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 genius.com 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 genius.com 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.