A month ago, the only glimpse we had of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, was the jubilant, self-love anthem, “i.” The single, which received mixed reviews from the get-go, scored Lamar his first two Grammy awards for “Best Rap Song” and “Best Rap Performance.” It didn’t make much sense. “i”, while appealing to the pop sensibilities of the voting committee, and spreading a simple message, didn’t heat up the summer like “0 to 100” did, nor was it universally acclaimed. On Sunday [March 15], that was recontextualized. Between iTunes clean releases and explicit re-releases, and Twitter declaring the album a classic in what seemed like seconds, the album version of “i” was released-along with its companion song, “u”.
I Love Myself
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Lamar touched on what “I love myself” really means. “I know people might think that means I’m conceited or something,” Lamar said. “No it means I’m depressed,” he continued. While “i” may have initially evoked an image of Lamar beating his chest in a moment of self-indulgence, in reality, it’s an uneasy declaration of self-assurance, as if each “i love myself” is punctuated with a question mark at the end.
At least that’s what “u” makes it feel like. “Loving you is complicated,” Lamar repeats to himself on the hook. He’s a hypocrite, he’s inadequate, he can’t bare himself to open the door for the maid outside his hotel room. He’s ashamed of himself. And between gulps of alcohol, he reveals that he’s depressed and suicidal. He’s shrieking at himself, and it’s as frightening as the first time you heard Eminem screaming at his ex-wife on “Kim,” but perhaps even more disturbing considering that the shouting is directed at himself.
By the time we get around to “i” we’ve basked in it enough already over the past 6 months, that the new rendition, along with the fact that the song cuts out early, is refreshing. While the SNL performance was a good preview of this rendition, it’s the passionate a cappella portion over the last two and a half minutes that makes it feel complete. “It shouldn’t be shit to come out here and appreciate the little bit of life we have,” Lamar says before dedicating a verse to Oprah on “how the infamous sensitive n word controls us.” And what happens next is a moment of education, at least for myself.
You Ain’t Gotta Lie To Kick It
Lamar’s career has played out like an inverted Russian nesting doll, getting bigger and more encompassing with each release. In a 2011 interview with HipHopDX, Lamar spoke about his responsibility to speak for a new generation on Section 80. “They can’t talk about something that’s going to be relatable to the average 18 year-old that’s just getting out of high school and don’t know what to do with their life. I was there a few years ago so I can speak on topics that people want to hear, as far as L.A. and even around the world. That’s what motivates me”, Lamar said.
In addition, Lamar spoke about his next project, tentatively titled Good Kid in a Mad City. “I think the biggest misconception is that people don’t really understand the struggle of a good kid in a mad city yet you know? And I can’t really blame them for that ‘cause I ain’t put out enough music for them to catch on but it’s a lot of shit that I’ve went through in my life and my friends and family done went through,” Lamar said.
Realest Negus Alive
Now that he’s accomplished speaking for Generation Y on Section 80, and showing the world Compton from his perspective on Good Kid m.a.a.d City, he’s moved on to show what it’s like to be young and black from both inside and outside the confines of Compton and the confines of himself on To Pimp a Butterfly. In moving between borders, between spaces — as each album journey’s — he’s become multiplicative, sullied by a double consciousness that wasn’t as present four years ago. While he expressed being inspired by diverse audiences at his shows in 2011, (“We need to get over the whole fight and war about racism. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings”) he’s more paranoid about that exact fact in 2015. As he told Rolling Stone, being surrounded by people who looked different than the people he grew up with in Compton created a level of “confusion and insecurity.” The chants of “Fuck your Ethnicity” fall flatter when you question how you got to the place you’re at. And, of course, the question that haunts us all and that all artists must answer is why me?
Still, Lamar expressed, “You’re excited, because you’re in a different environment. The world keeps going outside the neighborhood.” It’s this optimism and willingness to reach this world that allows him to pervade pop culture with his highly personal narrative. And when you have Kendrick musing on the hypocrisies of “black on black violence,” Kanye declaring that racism is outdated, and Azealia Banks decrying both of them for “playing that non-threatening black man shit,” it shows how complicated the relationship between race and Hip Hop music is for you, I, and everyone else.
And this is why it’s fitting that the album title’s namesake reminds us of the book that high schools across America use as the go-to novel on race relations and social justice. To Pimp a Butterfly is important. Important in the way that a write-up can only come close to encapsulating. And while the self-doubt brought forward on “u” depicts an artist unsure of his own self-worth, “i” reaffirms the value of that same artist, in a complicated, confused, and honest way that is present throughout To Pimp a Butterfly. And just like Kendrick, that confusion courses through the veins of us all. That movement from caterpillar to butterfly is all of us, but what do I know? Maybe I’m just another negus.
“Christopher Cole is a native of Rancho Cucamonga, CA (Yes, from Next Friday), and he studies Film and Television at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is an aspiring screenwriter, Kanye West defender, Netflix binge watcher, and has written for Washington Square News. Follow him at@ChrisCole95.”