Keeping Up With the Joneses

I should state right up front that I am not a fan of rap. In fact, I would consider myself whatever the opposite of “fan” is when it comes to rap. I have been known, on more than one occasion, to ask someone what kind of music they like and, upon receiving their response of “rap,” counter with, “I said music.” So opposed am I to rap that, despite enjoying Broadway shows and loving American history, I had zero interest in going to see Hamilton while I was in New York recently. Once I learned that the show’s lyrics are rapped, I knew it was not for me. And yes, I know that it is considered the hottest ticket in town…but then that leads to the real point I want to make here.

I do not watch the Grammy’s either. It is my understanding, though, that rapper Kendrick Lamar took home five Grammy awards out of eleven nominations at this year’s ceremony. Granted, I have never listened to so much as a single line of his rap, but an article by Arsenio Orteza back in January struck me when I read it and has been rolling around in my mind ever since. Orteza’s view of Lamar’s “music” is that “herd instinct can trump better judgment when music critics move in packs.” Orteza is clearly no fan of Lamar, writing the following about his most recent album (the one that won him five Grammay’s):

[T]he verbal component of [To Pimp a Butterfly] comprisesa dim self-awareness held together with innumerable “N-words,” “F-bombs,” and other expressions of an intelligence far too limited to be taken seriously.

So whether he’s promising a race war the next time cops shoot a black man or confusing a chrysalis with a cocoon while invoking his album’s title lepidopterous imagery, Lamar sounds like a clown.

Clearly, if he had a vote, Orteza would not be supporting Lamar for any Grammy’s. He was not alone in his evaluation of the album, though. Even those who apparently enjoy rap had less-than-glowing comments about this effort. Justin Charity, writing on in November, said, “In its entirety, To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t a conventionally enjoyable record; it is, essentially, the screams of an agonized man performing open-heart surgery on himself. … To Pimp a Butterfly is, undeniably, an important album. It’s also frustrating, painful, chaotic, and wildly derivative of so many black musical influences that Kendrick Lamar barely elevates.” Billboard gave the album 4.5 stars out of 5, but even praising the concept and deeper meaning of the album, Kris Ex said, “the music isn’t the most challenging thing about the album: the lyrics are pre-occupied with race and personal identity in ways that are decidedly uncomfortable to mixed company. Rolling Stone included it as one of the 50 Best Albums of 2105, but still said, “The pleasures and rewards of To Pimp a Butterfly aren’t easy.”

Now, I am not suggesting that uncomfortable or uneasy are necessarily bad things. There are many excellent pieces of literature, music or art that are neither comfortable nor easy but that are quite valuable and thought provoking. Indeed there is much in the Bible that is neither comfortable nor easy–and that is specifically because it is so personal and direct. (Have you read James lately?)

Lamar’s rap, however, seems to have far more going against it than for it. Those lyrics from To Pimp a Butterfly that I have read are littered with language that negates any significant point he may be trying to make. Frankly, reading just one line of some of the “songs” on the album is too much for me to handle–and I do not consider myself easily offended or “Puritanical.” Is it really possible to make a meaningful point or initiate thoughtful dialogue when everyone word but “you” in a sentence is profanity?

At the Grammy’s he performed three songs, including a new verse alluding to the death of Trayvon Martin and an untitled song that refers to Martin. The Guardian said the performance was “studded with strong allusions to racial inequality, the prison-industrial complex and black identity.” The lyrics, if you can stomach them, are studded with all manner of reference to violence, anger, crime…and confusion. Not long after these lyrical lines…

The reason why I’m by your house
You threw your briefcase all on the couch
I plan on creeping through your damn door and blowing out
Every piece of your brain
‘Til your spine drip to your arm
Cut off the engine then sped off in a Wraith

He says this…

Once upon a time, I go to church and talk to God
Now I’m thinking to myself
Hollow tips is all I got

And believe me, there is plenty more I am not quoting.
Following his Grammy’s performance the Twitter-sphere lit up with celebrities tripping all over themselves trying to praise Lamar’s performance. Piers Morgan tweeted, “This guy stole the show.” Mark Ballas said he was blown away the performance, saying Lamar had “so much heart.” Katy Perry tweeted, in all caps, “THAT WAS SO POWERFUL”. Kobe Bryant said “YES!” and Ellen DeGeneres tweeted, “@kendricklamar, you are brilliant.”
Don Cannon, though, topped them all when he said, “God bless @kendricklamar. For using your gifts to teach and inspire on such a huge platform.” Teach and inspire? What was he teaching? What did he inspire? Nothing, as best I can tell, that is socially acceptable or remotely helpful. Are African-Americans overrepresented in American prisons? Yes. Is there room for a legitimate and sincere debate about the treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement? Of course. But talking about blowing out someone’s brain until their spine drips onto their arm is not constructive and is certainly not the starting point for a meaningful or productive conversation.
So why in the world do we (the collective “we”–and far more than just the twittering glitterati of Hollywood) commend and celebrate such nonsense? Well, to go back to Arsenio Orteza, I think he hit the nail on the head in his column, which was written, by the way, before the Grammy’s performance. This observation is one of the more poignant and memorable ones I have seen in a long time:
So why do critics love him? The easiest answer is that, being mostly liberal, they consider nobly savage inarticulateness to be a sign of authentic “blackness,” not realizing that in so doing they’re perpetuating a negative stereotype at odds with their putative racial egalitarianism.
That is exactly right. Somehow we have all become like the advisers to the emperor. We can see that he is not wearing any clothes, but we are not willing to say so. We go along with everyone else, not wanting to stick out or draw undue attention to ourselves. It is easier to agree, to smile, to nod, to tweet some pithy congratulatory–and insanely stupid–commendation of words and antics that civilized people with their heads on straight would never condone.
This is true of far more than a rap performance at an awards show, of course. No doubt we have all found ourselves racing to keep up with the Joneses by wearing clothes we don’t even like because it is the “in” brand, of watching shows or movies we really do not enjoy because “everyone else is doing it.” There are innumerable examples of the ways in which we refuse to stand on our own two feet and proclaim that the emperor is naked. Years ago Ryan Dobson wrote a book entitled Be Intolerant…Because Some Things Are Just Stupid. To that I would say a hearty Amen!
We cannot expect our young people to resist peer pressure and say no to the crowd when we as adults are not willing to do so. There is nothing progressive or avant-garde, certainly nothing to be desired, in celebrating or commending that which is aimed squarely at the destruction of civilization. And it’s about time we say so. Kendrick Lamar’s rap may be a good place to start, but that is all it is…a starting point. We are paving the way to our own downfall with our expanding embrace of abortion, euthanasia, transgender identity, gay marriage, marijuana use…and on and on it goes. Somehow we do not realize, as Orteza wrote, that we are perpetuating beliefs, behaviors and positions that are actually quite at odds with our own survival as a civilized people.



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