Liner Notes: “To Pimp a Butterfly” -The Toast

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mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns for The Butter can be found here.


“I know everything,” Kendrick Lamar says in the track “Momma,” from his new album To Pimp a Butterfly. “I know Compton, I know street shit, I know everything that’s conscious…I know wisdom, I know bad religion, I know good karma, I know everything, I know history, I know the universe works mentally…I know everything.”

I don’t know what Kendrick knows. I know what I see on Twitter, and I know other writers are digging into what Kendrick knows. Does he know enough? Does he comprehend the politics of his album cover, a gaggle of black men in front of the White House, dead white man splayed with eyes X’d out? Where are the black women on the album cover? Where are the black women in the music, in the stories? Does he know the impact of black women? The history of black women? How they’re erased from revolutions? How black women launched “Black Lives Matter” but see themselves cleaved from the narrative? Does he know that?

What does he know, exactly? What are these respectability politics he’s spewing? What does he mean when he says, “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gangbanging made me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!” in “The Blacker the Berry”? What does he know? Does he know anything? Can he survive roundtable debates on CNN with members of the new black intelligentsia or is he just a Compton rapper with a library card?

I’m not interested in knowing what Kendrick knows and doesn’t know. What I know is this: To Pimp a Butterfly is a black album. As black as D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. The blackest rap album in over a decade. Rion Scott tweeted: “I used to say Good Kid was a pastiche of every major rap genre except pro-black/political rap, then this nigga made an entire album as black as a Dead Prez/Public Enemy/Wesley Snipes collab.”

Photo via Wikimedia Photo via Wikimedia

I don’t know if this album is the return of true hip-hop or the wayward project of a confused young man. I don’t know why Kendrick has eschewed a safe lane of dope beats, dope rhymes, a few guest verses here and there, for gray territory. I don’t know all the reasons why this album sounds the way it does, the way it jams funk and jazz and hip-hop and soul and gospel and afrobeat together, sometimes with mixed results.

I don’t know what others hear. This is not a perfect album. It is not a classic a mere week into its release. It has faults. It contains the many sounds of a young man who hasn’t found his own sound. The funk of “King Kunta” and “Wesley’s Theory” meshes well with his delivery, his vocals. His vocals, his delivery are malleable and fluid—clear signs of a gifted emcee—which lend themselves to experimentation. The high-pitched voice deployed in “Hood Politics” should be shelved for good. His rapid-fire flow allows him to rap in front of big-band jazz tracks, such as the interlude “For Free?” but he sounds less like an emcee, less like a spoken word artist, more like a 1920s-era scat singer. The track, the style, sounds out of place, particularly anachronistic in an album that’s more afrofuturist in its construction than a mere homage to past sounds.

The exclusion of black women is telling. What it tells, I don’t know, but I know what it’s like to be a young black man, getting older, becoming more aware, more conscious, yet not knowing where black women fit in his life beyond mother, grandmother, a sister maybe, a few aunties. Still, the narrative of To Pimp a Butterfly leaves little space for black women (word to Afrolicious). How do you propose to uplift and lead a people with half of its citizens largely ignored? Why is it 2015 and yet we still have to address this question? It’s all of us, or none of us. This much, I know.

I don’t know why Kendrick’s stories leave little space for black women, but I know what Kendrick is attempting here. “The American way of life has failed,” wrote James Baldwin, “to make people happier or to make them better. We are very cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are. And we cannot possibly become what we would like to be until we are willing to ask ourselves just why the lives we lead on this continent are mainly so empty, so tame, and so ugly.”

Baldwin wrote of an America which involved all of us, the fate of a nation that would leave no soul spared. Kendrick doesn’t know why we—black Americans—are so hated, so singular in the manner in which extermination visits us, like an army of specters unleashed upon us to inflict hell and murder on those who exhibited great love and patience. Kendrick doesn’t know this the way our greatest leaders and thinkers did not, and currently do not, know why we’re hated. We can posit theories. We’ve posited theories. Insatiable libraries—always room for one more book—vomit volumes and volumes of bound theories on why we’re hated, and what we should do to end the hate.

Photo via Wikimedia Photo via Wikimedia

To Pimp a Butterfly has no interest in theories. It does not engage the white imagination, the white intellect, the white curiosity. The album is decidedly a black album, a black conversation, an attempt to view blackness—one’s own and the larger body—devoid of the white gaze. I don’t know if Kendrick succeeds. But I know that the album’s first sound, opening salvo—EVERY NIGGA IS A STAR—is not an affirmation for white people. It is not a message, a plea, a prostration in front of hatred to say “don’t hate us, for we have value.” It is an internal memo. It is a communique fired between stars, between niggas, between humans. It is the power of racist language, flipped.

“For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person,” writes poet Claudia Rankine in the stunning Citizen. “After considering [philosopher Judith] Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.”

To Pimp a Butterfly is imperfect, but timely. The album successfully renders American black men hypervisible, yet shoves American black women to the margins: the result is an America reimagined in the image of heterosexual black men and boys. This land will never materialize, and survive, and thrive, without all of us. Not just black men and black boys. But black girls and black women. Black trans men and women. Black queers and gays and bisexuals. Black Christians and atheists and agnostics and Muslims.

“But I don’t know,” says Kendrick—perhaps on my behalf—“maybe I’m just another nigga.”

I said I wouldn’t get personal. I know I can’t keep promises to myself, especially when the words fly, when I’m charged by something primal, primordial, when I’m writing with urgency, with primacy. But: the Thursday after To Pimp a Butterfly was released, I walked from the subway to my lover’s home. The sun was setting. The weather was unsure of itself, if it was ready to be Spring, if Winter had a final breath (the next morning, it snowed).

I walked from the subway to my lover’s home. On the walk, the album’s final track, “Mortal Man,” came on. I was in a bad mood. I’m supposed to show, not tell, but I don’t know how to show you my bad mood. It was inside of me. It’s always inside, always tucked behind the heart, always anger held in the lungs until mere carbon dioxide is exhaled. I’m tall. I’m overweight. I am bald, bearded, black. I hide in plain sight. I try not to take up space, try not to be seen. I try to be respectable. I try to be hyperinvisible.

In what hopes? To avoid calamity, to survive. Fair enough reasons, maybe, why I hide my anger in day-to-day life. But I’m a writer; I consider myself an artist. I have a platform, diminutive though it may be. Who am I writing for? Who am I trying to appease when I hold my tongue, when I touch on race issues with a gentle stroke, a nuanced examination, rather than the more authentic declaration, “I’m fucking tired, please stop killing my people”?

I know who.

I walked from the subway to my lover’s home. I was in a bad mood. Mike Brown was still dead. Trayvon Martin was still dead. Eric Garner was still dead. I tried not to think of these names, but then Martese Johnson was bloodied. Otis Byrd was found dead, hanging from a tree. I walked from the subway to my lover’s home, helpless. Out of breath, out of places behind internal organs to hide anger. I don’t know what sparked Kendrick’s evolution, but it is my evolution, too. My transformation. To Pimp a Butterfly, for all its flaws, is a catalyst.

So I say this. If I’m a nigga, very well. I’ll be a nigga, but on my own terms. If every nigga is a star, then I am a distant star approaching, a riot in the galaxy.

mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.

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