Nothing is a coincidence.
It’s far from coincidence that an intersection of racial tension imploded in the heart of this nation during the hottest month of the year — a chain reaction set off by the mere movement of a young black man journeying towards his grandmothers house. His blackness. He would defy an entire police department by just being. That proverbial bull’s-eye painted on Michael Brown’s chest, that’s no coincidence either.
It’s far from coincidence that Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album, To Pimp A Butterfly, would come months after Brown’s fatal walk, after the national eruption of protests to beat back the normalcy of our disposal, after jail cells locked tight around our blackness in attempts to suffocate the movement and more black bodies fell on asphalt. A reprieve to hoarse throats screaming “Black Lives Matter!,” fresh air for those chanting “I Can’t Breathe!” And through the messiness, the heavy production, through Terrance Martin’s saxophone and Thundercat’s bass, the smoke, the jazz and the battles comes the most prolific and revolutionary album in decades.
Lamar may not be standing on the front lines. But if the prelude, borrowing the Boris Gardiner sample “Every Nigger Is A Star,” is any indication, Butterfly is Lamar’s attempt to encapsulate the complexities of blackness and our love to it. That’s resistance. That’s revolution. That’s no coincidence.
In short, he succeeds. If only by creating an album that sends you on a heady dream through a railroad style home in the 70’s, shuffling between rooms dimly lit red and blue, James Brown’s “The Payback” and Bilal moaning in the background. Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” faintly playing. Sza and Lalah Hathaway’s black girl magic on loan. The Isley’s. George Clinton lending the funk. A warning from Dr. Dre in “Wesley’s Theory.” The wisdom of Snoop blanketing the gritty, yearning familiarity a number of us have experienced in “Institutionalized. “ A conversation about the swallowing up of systemic classism and racism brought to us by the ghost of Tupac – that alone sounds all too much like the precursor to what has become the largest black liberation movement in decades. It’s a mash-up of all black musical genres and it feels like a nightmare Troy might have had in Crookyln — feverish and sweating and rushing and at the end, you’re too exhausted to do much else but cry. It’s just that intense. But so is black love.
Black love is a revolutionary act. It’s defiant and dangerous. It’s complex and enlightening. It’s solitary and unifying and dark and hard to navigate but it’s here and it’s necessary. It’s brash and tantalizing. It blushes. It’s flirts with self–hate and self-doubt because history is a bitch, but it always prevails as seen in Lamar’s first single “i,” – this version contains a nod to a fight sparked by Martin Luther King Jr.’s death at a 1968 James Brown concert. Lamar, like Brown, quells the panic with positivity:
“It shouldn’t be shit for us to come out here and appreciate the little bit of life we got left…And I say this because I love you niggas man. I love all my niggas bro.”
And yes. There’s the Spike Lee reference on “Complexion (A Zulu Love).” Because discussing black love without discussing the colorism canyon would seem futile. Empty. Pointless.
That’s Butterfly. But composition aside, the revolutionary act of loving and examining self in this sordid relationship to America, to money, to vices, is delivered by Lamar in various states of awareness. From his grating, gulping tears in “u,” – a track that turns Kendrick on a suicidal Kendrick, screaming “Loving you is complicated!” – to the hoppy first single “i,” it’s clear we were never made to understand how Lamar came to love himself without the construct of the rest of the album. To understand his troubles with Lucy the disguised devil – the temptations come to a head on what appears to be the love interlude “For Sale,” – to his beating of the chest in “King Kunta,” is to understand just how complex and confusing that act could be, no matter how much money, cars and hoes Lucy gives you.
On “Kunta” he declares it. “I’m mad!” And like the very name he invokes in the track, we won’t be silenced.
You’re going to remember his name. Even if he’s struggling to.
Nothing is a coincidence. That entanglement, that battle between this Kendrick and that Kendrick is a clear line to eyebrow raising comments he made in the wake of Michael Brown’s death. Laced with respectability politics, Lamar declared that while Brown should have never been killed, we have to examine self before we point the finger.
“…but when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting—it starts from within,” he told Billboard.
That quote will likely join the rest who have faulted Brown, words we may well forget when Pharrell wins another Grammy or Young Thug releases another non-intelligible record that we love to hate. But Kendrick does something brave in Butterfly. He’s making sure we don’t forget that he said it. He’s challenging and confronting himself, unpacking that statement through bars that convey what it really feels like to be conflicted about whom to blame.
“I remember you was conflicted. Misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power, full of resentment. Resentment that turned into a deep depression,” he recites in steady poetic form, spoken word spread out to contextualize certain tracks on Butterfly.
It’s crushing. It’s almost uncomfortable to watch Lamar navigate through his blackness. Through our blackness.
But right now, you’re probably attempting to identify every sample, stumbling over tracks densely loaded with nods to early revolutionaries, following the footsteps of recent funk albums like Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh) and falling back on the realization that Butterfly, while lovely, is sad. Yes, because of the parallels between our current revolution to his, but also because Lamar’s obvious internal struggle feels like he’s rushing to get it all into one track before he no longer exists. It’s sad because daring to love self can be fatal and daring to emote the blackness on the album is so unapologetically resistant that it’s terrifying. It’s literally life and death.
But nothing is a coincidence. It’s going to take some time to parse through the lyrics, to quiet the saxophone to hear Lamar’s message, to analyze what is essentially his dissertation to being black in America, but what we’ve been gifted with is a soundtrack for our journey…the chaotic, hard, dangerous but rewarding journey to deciphering blackness and accepting it.
He’s hyper-aware of his mentality and his shortcomings, but insistent on both reminding himself and the rest of the world that black love is a revolutionary thing.
Because it is. And holding it back from us, telling us not to love self….well that’s no coincidence.