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 complex.com 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
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.