Monday, December 28, 2015

2015 In Review: The Problematic Influence of Kendrick Lamar

This being the second part of a year-end recap of the best and worst music that 2015 imparted to us.  As always, links to other sections are appended at the bottom.

This should come as no surprise, but the #1 album of the year is Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly.


Psycheth!  Every clickbait internet writer worth his salt knows you have to start from the bottom of the list and count up it, not down.  And why would I tie it up with an album as lame as To Pimp a Butterfly?

I’m just kidding again.  To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t completely lame as an album; only 12 of its 16 songs/interludes/interviews with a dead guy are lame.  The other four (King Kunta, These Walls, Blacker the Berry, and i) are perfectly listenable and sometimes even entertaining.  That’s approximately 18.5 minutes out of an exhausting 79.  So why have no fewer than 11 magazines or websites dubbed it the best album of a year that’s witnessed many impressive albums?  Who do these critics think they’re fooling, and what is it about mediocrity they find so alluring?

Just a few of Kendrick's tools.

If they’re simply looking to peddle safe, noncontroversial, and retweetable listicles to gullible Kendrick fanboys in college who can’t think for themselves and unquestioningly buy into the latest hip-hop craze so as to appear cool and up to speed, they’ve certainly succeeded in that.  Around eight months ago, Kendrick Lamar was basically the hottest musical act at Beatissima, second only to Taylor Swift.  I still remember the first time I listened through To Pimp A Butterfly in the lowermost den of a six-suite dormitory while playing a DC fighting game with two other residents of “The A Hole” who were also curious to know the object of all this media-generated buzz.  Around the passing of the fifth track, one of us gushingly remarked that this was the Blackest Album of All Time, a label Kendrick and his supporters would probably claim as a badge of honor.  Don’t take my word for it, though.  In Pitchfork’s yearly countdown of its best and/or most snob-appealing albums, “kris ex” proclaimed:
[To Pimp A Butterfly is] also Black as f***.  “Blackness” is a concept that remains fluid and intangible, but so solid that one can feel it when it’s present.  And it was all over Butterfly.  From the opening notes… to the closing—a fabricated conversation with Tupac Shakur—the album is packed with Blackness… Nowhere is Blackness more front and center than on the album’s second single, “The Blacker the Berry”.  It was the song that most clearly announced Kendrick's lack of f***s about the comfort of his white audience…
All of this Blackness is important.  Important because sometimes white people need to take a metaphorical seat—to sit down, shut up, and listen to conversations in which they are a cultural object, not the center.  This is not an easy task.  White people have been way too comfortable for way too long in this country, in this world.  Way too comfortable with the way they choose to see reality solely through their own gaze, way too comfortable with their sense of entitlement over the planet and its resources, way too comfortable with their appropriation of culture in ways large and small… But Kendrick was willing to discomfort the comfortable.  He took all of the acclaim he had received as a critical darling from his major label debut… and doubled down on his Blackness, not for the entertainment of white people, but in near-total disregard for their experience of his conversation… It’s an album by the greatest rapper of his generation… the voice of a moment in time.

I let him prattle on a while there, but all of this Pitchforkian prattling is important, even more important in terms of defining the cultural malaise of 2015 than the abundant Blackness you encounter on Kendrick’s record.  Kris’ orgasmic adulation of Kendrick’s racial politics, eventually spiraling into an exasperated plea for evil white-skinned people to shut up and silently take an overdue verbal drumming from some rapper who’s been metaphorically oppressed by a rigged system that’s enabled him to sell nearly a million copies of a barely tolerable album, epitomizes the collapse of modern art criticism into just another form of ideological propaganda, indistinguishable from the op-ed page in a newspaper you’d pick up for free at a hotel.  I wish I could say that Kendrick’s fanboys are just the edgier, grown-up versions of T.Swift, One Direction, or Justin Bieber listeners (assuming grown-ups don’t listen to the Biebs or 1D, which they sadly do), but their infatuation with their own rock star is based on something much more distressing and, ahem, Problematic.  The most vocal Kendrick scholars think they’ve stumbled onto a sage, poetic, and deeply necessary piece of social commentary that transcends the general parameters of art and fully earns the title of genius.

Kendrick scholarship is certainly transcendent, transcendent of intelligence, transcendent of reality, transcendent of its own interests and the interests of anyone else on the receiving end of Kendrick’s “lead showers”.  The entire critical breakdown of Kendrick’s magnum opus, typified by the likes of Pitchfork, high school teacher Brian Mooney, and Barack Hussein Obama himself, emphasizes not the beauty of its composition, writing, or delivery but the opinion that the work is fighting some deeply rooted social cancer that needs immediate addressing.  Simply, To Pimp A Butterfly isn’t the greatest album of the year because of its superior artistry but because its “importance” or relevance to current affairs effectively overrules all its competition.

Social importance, of course, cannot be used as an objective measure for criticsm, as every individual ascribes a different level of importance to things based on his frame of mind.  Serious presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has publically avowed that Global Warming is the greatest security threat to the United States – despite data from the pro-Global Warming NOAA showing a ten-year decline in U.S. temperatures and weather disasters – and also “directly related” it to international terrorism, but only 3% of respondents in Gallup’s most recent survey on the matter dared to label “environment/pollution” as the most important problem facing the country.  Racism also trends very low in this same poll, fluctuating mostly between 1 and 4% over the last 24 months, with peaks at 9 and 13% during months when the media was pumping Killer Cop stories around the clock.  Even from November to December, when fake racism seemed to reach crisis levels at universities around America, not excepting Beatissima (more on that later), public concern about race relations on this scale only rose from 3 to 4%.

At the very least this exposes a vast disconnect between what the commoner and the critical elite desire to see in music.  By extension, the universal acclaim for the identity politics of To Pimp A Butterfly has signified the almost absolute demise of valuable insight in critical American writing, now called “reviews”. Who’s to say which person’s taste is better, the culture writer’s or the consumer’s?  When one idiot thinks the purpose of art is to make him feel guilty for being born a rich white child and another idiot thinks the purpose of art is just to set a scene for heavy grinding on the dance floor, there’s no established criterion to definitively say that one creator’s art is better than another’s.  Straight Outta Compton and Amadeus must be esteemed each other’s equals in cinematic worth; hell, the bars of Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre are just as essential as the symphonies, operas, and piano concertos of Mozart.  Both have been groundbreaking and “important” artists to different people in different times, but how much more important are the N.W.A. to the youth of today than that stuffy, old, orchestral classical music?  By the undemanding standards of Kendrick’s sycophantic groupies, Dre trumps Mozart in artistic merit for almost every demographic except babies watching VHS tapes and college music professors.  Does Mozart speak to the urban-born son of a single mother, beset by gangs and the po-po and institutional racism in the grocery store, or whatever?  To the son(s) of an immigrant who want(s) to be the president of the United States?  “To the victims of welfare, living in Hell here”, and so and so forth?  Who does Mozart speak to other than old, dead, white European males?  None of this whiteness is important!

I wish I could say that Kendrick has only just now driven the final nail into the coffin of musical analysis, of the days when the purpose of art was merely to be art, and not to force a political message endorsed by the critic.  The bitter truth is that those days have long since passed.  One of the six or seven books I read this year, an otherwise ordinary rundown on Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular by Rust Hills, traces this dysfunction in the critic’s expectations all the way back to 1897.  Hills argues,
“[The myth of the Great American Novel] leads eventually into the same blind alley Tolstoi went to the very end of in What Is Art?, where he deduced that since what’s virtuous in human acts are those which promote the brotherhood of man, then that art is best which most promotes the brotherhood of man – hence he concludes with the greatness of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  This is what comes of asking art to be something other than art.”

I don’t believe the Great American Novel is a myth, nor do I deplore Uncle Tom’s Cabin as much as many literary critics, but it isn’t hard to imagine Harriet Beacher Stowe filling the same American Idol shoes that Kendrick’s walking in today.  All of Uncle Tom’s blackness is Important, raves kris ex for Pitchfork Media, whether or not it meets the highest standards of literature.  All of Imitation Game’s gayness is Important, whether or not the finer details are historically accurate or well told.  All of Lean In’s woman-ness is Important, whether or not it has anything useful to say to anybody.  All of Al Gore’s end-of-days alarmism is Important, whether or not it has any solid, scientific evidence backing it up.  All of Amy Schumer’s sexism is Important, whether or not it’s, well, sexist.

How did greatest Importance become tantamount to greatest quality in the verdict of people who are supposed to look above intentions and simply judge on execution?  To pose such a question is to presume objectivity from people who are not remotely committed to it.  Reviewers – I mean critics – are journalists, after all, and when have journalists ever allowed their ideology to get in the way of the truth?  Of the 2013 film Fruitvale Station, Wesley Morris wrote, “Sometimes what’s wrong with a movie suddenly no longer matters.  The rickety construction of a story, the awkward shift in dramatic tone, the acutely earnest attempt to find the right wattage for a martyr’s halo: They’re beside the point.  Sometimes a movie just needs to show us the light.  Sometimes it just needs us to see it.”  Who cares if Fruitvale Station is a really shoddy, even corny TV movie, weakly shot and written, manipulative at the expense of the truth, and completely pointless up until the last 5 minutes?  If it hits its viewers in the feels and propels misguided vendettas against The Racists, The Assault Weapons, or The Prison System, then Team Wesley Morris thinks it’s cool.  Three quarters of To Pimp A Butterfly can be disposed of without detracting from the record, but Alright is now the anthem of all jobless Black Lives Matter grumblers, so kris ex and the leftist hipster punching bag of the internet extol the album as a work of genius.

One of my friends facetiously told me that Kendrick Lamar is the closest thing we have to a modern-day Antichrist, but I don’t think that Kendrick’s purposely trying to be the Antichrist.  I don’t hate Kendrick Lamar, nor would I go so far as to say that he sucks, even if it would get you to click on this article.  It’s not his fault he accidentally reminds us all of the stupidity that’s infested our agenda-driven media, so desperate to anoint the Most Important Fiction of the Year they forget the reason for criticizing fiction in the first place.

Is To Pimp A Butterfly the album of the year?  Absoeffinlutely.  And I think that Kendrick’s laughing all the way to the bank.  Thug life, indeed.

Fast travel to other parts:
Part 1 – Not Worth The Effort 2015
Part 3 – Top 10 Part 1 and Honorables
Part 4 – Top 10 Part 2 and the Inadvertent Individualism of Grimes

1 comment:

  1. kendrick aint the king of rap, he aint the god of rap, he is rap itself born as a human being raised as a human being grew up to be the legend. if rap was religious, i would call u saint duckworth. I will be at his concert here kendricklamar.haltelavaltrie.com

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