He wants us to understand and accept that we as individuals make society the way it is. When we talk about societal racism, we talk about a racism that we chose to include. When we talk about how society pressures people to conform, we are the ones who pressure people to conform. There is no mistaking - society’s failures are our own.
It would probably be a stretch at this point to say that there is a central message in “TPAB,” but certainly one of the most prevalent themes that rings throughout the album is the notion that American society punishes, degrades and discriminates against people who aren’t the mainstream, especially if they aren’t the mainstream because they’re black. In “Blacker the Berry,” Lamar snarls that “you hate me just as much as you hate yourself,” referring to white America. Both in context and out of context, this line is incredibly powerful, as it paints a portrait of a man who is fully aware of the forces being levied against him, driven by hate, because of his race.
But “TPAB” isn’t Lamar simply preaching fire about the evils of racism. Perhaps more importantly, it’s about self-empowerment. “i,” one of Lamar’s most popular singles to date, lays out the possibility for redemption in self-love and embracing one’s identity, regardless of others’ perceptions. Whether borne out of a sense of responsibility or desperation, Lamar seems to suggest that, ultimately, the only person you can count on to improve your life is yourself.
That, of course, doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. Per Lamar, “you sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’, you make me a killa.” There’s no room for arguing that black-on-black violence is the problem without also arguing that redlining, police discrimination and slavery created it in the first place. No doubt, America’s race problem is heavily derived from a historical abuse of violence from one side, but it’s not the side that is traditionally blamed.
It almost feels like a miscarriage of justice to write such a short article on such a massively important piece of art, but my sense is that something is better than nothing. “To Pimp a Butterfly” may be the most appropriately timed and commanding album ever created, and the lyrics found in it will, fortunately and unfortunately, ring true for a long time to come. If there is one thing that can and should be taken from Lamar, it’s that while it is an existential necessity that we must love ourselves, we must remain always critical of any society that refuses to acknowledge the humanity of so many of its people. Right now, we are that society.
Chisolm Allenlundy is a junior studying philosophy and economics. His column runs weekly.