Saturday, May 28, 2016

Album Review - To Pimp a Butterfly

When I started collecting vinyl a few months ago like the goddamned hipster I am, I had a few guidelines.  I would avoid paying for music I already owned, endeavor to include both contemporary and "classic" albums, and attempt to "expand my musical horizons" with genres and artists I had not previously paid close attention to.  Those guidelines led me to the hip-hop section, and they go a long way toward explaining how Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly found itself in my living room, in all its twelve-by-twelve glory.

I'd like to write something original and thoughtful about this album, but its dense lyricism and evocative sounds require a deep knowledge of the context of both hip hop music and the social environment of black communities in the modern United States.  As it turns out, being a twenty-something white dude with a few Outkast mp3s and an abiding fascination with the Roots, doesn't quite qualify me to speak authoritatively on either.  The sky is blue, the rain makes you wet.

So the best place to start, I suppose, is with what this record means to me.  Butterfly is a beautiful record, musically and emotionally.  It's relatable, even to someone like me, when Lamar raps and recites about the weight of society and out-of-control circumstances on one's mental health.  I've spun both discs nearly a dozen times in the past several weeks, learning more each time, both from the record and my not-infrequent trips to to clarify the meaning of verses and gather much-needed background information.

Maybe it goes without saying that I would need to do some homework to begin making sense of, much less really enjoy, a strong political hip-hop album.  Or maybe it doesn't - but what does need to be said is that Kendrick Lamar and myself speak very different languages.  When it comes to understanding rap, it's not a matter of just keeping up with the syllables.  African American English is replete with unique vocabularies, constructions, and an enduring sense of irony that does not translate into white or "standard" English.  Naturally, how could I expect to listen once and just get it?

More than a language barrier or a culture barrier, there's an experience barrier between myself and Butterfly.  If the music weren't so compelling, handing out funk and soul with equal measures of drive and poetry, the experience of this album would be incomprehensible to me.  How to fathom the depth of survivor's guilt and hypocrisy expressed in "Hood Politics" or "The Blacker the Berry"?  Not without effort.  The swagger of "King Kunta" illustrates the contradictory dynamics of success and oppression, a state embodied in the aspirations and reversals of black men and women.  And yes, I looked these songs up on before I felt comfortable making any kind of statement about them.  I am still learning how to listen to this music.

For me this album is an education, but for its intended audience it is a view of life, another contribution in a body of culture that is both familiar and increasingly alive.  The emotions on this album aren't just strong, they are expansive, as Lamar leads the listener on a whirlwind tour of rage, joy, hope, and depression, without letting any of it settle into a muted schwa.  That's the real magic of a record like this, that it can embody so completely a full suite of feelings and ideas in eighty minutes of sound.

And controversy?  Why, of course there's controversy.  Every successful hip-hop record is controversial simply for being what it is.  The attacks on police brutality and the insidiousness of white power are central to the message: you can't separate them from whatever content on Butterfly may be "apolitical".  The apolitical is beside the point, as is the ongoing, facile debate over why white people can't use racial slurs if black people are going to insist on reclaiming them.  Sure, that makes it somewhat difficult for me to sing along like I might to some one else's songs; but that only raises the question, why do I feel the need to sing along anyway?  There's so much more to gain just by listening.  If you're scandalized by Butterfly's politics, you've got a lot of listening to do.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

I Don't Know Where I Began

I really did not mean to leave this idle until May.  I'm not sure why I wanted it to go like that, or if I did want it, or if there's really any answer beyond laziness.  But I did.  I have things to say, so I guess it's time to say them.

Seeing as my last post was in late January, I have about four months of good news to condense into a few lines, for those who read this and wish to know what the state of my life is.

The best news is that I have achieved a small measure of economic security, and have done so by acquiring what is probably the closest thing to a dream job I've ever had.  In February I started working as a full-time teacher at a small charter school in rural Oregon, just outside of Salem.  Shortly thereafter, I rented a two room apartment in downtown Salem, where I reside to this very day.  Thus from the jaws of dejection and defeat, I have been plucked by good fortune to something very like victory.  In the big scheme of things, I've become one of the lucky ones.

What a change, huh?  And no record of it on The Wave Function Junction for four months.  I must be busy with the new job to have been so negligent.

Well, I have been busy.  Teaching social studies is hard work, especially if you want to do it right.  But I haven't been as busy as all that.  Whole weekends pass by where I mostly lie on the couch and engage in distraction rather than creation.  I scribble a poem now and then, and I do keep up on creating assignments for my students.  Very occasionally, I have even found time for exercize.  But it would be a stretch too far to say I'm at the top of my game.  In a way that I haven't quite perceived before, I can see that I am still sick.

Since looking my depression in the face for the first time over a year ago, I have become aware of what it means to be mentally ill.  Back then, it meant idle thoughts of killing myself, against a backdrop of endless waiting for a natural death.  It doesn't mean that so much anymore.  The sertraline pills have done their work of evening me out, I suppose.  And to be entirely fair, I have learned so much in the past year, about myself and about the workings of the mind, I have begun to heal myself from the worst wounds.  The world has become survivable. 

But as I said, I still feel sick.  I still feel cut off from the world, cut off from passion and love.  I can feel these things, and it is joyous when a connection is established by communication, or by physical presence.  But in my inevitable retreat to solitude, I love without anyone to love, and I despair.  Other people see it in my eyes, but they do not see the cause.

Maybe it's just perpetual dissatisfaction?  Maybe it's never enough to have a job and a home, I also need a raise and a vacation and a woman to sleep with me and why not a shiny new everything?  Maybe it doesn't matter.  I'm better and I'm getting better.  As I have reminded my friends, and as I struggle to remind myself, the world inevitably changes with time. 

And I have the time.  I have admitted it today, and that's why you're reading this.  I'm still (unbelievably) not yet thirty, I'm young and reasonably healthy, and getting hungrier every day.  Who'd have thought a meal of life could cure the blues?  Well, it can't.  To do that, I have to finally brave the bureaucracy and figure out how to transform my benefits package into actual health insurance, and get some damn therapy in me (and maybe about a million more pills, who knows).  Perhaps discovering the true love of my life will have a positive effect, too. 

The world has become survivable, and it turns out I'm sort of a survivor.  That's the news as of May 2016.  Hopefully it gets more interesting from here.