On those silent nights I’ve spent vamping until 2 a.m. during the frightening times of COVID-19, there’s a certain 90s classic by acclaimed southern rap duo OutKast titled “Spottieottiedopalicious” that remains in my Youtube search history for a quick and satisfying calm. Its ornamented production switching between subtle horn lines to psychedelic guitars delivers a rare out of body experience that erases any desire to sleep as I bob my head to the tempo. For further entertainment, I scroll through the comment section coming across the frequent “Whatever happened to rap like this?” statements that I would love to adamantly debate but choose not to because there’s no use in convincing stubborn old heads that all things change, and hip-hop is one of them. Although, if I were to recommend a modern rap album to change their perspective, it would be Kendrick Lamar’s sophomoric masterpiece “To Pimp A Butterfly.”
Original artwork courtesy Kira Cummings.
To call TPAB a landmark rap album alone would be insulting. When the average person hears the word “rap,” they perceive it as a bunch of Black kids spitting rhymes off the top of their heads with no context or the background music for the hottest dance craze on TikTok. It’s a box too many hip-hop artists have been thrown into excluding them from most musical conversations, one Kendrick has crawled out of and then ripped apart with his magnum opus.
From beginning to end, the record feels like the ending scene of John Singleton’s “Boyz N The Hood” when Tre looks off into the distance as his childhood friend Doughboy pours liquor onto the street out of respect for his slain brother Ricky. Doughboy fades away as the subtitles reveal that he dies only two weeks later by gunfire similarly to Ricky, and Tre goes onto college. Lamar’s narrative is that of the liquor bottle in Butterfly. Inside that bottle is an antidote for suffering or in other cases just a means of amusement and recreation similar to the rap game. That bottle has a catch though. If you’re not cautious, too many sips can lead you into a downfall like the music industry where countless artists reach their peaks and then disappear or become something they didn’t intend on being. TPAB is Lamar’s therapeutic journal on that; we see him trying to maneuver his way through fame and eventually having to retrace his roots so he won’t lose sight of himself and the ones who got him here.
Lamar’s metamorphosis throughout the album was significant, not just as the spiritual journey of a man but as a Black man in the display of a gritty, West Coast tale. The epic is a visceral, riveting story that combines small pieces of conscious, street-smart, historical and mainstream aspects to deliver a complete puzzle to listeners. Its production brought together the likes of progressive artists young and old, as well as jazz and funk to create a jubilee of Black sound that fit perfectly into the record’s theme. The timing of the record was more than perfect, dropping at a critical moment in America when Black lives seemed to be at stake more than ever during the Obama presidency. Uplifting anthems such as “Alright” or “i” served as reassurance that better days are ahead if self-love and unity are pursued throughout the Black community, while poignant songs such as “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” a piece on colorism, or “u” make listeners want to indulge in deep moments of self-reflection.
Although I was only 11 years old upon TPAB’s release and didn’t listen to the album in its entirety years later, it struck a chord that still resonates within me. The album cover alone: a monochrome photo of grinning young Black men holding handfuls of cash on a backdrop of the White House Lawn made me feel empowered; it was like a spot on depiction of what Black folks felt at the time when the impossible became possible. “I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams,” manifested through storytelling and music. This is one of those albums that makes me proud to be Black, even as we consistently fight to not become another statistic. When the odds of you making it in a world are small, when the bodies of Black men are left dead in the streets because of assumption, when the news reports say that the main people affected by a virus look just like you and might become you, we still say, “We gon’ be alright!”