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Kendrick Lamar Reminds Us That Hip Hop Is an Important Political Player

Editor's update: Kendrick Lamar just released a video for the song "Alright" off his critically acclaimed album "To Pimp A Butterfly." The video is full of powerful imagery that harkens back to the issue of police brutality. "And we hate popo, when they kill us dead in the street, fo sho," Lamar raps. Watch his beautiful and socially relevant video, and read what ATTN: had to say about "To Pimp A Butterfly" and Lamar's ability to layer the political into popular rap.

Every year, spring brings a steady stream of fantastic new hip-hop. Since the beginning of March, we’ve received new projects from Cannibal Ox, Kendrick Lamar, Earl Sweatshirt, Action Bronson, Death Grips, Ludacris, and most recently, Tyler the Creator—all the while the new Kanye album looms on the horizon. But amongst the aforementioned, Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” stands out for its blended messages of positivity, pride, and outrage. “To Pimp A Butterfly” is probably the closest thing recent hip-hop has to a protest album.

Hip-hop is a political party in every sense of the phrase. Hip-hop was born in block parties and incubated in streetlight. But hip-hop is also a conduit for the voices of the oppressed. As hip-hop entered the mainstream, the political wing has moved into hip-hop’s extremities, and, for the most part, off the radio. 

In December, The Root’s Questlove told Billboard that black artists might be reluctant to make starkly political music for fear of being “black-balled.” He referenced the backlash one of the Dixie Chicks faced for comments on President Bush. 

“We were like, 'Man, if a white woman can lose her career in the United States for speaking up for what's right, then shit, we'll get the electric chair,’” Questlove stated. “I think that was the bottom line. And that just really rendered America silent." 

Sometimes it can feel as though hip-hop has been cleft in two. On one side are the artists in the vein of Public Enemy who take aim at the forces oppression with a sharp tongue and a big dictionary, and on the other side are artists for whom neither political nor social consciousness is synonymous with hip-hop. For every Killer Mike, Common, or Talib Kweli, there are a dozen Migos and Rae Sremmurds. No disrespect to the crowned princes of the turn-up, but they fill a different role in the world of hip-hop. They make music with the directive of making money and making people dance. Their message is often not much more complex than when it is appropriate to flex

Kendrick Lamar does both, he straddles the divide between politics and parties, and his music is wildly popular because of that. On March 16th, "TPAB" smashed the Spotify single-day streaming record with 9.6 million streams—a record that Drake, king of the readily enjoyable, set only 32 days prior.

“To Pimp A Butterfly” is a study in the ability to disguise intensely political subject matter in a radio-ready wrapper. The song “King Kunta" is built around a sample of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” giving it a genetic predisposition for radio play. Lamar leads off announcing that he’s got a bone to pick. In the hook he harkens back to the hip-hop refrain of Mike Jones in 2005: “Back then hoes didn’t want me, now I’m hot hoes all on me.” What follows, however, subverts that common trope. Lamar invokes the name of Kunta Kinte, the slave whose life was the basis for the novel and miniseries Roots, and reclaims his name as a name for a king. The first verse begins, “When you got the yams (What’s the yams?) / The yams is the powers that b.” In Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man the smell of yams brings on memories of the South. In Chinua Achebe’s "Things Fall Apart," a man’s worth is largely determined by how many yams he harvested that year. For Lamar, having the yams means holding the cards, having all the chips, being in the position of power. But the yams can corrupt, Lamar knows: “The yams brought it out of Richard Pryor / Manipulated Bill Clinton With Desires.”

“To Pimp A Butterfly” is packed with intense imagery: Lamar as president, paying his momma’s rent and smoking weed—the subject of institutionalization that he can’t shake. Lamar screaming in a hotel room, pressure building so intensely that it seems inescapable. Lamar's word play includes the repeated refrain of “40 acres and a mule," references to violence -- perpetrated by both the police and rival gangs. And wound through it all is Lamar's almost Faulkner-esque conflict with his hometown of Compton. In another classic Kendrick Lamar screed, “The Blacker The Berry,” Lamar takes aim at the rap game, and the society of structural and institutional racism in which it exists. 

But there is also light. There’s the hopefulness of “Alright”, a sense of purpose in “Mortal Man” conjuring the “ghost of [Nelson] Mandela.” The radio hit “i” is a prideful declaration of self worth built around a sample of the Isley Brother’s “That Lady.” “To Pimp A Butterfly” presents a world with nuance and complication and without easy answers—but also a world that remembers the need for a bit of dancing. 

What makes a protest song? Is it in the lyrics? Is it the melody? Is it the rhythm? Is it in the artist’s intent? The public’s reception? Perhaps it is something yeastier, harder to pin down—as impossible to triangulate as a single electron in the dense cloud that buzzes around an atom’s nucleus. The best protest music, like “To Pimp A Butterfly,” is protest music because it is alive to its moment—a guide to its culture. We are in a moment of political and cultural unrest. We're seeing protests over police brutality and the refrain of #BlackLivesMatter; cultural appropriators are facing some backlash. The crystalline core of true protest music resonates at the same frequency as the cries of those who demand something better of society, and with “To Pimp A Butterfly,” Kendrick Lamar might have the music world clamoring for the reign of King Kunta.