I listened to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly on the regular from its release in March to the release of Vince Staples’s Summertime ’06 in late June, at which point I listened to Vince’s album a few times a week instead, which eventually faded to once a week by the end of the year. I drew power and knowledge from both. I like Summertime more than To Pimp A Butterfly, but taken together, they’re a great look at a certain issue.
I say taken together because they’re part of a pattern of albums about the anxiety of being black and male in America in the modern day. Pharoahe Monch dropped PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2014, an album about dealing with outward and inward threats. The most resonant lyric on the record is “My family customs were not accustomed to dealing with mental health/It was more or less an issue for white families with wealth.” Other albums followed a similar train of thought: J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014), Big KRIT’s Cadillactica (2014), Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside (2015), Joey Bada$$’s B4.DA.$$ (2015), Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth (2015), Vince again with Hell Can Wait (2014), Blu’s Good to Be Home (2014), and even portions of Future’s and Drake’s 2014 and 2015 catalogs dig into blackness and masculinity, one way or the other. I banged all of them for weeks at a time and memorized most of them. I joke that they’re the same album, but they’re more like hours on a clock, or slices of a three hundred and sixty degree circle.
To Pimp A Butterfly’s message, bolstered in part by the poem “Mortal Man” that’s threaded throughout (a poem with the alternate title “Another Nigger”) and in full by the complicated presentation of “i” on the album, is “We’re knee-deep in black misery but we can rise above it.” Summertime ’06’s response is, “Yeah, but we still in it, though,” and you can hear it when Vince says, “My teachers told me we was slaves/My mama told me we was kings/I don’t know who to listen to/I guess we somewhere in between” on “Summertime.”
Both albums attack the same problem from different directions. Vince is saying Be Honest. He wants to kill somebody because his daddy did it, he’s a gangster just like his daddy, who was a gangster just like Vince’s granny. There’s legacy, heritage, in there, and the only examples we have to follow are the ones we are given. (My career as an adult has been entirely in fields that I didn’t have a model for as a child and didn’t know existed. I fell into them while chasing something else.) On 2014’s Hell Can Wait, the EP that served as a prelude for Summertime ’06 and made me realize that Vince Staples was about to drop the hottest album of 2015 bar none, the track “65 Hunnid” includes the line “I told you before that niggas gotta die for this shit to survive.” It’s not about right or wrong. It is what it is, and if you can’t figure out what it is, how are you going to fix it? Gotta name it to claim it.
Kendrick’s saying Rise Up. “Every Nigger Is A Star” is the first sentence you hear on the album, spun up out of empty air like theme music. It’s 2015 “Black Is Beautiful,” it’s the idea that no matter what society tells you, no matter how you feel, you still shine. And Kendrick proceeds to emphasize his own hypocrisy, doubt, and weakness over the course of the album. It’s an album about being a famous rapper and the conflict that comes with getting further and further your center. It’s also an album about finding any type of success and experiencing the same conflict. Kendrick scorns God in his arrogance, indulges in vices, and fights his own self to try to correct his course. The most resonant part of the album is actually in the video for “i”, when Kendrick is screaming I Love Myself while hanging out of a car window, desperate to make anyone including himself believe it by any means.
That moment is the album in miniature, and the conflict in miniature too. My skin is beautiful and my mind is sharp, but living under the weight of white supremacy induces doubt, whether from yourself or others. You know it, but you gotta feel it, too. On “Lift Me Up,” Vince Staples says, “Fight between my conscience and the skin that’s on my body/Man, I need to fight the power, but I need that new Ferrari.” The struggle is the same, so when Vince says, “I just want to live it up, can a motherfucker breathe?/Life ain’t always what it seems, so please just lift me up” on the chorus of the same song, he’s asking for the same help that Kendrick is looking for.
We’re just trying to breathe the only way we know how. You gotta play the cards you’re dealt and hope for the best, even if you know it’s wrong, because sometimes an escape hatch is impossible to find. Kendrick’s “King Kunta” stands out for its swagger. Vince’s “Lift Me Up” stands out for its desperate honesty. Both are ideas often coexist in the same brain at the same time.
The two albums work in concert to suggest an idea: life is too complex for easy answers. On a macro scale, the solution to fixing police brutality, to resolving the black condition, is simple. “Eradicate white supremacy.” On a micro scale, a me-and-you scale, we gotta take into account power differentials, old habits that aren’t likely to change, old habits that might could change, and a million different contexts that we’ve gotta wrestle with.
We gotta deal with the reality of the situation while keeping an eye on where we wanna go. We gotta understand what we perceive to be our faults even as we push our achievements to the forefront in an attempt to prove our worth. We gotta look at the whole circle, not just a slice. That kings and queens rhetoric is played out once you hit adulthood and can look at history with real eyes. We were neither. We were people, and people are complex.