Dove Magazine

Race struggle gets personal on new Kendrick Lamar album

Near the end of Kendrick Lamar's intense new

Near the end of Kendrick Lamar’s intense new album, the voice of rap legend Tupac Shakur rises from his grave to warn, “In this country a black man only have like five years (to) exhibit maximum strength. PHOTO| AFP

In Summary

  • But for Lamar, standing strong does not mean running from racial stereotypes. He instead lays out some of the most offensive slurs with a sense of contemplated provocation.
  • “I’m African American / I’m African / I’m black as the moon,” he raps on “The Blacker the Berry.”
  • “My hair is nappy / My d**k is big / My nose is round and wide / You hate me, don’t you?/ You hate my people / Your plan is to terminate my culture,” he raps. “I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.”

Near the end of Kendrick Lamar’s intense new album, the voice of rap legend Tupac Shakur rises from his grave to warn, “In this country a black man only have like five years (to) exhibit maximum strength.

“Once you turn 30, it’s like they take the heart and soul out of a man — out of a black man — in this country,” says the late rap prophet, who was speaking in 1994 to a Swedish journalist but re-emerges on Lamar’s album as if in dialogue with the new-generation star.

Lamar — who is 27 and burst onto the scene in 2011 — is intensely aware of such life lessons from Tupac on his new album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” in which he reflects on the double-standards facing African American men yet casts the struggle as a personal journey to finding his own inner strength.

“To Pimp a Butterfly” musically keeps up the funky rhythm lines and understated samples that helped propel Lamar to stardom but reaches more deeply for historical allusions and, unusually for such a commercially anticipated album, features long sections of unaccompanied spoken word.

The album starts off with “Wesley’s Theory,” in which Lamar cites actor Wesley Snipes’ conviction for income tax evasion as a premonition for rising African American stars, and “King Kunta” — a reference to Kunta Kinte, the slave immortalized by Alex Haley’s 1976 historical novel “Roots” and a popular television miniseries.

“Now I run the game / Got the whole world talkin’ / King Kunta / Everybody wanna cut the legs off him,” Lamar raps.

But for Lamar, standing strong does not mean running from racial stereotypes. He instead lays out some of the most offensive slurs with a sense of contemplated provocation.

“I’m African American / I’m African / I’m black as the moon,” he raps on “The Blacker the Berry.”

“My hair is nappy / My d**k is big / My nose is round and wide / You hate me, don’t you?/ You hate my people / Your plan is to terminate my culture,” he raps. “I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.”

Surprise early release

“To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar’s first studio album in nearly three years, had been set for release on March 23 after an extensive promotion campaign but unexpectedly came out late Sunday.

The album becomes the latest major release to go on sale early. Bjork and Madonna both released ahead of schedule all or part of albums slated for March release months ahead of time after versions leaked online.

Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, whose independent TDE label is putting out Lamar’s album with Interscope, said that the blame lay with the larger record company which put out “To Pimp a Butterfly” early by accident.

In expletive-laden tweets, Tiffith demanded that Interscope punish whoever was responsible.

Finding inner strength

The album is also brash in its artwork, with a cover featuring 12 men or boys crowded together on the South Lawn of the White House, crushing a gavel-wielding judge.

Lamar mocks Washington politicians with the names of gangs in his native Los Angeles, berating them as “DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans” and declaring: “They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs.”

But underneath the album’s bravado lies an introspection. Lamar — who unlike so many rappers has had few brushes with the law — repeatedly raps about overcoming depression and finding self-love.

On “Mortal Man,” Lamar speaks of his survivor’s guilt at escaping the inner-city only to be embroiled at what he described as a new struggle against discrimination.

The struggle is part of the central metaphor of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” a play on the title of Harper Lee’s classic novel of racial injustice, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Lamar explains that a caterpillar “is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it,” yet the butterfly represent the beauty that comes out of it.

“Although the butterfly and the caterpillar are completely different, they are one and the same.”

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