Kendrick Lamar has won thirteen Grammy awards, a key to the city of Compton, and is the first non-classical or jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. His exceptional lyrical ability and keen social commentary has helped cement himself as one of the best of all time.
His album To Pimp A Butterfly is no exception. Lamar utilises a rich history of Black American music to explore police brutality and systemic racism, the introspective blend of soul, jazz and rap largely heralded as the best album of 2015. Today, the themes of To Pimp A Butterfly are all too familiar, emblazoned at the top of every headline and petition as Black Lives Matter protests erupt across the world, spurred on by the senseless murder of George Floyd. The importance of Lamar’s message is undeniable, with one of the album’s singles “Alright” soaring back into the charts amidst the social turmoil, its powerful chorus; “And we hate po po, gonna kill us dead in the streets fo’ sho,” striking a chord with protestors.
Lamar’s social commentary starts with the album’s cover: a group of Black Americans celebrating over the dead body of a judge outside the White House. Jewellery, handfuls of cash and opened bottles of champagne provide imagery that’s synonymous with success in hip-hop culture, juxtaposed against the president’s house, looming in the background. Despite this divide between politics and hip-hop, Barack Obama named the album’s “How Much A Dollar Cost” as his favourite song of 2015, this relationship between politics and pop culture disappearing as Lamar joins the soundtrack for the anti-establishment.
To Pimp A Butterfly attempts to encapsulate the Black American experience. Be it addressing a history of rape and slavery in “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” – “Brown skinned, but your blue eyes tell me your mama can’t run,” – or the censorship of African heritage and culture in “The Blacker the Berry” with “You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture.” One section that stands out is the opening to “The Blacker The Berry” – “Fire in the street, burn, baby, burn, that’s all I wanna see”. Lamar’s reference to a history of racial protests now directly mirroring the daily news, and the streets of Minneapolis are captured in Lamar’s voice. At first glance these five-year-old lyrics feel prophetic, perfectly encapsulating the current social climate, however, the sad truth is undeniable.
In the five years since To Pimp A Butterfly’s release, nothing has truly changed bar the calendar. “Alright” has surged back into the charts for its honest exploration of police violence, however, the hook’s uplifting promise that “We gon’ be alright,” is a haunting reassurance. In a world with systemic racism, murderous police and fire in the streets, we’re still far from being “alright”.