Bill Banfield is a professor of Africana studies/music and society and director of the Center for Africana Studies and programs at Berklee. An award-winning composer, jazz guitarist, recording artist, and public radio show host, he has authored five books for Scarecrow Press on music, arts, cultural criticism, and history.
After much fuss from and persuasion by many of my students, I decided to take a deeper look at Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. With my first listen in a car riding home, I didn’t like what I heard. It was not just a repulsion of the language and the seemingly thug spirit it seemed to evoke in me, but the language as well and the images inside the CD booklet. I only saw the same dark, twisted, exploited, projected and closed, broken narrative of so many contemporary hip-hop records. But I pushed myself to listen again more deeply with an eye toward the art and arc, and reach of the music.
The music is slamming. It’s a contemporary version of Parliament/Funkadelic. With Kendrick’s recording, I began to listen with bigger ears to all that was going on. The music production is awesome, and the music, conception is very, very well done. The narratives are humorous but pointed purposely toward saying something to younger people, but with a deeper mission. I even called a good friend and mentor, Ernie Isley of the Isley brothers whose guitar solos were hugely sampled on the recording to ask if he’d heard it. He hadn’t. But my search continued.
With Kendrick, once I got past the over-played profanity, I heard theme(s), a narrative of retrospection, and a deepened plea for people to, essentially, wake up. Now, it’s a muddled message. It’s a disrupted one that won’t break through on first listen. But art is like that, the best of it, it slaps you later after you’ve gone to sleep. It arouses your ear after you shut off the music, and the poetry rhymes and rings after you’ve closed the book and you find yourself still dancing even when you sit down.
In the record Kendrick states:
“… I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence. Sometimes I did the same, abusing my power, full of resentment that turned into a deep depression. Found myself screaming in the hotel room. I didn’t want to self destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me.. so I went running for answers until I came home…”
“The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it, its only job was to eat anything around it in order to protect itself from this mad city…”
The recording is framed largely throughout and at the end by such reflective poem segments heard in the lyrics.
The repeated reference to being “a culture in conflict” and running from “the evils of Lucy,” but in the end finding the salvation of sanity with the idea of respect for your homey, because you listened and you “went home,” is best represented in the ending poem about the differences between a caterpillar from the streets and a butterfly, admired for its talent and beauty. But in the poetry, the caterpillar at first is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it, but the butterfly first shuns the caterpillar as the butterfly represents talent, thoughtfulness, and beauty. But by “going home,” they both see each others’ strengths and struggles by coming together, and by doing this they break the “cycle inside the stagnant.” Then the Butterfly sheds light, thus ending the struggle—and they are one and the same.
To me, this is a kind of story told in poetic form, wrapped in great black music and the style of hip-hop freestyle rhyme, that’s told with the intent to move the listener toward deeper reflections. And like a cocoon, the seemingly dead top skin of this recording blossoms into some killing music that ends up delivering a meaningful art/music experience with a serious groove. Kendrick Lamar’s recording is a winner.
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