To Pimp A Butterfly, To Address The Elephant
Album #19 : Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp A Butterfly
Long term readers may have noticed the elephant in the room. Of all the subjects 2021 has thrown up, one has been conspicuously absent from these weekly reviews. I could have mentioned it the week I reviewed Beyoncé, or maybe Mary J Blige, probably Love, definitely Michael Kiwanuka.
If this Kendrick Lamar album hadn’t coincided with a long weekend social media blackout from sporting stars and institutions, intended to highlight the impact of online abuse, I probably would have found a way to avoid the subject again. Whether or not that boycott was a success remains to be seen (although Manchester City player Raheem Sterling was subject to online abuse just two days after it ended…) — but it was certainly impactful. Whether they were from the worlds of football, cricket, rugby or beyond people really bought into it — I even follow two Twitter tipsters who joined in, posting their bets on separate websites rather than engage with Twitter for the long weekend.
The issue, in case you haven’t worked out, is racism. I am usually quite deliberate with what I say online about issues like this. Not because I don’t care, the opposite in fact — what could I, a straight, white, middle-class man have to say about oppression that is (a) original or (b) worth listening to? My guess is not very much. I have no insight into what it is like, other than what others tell me. On this subject it is my job to listen, be an ally, and even then I won’t ever truly understand. And so, I have avoided writing about it until now. But perhaps that is part of the problem — I am so afraid to make mistakes that I don’t engage with the discourse properly.
As for this record, there is no getting away from the fact that lyrically it deals with issues of race, culture and discrimination. Big, complex topics. Aside from the lyrics, whilst it is undoubtedly a masterpiece, it can be a difficult listen at times — it is not straightforward hip hop but fused with skittish jazz and spoken word interludes and overlays. But then, it is not addressing straight-forward issues. Why should To Pimp A Butterfly be simple and accessible when its subject matter isn’t? TPAB addresses issues that are sometimes difficult to listen to. A couple of years ago I read Why I Am No Longer Speaking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo Lodge. Honestly, there were times whilst reading it that I felt defensive about my role in society when it comes to racism, especially institutional racism. Why did I feel like that? Probably because for the first time I was reading the truth. And it wasn’t pretty.
Maybe my social media is becoming an echo chamber, but it does feel like important conversations and self-introspection are becoming more common. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year and the furious reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement (for which this album’s Alright become something of an anthem), a lot of people posted black squares on their Instagram… but a lot of those people also started to look at themselves and their habits, myself included. Sales of books about tackling these issues soared (although whether they have ever been read is another story — I personally bought a copy of Me and White Supremacy which has shamefully remained on my To-Be-Read pile for almost a year). Maybe I am wrong, but it feels like things are changing, that people are listening but as with this weekend’s social media blackout, the results remain to be seen.
For now, I will shut up and listen.
Thanks for reading — over the course of 2021, I’ll be reviewing 50(ish) of the greatest albums ever recorded. You can see the list here:
The 50(ish) Greatest Albums of All Time…
Weekly reviews of ‘the classics’ I’ve never bothered to listen to.
There is also a playlist featuring the best song from each album here.