I get a text the other morning just after I get to work. “Since you’re probably bored… albums. Who’s in the conversation? Who’s in the clubhouse? Who’s in the doghouse?”
This is a thing we do, my friend and I. We listen to music, we keep track, we form and shape our year-end best-of lists starting in January and then in December, we get together with a couple of iPods and compare notes.
We’ll do the same thing this year, I’d imagine, although I have a pretty good feeling that no matter what happens between now and December 31st, I already know what’s going to be at the top of my list. And it’s not even close.
The unquestioned leader in the clubhouse for Album of the Year is Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. This is what I told my friend, though I was almost surprised to see myself type it. Not because I hadn’t been playing the album frequently since its March release (I had), nor because I hadn’t spent enough time thinking about the album’s complexity and its importance at this moment in American history (I had). No, I was surprised because if you were to scroll through my iPod, you’d see pretty quickly that Kendrick Lamar is something of any outlier in my musical tastes.
Sure, I’ve spent a fair amount of time listening to Kanye West and Jay-Z and the odd Roots album here or there, but for the most part, my musical history is a hip-hop desert.
The explanation for this is not all that interesting or complex: rap music (aside from a six-month period during freshman year of high school when I listened to Nelly’s Country Grammar and AC/DC’s Back in Black in equal measure – 14 is a weird age, you guys) typically makes me uncomfortable. It’s not the language, though I know quite a few people for whom that’s a hurdle (people who might watch Game of Thrones without blinking, but whatever) nor the oft-cited drug- and misogyny-centric lyrics (unquestionably there in much – but by no means all – hip-hop).
No, the reason rap made me uncomfortable – and this didn’t occur to me until I had listened through TPaB a few times – is that it isn’t written for me. Here’s what I mean: I would bet that when most hip-hop artists sit down (or pace the room or whatever it is rappers do when they’re writing lyrics) to create their music, the imagined audience for that music looks nothing like me. More importantly than that, however, is that the imagined audience for that music has had very different experiences that I have. When Kendrick Lamar raps, “Do you hear me? Do you feel me? We gon’ be alright”, I’m not the you in that sentence. I’m not a part of that we.
TPaB is in large part an exploration of two things: Kendrick’s relationship to Compton, California, the place where he grew up (but which he is no longer anchored to because of his success) and examining his feelings about the violence perpetrated against young black men by the United States in general and police forces in particular. I can (and do) appreciate Kendrick’s examination of these subjects, but I can’t pretend to understand them in a meaningful way. Listening to hip-hop as a privileged white dude is not all that unlike reading a Dickens novel. I get what ol’ Chuck is saying, but Victorian England might as well be a different planet. The same is true of Kendrick’s Compton.
So I realized as I played Kendrick’s music that I had more or less come to expect all art to say something to, about, or for me. Not too long after that, I realized that this made me a solipsistic jackass. When I was an English teacher, I told my students repeatedly that reading works – fiction and non-fiction – by authors whose experiences were wildly different from their own was incredibly valuable, not just to their understanding of the wider world but to their development of empathy. They listened, but often didn’t really hear. They mostly wanted to hold mirrors up to their faces and read about people just like them. They called this relevance; I recognized it as arrogance.
Pot, kettle, black.
Here I was doing the exact same thing. I kept my distance from rap because I thought it didn’t have anything to say to me, when the truth is that it was content to ignore me (and this bothered me on some unconscious level). But I was so used to art of all types striving desperately to grab me by the shirt and get my (read: white guys’) attention that I dismissed rap altogether because it was content to stroll right by me, not caring about me and my problems.
Until To Pimp a Butterfly. I couldn’t dismiss that. I couldn’t simply toss aside that kind of fire, that kind of raw expressive vitriol. What’s this guy so angry about? I thought. So exuberant about? So afraid of? His life and the lives of the people he knows, I think. Not my life.
I’m ok with that now. I am not art’s default audience. Recognizing that makes it a whole lot easier to appreciate, enjoy, and even love stuff that you wouldn’t have given a second look before.
To Pimp a Butterfly is an amazing album. It’s honest and thoughtful and challenging. “King Kunta” is a song of the year candidate for me, as is “Alright”, as is “u”, because they’re true, even if the truths they tell aren’t about me.