On the night of the 7th August,1968, James Brown would go into the studio and record “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”. A song arguably designed to silence the voices that had been decrying the Godfather of Soul as an Uncle Tom, cosying up to the white establishment. On February the 9th, 2015, Kendrick Lamar released ‘The Blacker the Berry’, the second official single from his upcoming album To Pimp a Butterfly. The single was released amidst claims of Lamar’s passivity, especially with regards to his comments in the aftermath of Ferguson, “What happened to [Michael Brown] should’ve never happened. Never. But when we don’t have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us?” (Billboard)
‘The Blacker The Berry’, the most aggressively confrontational song of the whole album, in part relates directly to events in Ferguson, with lines like: “Six in the morn’, fire in the street/Burn, baby, burn, that’s all I wanna see”. Erupting with Lamar’s angry assertions of black culture, the track seemingly becomes the perfect companion to the cover art for To Pimp a Butterfly. Black men and children stand defiant, surrounding the White House, with a judge at their feet, eyes scratched out. However, these proclamations are peppered with Lamar’s bitter assertions of himself as “the biggest hypocrite in 2015” for his own part in gang violence.
This tension created by the complete and total exploration of a conflicted nature, proud yet ultimately bitter, publicly proclaiming yet internally reflecting, is a theme played out on a continual, underlying narrative throughout the entire album. Like ‘Say it Loud…’, the album begins triumphant. The first sounds we hear on the opening track ‘Wesley’s Theory’ are samples from Boris Gardiner’s Black Pride anthem, ‘Every N****r Is a Star’. Proudly incorporated soul and funk influences come to full fruition on the track ‘King Kunta’. Lamar grooves along assuredly to his own success, proclaiming “Bitch where were you when I was walking”, the guitar solo adding a knifes edge to Lamar’s self confidence. This artful collage of various genres, continues on ‘For Free? – Interlude’. The track opens with triumphant chorus from a gospel choir, overlaid with what seems to be a dialogue between a couple that turns out to be Lamar rattling off a history of black oppression, directed towards the other speaker, America. The seemingly personal becomes the political, with Lamar harnessing spoken word for this witty articulation of historic grievances.
It is this intricate overlaying of influences and styles that makes the album so compelling. Yet, the tension created by the unforgiving narrative of personal and political confliction is truly at the heart of the album. “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence” Lamar continually repeats at the end of certain tracks. This internal reflection is at its most personal on ‘u’ The track has a disconcerting opening, with Lamar’s shrieks merging with chaotic jazz instrumentals. Lamar resorts to berating himself “you even Face Timed instead of a hospital visit” with such emotional distress that makes for a gut wrenching listen. The track ‘i’, the single that won Lamar a Grammy for Best Rap Performance, has a distinctly sharper edge on the album, with an interlude that sees Lamar demanding, “How many we lost?” “This year alone”. Bringing a track that was decried by some as simply catchy and radio driven into the album’s overriding narrative of individual reflection.
In 1968, the climate surrounding ‘Say it Loud…’, arguably produced the tensions within it. Tensions that played out on the conflict between lines such as “die on your feet instead of living on your knees” and the echoing children’s voices that sing the chorus. To Pimp a Butterfly sees Lamar addressing similar conflicts on a personal and intuitive level, often producing a stark image of the conflicts within himself and his own actions. Yet, this highly personal narrative that also encapsulated Lamar’s previous album good kid, m.A.A.d city, becomes all encompassing, public and political whilst still retaining this often jagged introspection. Making To Pimp a Butterfly a natural progression, yet also a stand alone piece in the history of the politics of black music.