Kendrick Lamar and the American Daydream

by Quinn Coughlin

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There’s something going down at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Subwoofers on the lawn buzz the earth below, wiggling the distant Washington Monument like a triumphant middle finger to the sky. On the White House grass, a dizzy, black crowd strikes a judge dead. They flash wads of cash and empty bottles of booze over his body. The crowd is consumed with ecstasy, as if they’ve tasted fresh air for the first time. We see their leader in the center of this mass, clutching a wide-mouthed baby close to his chest: a beaming Kendrick Lamar. This monochromic snapshot is the cover of Lamar’s newest LP, To Pimp a Butterfly. As its title suggests, the album is mixture of the beautiful and the bellicose. A seething self-criticism and thunderous message of change for black Americans, To Pimp a Butterfly is a call for revolution and self-love in a time where black imprisonment rates are higher than those under South Africa’s apartheid regime.

The party starts off as every party does: with good vibes. To Pimp a Butterfly’s first track opens with the bubbly chant of “Every nigga is a star”. Reminiscent of the glitzy 70’s funk movement, Lamar samples Boris Gardiner’s chorus, building up to “Who will deny that you and I and every nigga is a star?” (Crawford). Then the track comes crashing down. A whopping “HIT ME!” and heavy bass smash us like a cannonball; the stained glass shatters. The disenchantment of the American dream begins.

The LP’s first track, “Wesley’s Theory”, drags us through the calcified reflections of Lamar. He raps, “At first I did love you / but now I just want to f***/ Late nights thinking of you / until I got my nut.” Sexualized and incendiary, Kendrick’s sentiments extend much further than himself and the year 2015. Lamar reflects a commonplace thread in black American history that stretches into the present day: black Americans have been “pimped out”. When George Clinton screams “HIT ME!” in 2015 with the stormy funkishness of James Brown (Crawford), we are taken back to the battering of the black American dream of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Kendrick, 50 years later, is still conflicted. The tone of To Pimp a Butterfly is twofold. He battles with his deep-seated personal torments, but also acts as a spokesman for his disenfranchised brothers and sisters. “I’m the closest thing to a preacher they have,” he said recently (Mansell).

In times like these, black Americans need a preacher. One must look no further than the racial furor that is Ferguson, Missouri to see the façade of the War on Drugs and the American law enforcement crumble. According to a recent damning United States Justice Department report, “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs” (Cooper). Likewise, “police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes” (Cooper). It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee: law enforcement is big business. The American prison system has an estimated turnover of $74 billion this year alone, eclipsing the GDP of 133 nations (Godard). That’s insanity. Still, the United States boasts that it’s the freest country on Earth. How is that possible when we lock up our black population at higher rates than South Africa did under apartheid and look on as militarized policemen beat protesters in Missouri? Perhaps two plus two doesn’t equal five, but, in the United States, we’re led to believe that business interest plus penitentiaries somehow equals freedom.

Lamar, despite a rocket-fueled ascent to fame and a self-purported holy man status, realizes he will never breach the iron walls of white society. As a black man he might appear to be a king, but he contests that he is still no more than a slave. “King Kunta”, the third track on To Pimp a Butterfly, draws inspiration from Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family (Ward). Haley’s memoir tracks the life of the first member of his family stolen into slavery, Kunta Kinte (Haley). Lamar borrows Kunta’s famous story to denote his own absurd condition. An interesting parallel that Lamar draws between Africa and the hood is the use of the word “yam”. Various theories have emerged about the meaning of the yam, especially on the website Rap Genius. When he says, “the yam is the power that be”, contributors interpret the yam as the vegetable prized in West African nations from which many slaves arrived in the U.S. as well as the slang used for bundles of drugs in the hood (Genius Verse 1). Despite garnering more fame and money than many white Americans, Lamar still finds himself as “the other”.

In some ways, Lamar is just as much a slave as Kunta Kinte. Enchained by his skin color, his upbringing and his culture, Lamar struggles to break the barriers of color as an artist and American citizen. He says “Aw yeah, f*** the judge, I made it past 25 and there I was, a nappy-headed nigga with the world behind him.” Despite making it past the age of 25 and not going to prison, despite becoming a leader in his community and despite the wealth that he’s accumulated in the process, Lamar still feels as if the world is behind him. If he is truly the king of the slaves, black America is his humble subject.

There is, of course, a difference between Kendrick, the kingpin rapper, and Kendrick Lamar, the everyday man. As with any performer, Lamar adopts a stage personality when tackling a musical undertaking. The role of the artist is to ask questions, not to answer them. This is just what he does in To Pimp a Butterfly. When Lamar refers to himself as Kunta Kinte, it would be absurd to believe he meant it with run-of-the-mill sincerity. The Kendrick Lamar who goes on stage becomes a black “everyman” with whom the whole community can relate. Instead of with hot-aired egotism, the verses recited in “King Kunta” are performed with populist emotionality. And the chorus features an echo of affirmation from his followers.

Of course, the Kendrick on stage knows he’s no king; he doesn’t even want to be. What Kendrick strives for is a sense of freedom from a past that is apparently unattainable. “Institutionalized” and “Hood Politics” offer a jaded reflection of the difficulty to escape the tethers of the hood. “Institutionalized” vaunts the following lyrics:

If I was the president,

I’d pay my momma’s rent,

Bulletproof my Chevy doors

Lie in the White House and get high

Lord, who ever thought?

Master, take the chains off me!

Again the quicksand of the past keeps Kendrick from being a king, or, more precisely, president. The greater the struggle to escape, the more he realizes, “You can take your boy out the hood, but you can’t take the hood out the homie.” This message is more than Lamar’s personal realization. According to the Brookings Institution, over half of black Americans born in the lowest income quintile will remain poor at age 40 (Reeves and Rodrigue). It’s as if they’re climbing the social ladder with one hand tied behind their backs. For people like Kendrick, separating yourself from your past feels utterly impossible—even if you have transcended your birth income bracket. They’re “institutionalized”, just like somebody straight out of prison. Even if Kendrick were elected president, he would do everything just as he has done his whole life in Compton. That is, of course, unless his “master” takes his chains off him.

It turns out, however, that the master that Kendrick speaks of isn’t necessarily white or rich. In “The Blacker the Berry”, we realize that things aren’t as simple as the black community would like when it comes to their emancipation from oppression and police brutality. The track is an impassioned, melancholy and nearly militarized exaltation of racial frustration. Kendrick ridicules black stereotypes and berates white America for the prejudice and injustice that it his inflicted on his fellow Americans. All the while he refers to himself as the “biggest hypocrite of 2015” at the beginning of each impassioned verse. As the song winds to a close, we understand exactly what he’s being hypocritical about. Fighting white oppression in this country cannot be successful if black Americans keep fighting almost themselves:

So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers

Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”

Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day

Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays

Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements

Or watch BET cause urban support is important

So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?

When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?


Although faced with criticism for the closing lyrics of “The Blacker the Berry”, Lamar stands by what he said. In a recent MTV interview, Lamar said of the song, “I’m not speaking to the community, I’m not speaking of the community,” he continued. “I am the community” (Markman). Instances such as the looting during the Ferguson protests, the shooting of two New York police officers and the gang culture of poor black neighborhoods delegitimize the sincere grievances of black Americans who face apartheid-like prejudice in our country. “The Blacker the Berry” is inspired by Wallace Thurman’s 1929 novel of the same name. Dealing with “colorism” before the Civil Rights Movement, Thurman recounts how black Americans favored their peers with lighter skin in comparison with those who were darker. His criticism was that black Americans should not quarrel amongst one another in order to fit the white mold: they must unite in order to overthrow the root of their oppression. Lamar’s nod to Thurman’s novel preaches to the same end: we each are our own masters.

Before To Pimp a Butterfly was released, Kendrick Lamar put out his most well-known single to date, “i”. A 180 degree turn away from the self-indictment and rage of “The Blacker the Berry”, the single features a buoyant chorus repeating “I love myself” with a funk-driven Isley Brothers guitar riff whining in the background. Pleading self-love to solve our problems in contrast to reciprocal violence, “i” is the Martin Luther King to the Malcolm X of “The Blacker the Berry”. The album version of “i”, however, is slightly different. The song takes place outdoors in a public venue–perhaps the White House garden in the cover art. Lamar is backed by several gospel singers and sounds less refined than the studio version of the song. The performance is what rap was intended to be, rhythm and poetry. The song is cut short, however, by a fight in the crowd. Kendrick loses his cool. He rips into the fracas, “Save that shit for the streets… niggas is tired of playing victims in 2015.” He continues, “How many niggas we done lost bro? This year alone? Niggas gotta make time, bro… The judge make time, you know that. The judge make time, right? It shouldn’t be shit for us to come out here and appreciate the little bit of life we got left, dawg.” Kendrick’s fiery rant is right. The judge does make time—in more ways that just one.

The judge makes time by sending men to prison; he sentences them to time. He also makes time coming in to the courthouse because it’s worth a lot to him. Private prisons buy judges to fill their cells with men like Kendrick, but they don’t send racist cops there with them. Black Americans used to be afraid of men in white robes, now they fear men in black robes. The War on Drugs has replaced discrimination with incrimination—it’s no wonder the dead judge on the cover looks just like Reagan. So why should the message of “i” or To Pimp a Butterfly matter to a white boy like myself? The position of black Americans transcends all echelons of our society. I marched in Boston with protesters of all colors after the police officers who murdered Eric Garner got off scott free because black lives, just as all lives, matter. Regardless of color, income, religion or political ideology, we are all human beings. The Civil Rights Movement passed a generation ago, yet we still look at ourselves in black and white. The value of a human being shouldn’t be a matter of pigment or upbringing. We are humans, and humans treat other humans with respect.

Kendrick echoes this sentiment in his final song, “Mortal Man”. As the album reaches its end, Lamar interviews the ghost of his idol, Tupac Shakur, asking him how to change the world for the better. Borrowed from a 1990s interview at a Swedish radio station, Tupac discusses how black men have to believe in themselves and become empowered to improve their situation, but he also predicts an explosion. Tupac says, “I think American think we was just playing… It’s gonna be murder, you know what I’m saying, it’s gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831, up in this muthafucka” (Crawford). Are we to stand behind this statement and allow the violence that these men predict? Are the lootings in Ferguson or the shooting of two New York policemen in this past year justified? Of course they aren’t, but there’s something more to be said about men like Kendrick and Tupac. They aren’t faultless role models. They rap about misogyny, violence and drugs. Nonetheless, should we also stand by and denounce their grievances, as the marginalization of 45 million black Americans goes on? Again, of course not. Martin Luther King had a dream in 1964, yet Los Angeles cops in 1991 pitilessly beat down Rodney King. Kunta Kinte had his foot chopped off by a man in white; Eric Gardner had his airways cut off by men in blue. Malcom X said, “No man can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.” He was right in 1960 and he is right today.

Sound asleep in the American dream, we call this country a “melting pot”. Some are more true-to-life and call it a “salad bowl”. I call it an oyster. It’s functionally our oyster—us white folks. On the inside: pasty white flesh. On the outside: a thick, disagreeable shell. You’d be out of your mind to hop inside, but we put something there by force: a grain of sand. This is black America. Many white folks don’t like it, but the grain of sand has become something more. The black pearl that has formed over 400 years is every Kendrick Lamar, every Malcolm X, and every Eric Garner. It’s about time white America stopped stringing them around its neck, and Kendrick Lamar reminds us of that.

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