To Pimp a Butterfly: The Blog Series Intro

I asked my partner to play Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly through my speakers last weekend while on a road trip. Despite its March 15th (2015) release date, I’d waited almost 6 full months to give it a first listen. I hadn’t heard Lamar’s previous album, “good Kid, M.A.A.D. city” (#dntjudgeme) and only knew about his single King Kunta through the radio’s rotations.

I honestly don’t know what I was waiting on. I always start off skeptical about artists with mass appeal, but when my partner (who is a singer / songwriter & guitar player) put the album in his iPod rotation AND when my PhD carryin’ ethnomusicologist / musician e-friend began listing tracks and liner notes (that included some of my favorites such as Robert Glasper, Bilal, Lalah Hathaway & talents such as Thundercat, Kamasi Washington, and more) I knew I’d better take some time and listen to it. A road trip was the perfect atmosphere.

I felt the influence of George Clinton’s funk on the first track, “Wesley’s Theory”, before I knew Clinton was actually on the track. Yet, I also experienced a lot of dissonance with the lyrical content. At the time, I was primarily focused on finding the right roadside exits but his flow was absolutely undeniable. It didn’t take long to realize that he was creating lyrical dissonance in order to unpack a learning experience with the project. Nonchalantly, I asked my partner to tell me what he thought this song was about (he’s brilliant with things like that), and after hearing / comparing his analysis with my own, I knew this was a project I needed to dig into. I have been listening to it every day, twice a day, since then.

I don’t usually do music reviews on although I have done them before & have some background in music / vocal performance. This isn’t a review per se. It’s an acknowledgement / compilation of the thought processes that TPAB set forth for me. As I listened, I began to think about how this project would help:

  1. In discussions on memoir writing and telling authentic stories
    (TPAB puts me in the mind of memoir-writing in dialect and without prioritizing “standard” forms of English expression as better than any other dialect of English)
  2. In discussions on mental health & wellness
    (The song ‘u’ gives us a lot of space and text to discuss cognitive distortions: problematic thought patterns which lead to negative symptoms. Conversely, the song “i” gives us text to discuss challenging problematic thoughts and building resilience)
  3. In discussions on spirituality and writing / rapping / creating through a few broad spiritual themes: In many interviews, Kendrick Lamar talks about his art as a spiritual discovery for himself. In good Kid, M.A.A.D. city, Kendrick begins the dialogue by using what some might recognize as a version of “The Sinner’s Prayer”. In TPAB, Kendrick then starts unpacking broader themes of spiritual formation & processing including struggles with good & evil (i.e. For Sale?), loving & serving others genuinely (How Much a Dollar Cost), & self-love (i).
  4. In discussions surrounding navigating two communities: This theme jumped out immediately to me because of the work that I do with many first generation (first in the family to attend college) students, students of color, and students w/ financial needs as they enter academia / higher ed.

Two days later, I wrote a private Facebook post for a few friends in the field:

“There are just TOO many ways to utilize To Pimp a Butterfly as a supplemental illustration / text to discuss first year academic transitions, navigating home community and academic community (and the emotions that sometimes come along with that transition esp for 1st gen students or students anticipating accessing a different socioeconomic status than other family or community members after college), memoir and telling our authentic stories, financial literacy, managing debt to income ratio and credit in college, self efficacy / seeking help, accessing and contemplating the importance of studying abroad… like… just too many ways. Ain’t gone do it till I got that good ole academic freedom…… but I’m sayin’ doe….‪#‎Kendrickdonegaveusawholesemester‬

So, in the days, weeks, (and perhaps months if it takes that long), I will be unpacking To Pimp a Butterfly with attention to those four points. It’ll be the first full series on!

As I entertained the idea of using TPAB for a series, it was uncanny that the refrain, “I remember you was conflicted” replayed through my speakers. For me, the conflict occurred in mining through some of the more explicit songs and language in order to piece together helpful threads. A vague memory of the high school teacher, Brian Mooney, who used TPAB to create dialogue around race, privilege, and oppression alongside Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye came to me. In an explanatory post, he left a note about his “pedagogical decision to provide the edited or clean lyrics to a select group of songs on the album and… even post(ing) a link to the “edited” version on iTunes

So, LET. ME. BE. CLEAR: I listened to the explicit version upon my first listen. In my personal process, as a writer, professional, and artist (trained in Theater & Creative Writing), I thought it was important to work through an unedited script and body of work. Yet, I, like the high school teacher Brian Mooney, honor the “pedagogical practice” of using clean versions for this series as well – but for differing reasons. Many of the themes were so hard-hitting & the analyses of race, bias & systemic oppression so raw that if you lived it… or even some shade / form of it… the language can and could be equal parts mirroring and / or triggering. Working through the unedited text is a highly personal choice and endeavor for those who would LIKE to take that on.

I have absolutely no idea how long this series will take (full disclosure :), but I do know it’s worth doing & thinking through. Stay tuned…

Image Credit from Wikipedia