News of Kendrick Lamar‘s 11 nominations for the upcoming Grammy Awards has dominated social media timelines, news headlines and even radio broadcasts of all formats. Lamar’s nomination for Album of the Year was most notable and while he should win for the brilliant To Pimp A Butterfly, the industry isn’t ready to crown an album with that much unflinching Blackness just yet.
Every bit of praise that To Pimp A Butterfly has garnered is deserved. Even the criticism of the record has its place. It isn’t an extremely polarizing record given the amount of white fans Lamar has, but it does firmly draw a line between the have and have nots’ respective experiences. The album is Black Power Fight Music, essentially a revived relic of the message music that flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
And that’s precisely why the Grammy nominations will not yield the coveted top honor.
Records like James Brown’s 1969 album Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud and Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic What’s Going On are the natural forefathers to To Pimp A Butterfly. Even Public Enemy’s 1988 masterpiece It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back could be seen as a partial influence.
In today’s “turn-up” climate, albums with a message are either overlooked or dismissed by the so-called gatekeepers of the current culture. And To Pimp A Butterfly‘s message is resounding: Being a Black celebrity should hold more weight than just maintaining fame. Being Black in America is as dangerous as ever. Lastly, being Black is still beautiful despite the indignities faced daily.
“To Pimp A Butterfly is a focused album for a specific set of people who have a shared experience of oppression.”
It was nearly two years ago that Kendrick Lamar’s critically-acclaimed 2012 release, good kid, m.A.A.d city was up for the Album of the Year honor at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards in 2014. The thematic work would baffle both fans and critics as it was rare a major label album found that level of success without following the usual smash single format. It was a revelation to fans new to the Top Dawg Entertainment standout, but folks knew that K-Dot was moving towards this place since 2010’s Overly Dedicated mixtape.
While Daft Punk took home the Album of the Year award in 2014 for Random Access Memories, Lamar was in the conversation next to the unstoppable Taylor Swift and his assumed rivals Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. That year also culminated in Macklemore becoming a pariah of sorts within the Hip-Hop community for beating out Lamar in the Rap Album of the Year category with The Heist. Despite Macklemore’s well-documented journey from hardscrabble independent artist to global pop star, Hip-Hop fans felt justified in downing the Seattle rapper’s achievements.
The Heist was a safe pick at the time. The accessible, whimsical nature of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis translated well in the duo’s biggest single, “Thrift Shop” and the same-sex supporting “Same Love” made them the darlings of media and cultural critics alike. It was a perfect storm of the right time, the right skin tone all couched within this message for tolerance in one of the world’s most divisive topics. Macklemore’s music dwarfed the urban backdrop and searing honesty of Lamar’s second album. Fans felt cheated by the system, angered that good kid, m A.A.d city was essentially pushed aside.
At the 57th Annual Grammy Awards, Lamar won two awards for To Pimp A Butterfly‘s lead single, “i” but it felt like a cheap bone thrown for what happened the year before. The album wasn’t released until March 15, 2015, a little over a month after the awards show, and it continues to command attention as it rightfully should. Likes its predecessor, Lamar remains the star but this time he was backed by a large supporting cast of musicians that transformed the record into a uniquely profound body of work.
Nobody who heard “i” this year thought To Pimp A Butterfly would end up being the backing music for the nation’s current civil rights struggle. It is aggressive in a way that the single wasn’t. It is at times an uncomfortable listen, a mix of funk and fury bookended by the passion of the Black Lives Matter movement and similar youth-led organizations of current times. Kendrick Lamar managed to become the voice of the impassioned Black millennial, but that intensity was tempered with the basic notion that he still liked to get down figuratively and otherwise.
Lamar is facing up against Taylor Swift’s 1989, Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, Chris Stapleton’s Traveller, and The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness. Of his competition, Lamar doesn’t have the commercially-weakest release of the bunch and it has been heavily lauded by nearly every critic who matters.
But how can he overcome the machine that is the Taylor Swift enterprise? How does he blast past The Weeknd’s atmospheric crooning? How does his record stack up against the grit and grunt of the Alabama Shakes? Chris Stapleton crafted his album around losing his father and travelling across country to find himself, so how does Lamar stand apart?
To Pimp A Butterfly is a focused album for a specific set of people who have a shared experience of oppression. It is Black music that cares nothing about pop sensiblities or hit singles. It is a harsh statement aimed at the powers which highlighted the fact that Blackness will no longer be muted. The pride present throughout the album along with the struggles with temptation and burden of fame is why the album stirs so many emotions.
Even if Lamar wins the Rap Album of the Year award, it won’t excuse the fact that mainstream America isn’t remotely ready to see To Pimp A Butterfly beat out the safer and more approachable alternatives. Perhaps this is how Blackness ultimately gets silenced with the bypassing of this singular and necessary work of art.
The 58th annual Grammy Awards airs on Monday, February 16, 2016 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif.
Photo: screen cap