Another day, another story of two Americas. It turns out the tap water in Flint, Michigan is now so full of lead and fecal coliform bacteria it’s undrinkable, thanks to the state’s cost-cutting measures. Is there any doubt such a switch would never have happened if the city was wealthy and white instead of having a population 57 percent African-American and an average household income is $25,000?
Add to that the news that a grand jury refused to indict a Cleveland police officer for shooting and killing 12-year-old Tamir Rice for playing with a toy gun in 2014. Meanwhile a gang of heavily-armed white “militiamen” have taken over a wildlife refuge in Oregon and how have police have responded? With “patience” and “restraint.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about those two Americas lately, listening to Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s a complex and thought-provoking work of art. It truly earns the label “epic,” an hour-long journey–some of it painful to listen to–through the experience of being young and black in places like Compton, Flint, or Ferguson. Two Americas.
Everyone in America needs listen to this album in its entirety at least once. It’s got more depth and character development than many novels. Musically, it’s pure genius, modulating from old school rap to free jazz to slam poetry, intricate samples, and sonic surprises at every turn.
It’s a bitter, angry, and wickedly clever indictment of what’s is like to live in that “other” America. There’s an absolute fury in songs like “Blacker the Berry,” and that outrage infuses the poetry of the album, whether Lamar imagines himself as the enslaved protagonist of Roots in “King Kunta,” or having a conversation with the ghost of Tupac Shakur, (who tells him that soon it’s going to be like “Nat Turner, 1831.“). Every song is bursting with rage at a racist culture we’re all complicit in.
What makes To Pimp a Butterfly truly a masterpiece is the way Lamar looks fearlessly at himself and his weaknesses in the context of that culture. In one instance he confronts how, as a young kid, he was indifferent to politics; or faces the temptations of fame and money, asks whether he’s truly helping his friends back in Compton. And then comes the harrowing look in the mirror, the song “u,” a drunken self-laceration that keeps returning to the line “loving you is complicated…” It’s a brutal trip into self-doubt and depression. Elsewhere, there’s a parable like something out of Dante, in which God appears disguised as a homeless man, testing Lamar’s empathy and compassion.
But after a descent into the depths, the album emerges into joyous, dance-worthy anthems. “Alright,” written with Pharell Williams, has become something of a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, and the optimism of the song “i” is in direct contrast to the depression of “u.”
I don’t live in that other America: I’m relatively wealthy, and white, and I have the privilege of living in Switzerland. When I return later this year to the States, places like Flint and Compton would probably seem more foreign to my experience than the the upper-class suburb I currently live in. To Pimp a Butterfly has helped me see that world, and consider what I can do to become an ally of efforts to repair that broken world, to confront the racism that sustains it.