As a weary traveler writing this article in one of Taiwan’s Taipei Airports, I’m reminded of the many highlights of my trip to Indonesia, but as the saying goes, “There’s no place like home.” After sampling the delicacies of Southeast Asia for the better part of a week, I’ve been looking forward to something a little more… familiar; something that will stick to your ribs. Something that will stay with you like a home cooked meal; soul food. Throughout my travels, in hopes of satiating this craving, I indulged in a small slice of home in the form of Kendrick Lamar’s newest album To Pimp a Butterfly. More than just a collection of elite beats laced with the traditional Hip-Hop grandstanding, To Pimp a Butterfly is a funky, soulful composition crafted to not only entertain, but to emphasize the necessity of balance and to bring a level of discourse to the mainstream platform that is usually reserved for Sunday dinners with your loved ones. It has been said that this is NOT an album but rather a “call to action.” Accordingly, this is NOT an album review but rather a manifesto outlining why the themes found in To Pimp a Butterfly are something that, beyond being simply “good,” are nourishing to all of us sitting at his table.
To begin, the themes of Black pride and strength are drizzled over the album like a hearty gravy. On songs like “The Blacker the Berry” and “Complexion (Zulu Love)” Kendrick unapologetically embraces his knotty hair, wide nose, and brown skin. One of the album’s standout tracks, “King Kunta” sounds like Kendrick’s incarnation of James Brown’s “Say it Loud.” Not so much sonically, but when the song is held up alongside the #Blacklivesmatter movement it strongly echoes Brown’s empowering anthem, which was released during the heart of the Civil Rights movement. If it offends you…good. This would be enough for some artists, but for Kendrick, the consummate envelope pusher, this is only the appetizer.
The secret ingredient in the meat and potatoes of the album is love. Love is the one unifying truth of all humanity, and Kendrick uses this theme to reach out to specific sections of the community. Cases of depression and suicide amongst Black males has been trending upward for some time now, and Black incarceration rates have been on a dangerous incline as well. These two demographics are who Kendrick admitted penning the albums lead single “i” for: depressed/suicidal kids and the incarcerated. There could not be a time where an anthem of self-love, not tied to materialistic or financial value, could be more needed. Like any good meal, this album was made with love. Love for Kendrick’s hometown, his homies, his race, his fans, and his God are all raised in this project in one form or another. The up-tempo “Alright” and the soothing “Momma” speak to the love that comes with knowledge of self. After such a bountiful delivery, you wouldn’t think there’d be room for much else.
The true dessert of this project, however, comes in the form of its final track, “Mortal Man,” a flawlessly executed track targeting the dedication of fair-weather fans who are subject to walk away from their stars at a moment’s notice. As the track winds down to what we anticipate is it’s conclusion, we are visited by the presence of Tupac Shakur. Pac’s spirit doesn’t come in the form of an antiquated verse dusted off from Dr. Dre’s garage, nor is it a cookie cutter sampled loop of one of his classics for the song’s hook. Instead, a rare, stripped down interview of Tupac from 1994 is used to recreate a dream sequence conversation between The Iconic emcee and his young prodigy. Tupac’s words to his student sound just as timely now as they did then. They spoke about the divide between the wealthy and poor, the power within youth and what the future may hold if things don’t change for the better. The interview serves as great food for thought for Kendrick and those lucky enough to listen in on their conversation.
Those who salivated at the prospect of hearing To Pimp a Butterfly will undoubtedly be satisfied. For many, it is that home cooked meal they have been missing. As the author of the upcoming novel Natural Life, it meant even more to me. What it meant was that the same dinner table conversations I was breaching in my novel were reaching the ears of the people as well. Hearing Kendrick speak on black pride, self-esteem, America’s prison system and the racism within it reminds me that the cultural awakening I have longingly wanted to contribute to contains other voices beyond my own. For an artist with a message, that is as satisfying as any meal you could ask for.
Kenneth Hicks is a published novelist from Cleveland, Ohio. His fourth book, Natural Life will be released in April 2015. www.obeliskmediagroup.com