MRBlog | New Black Godz: Kendrick Lamar and Tupac

Kendrick Lamar in the Netherlands. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


By Timothy Michael Law

MRB editor Monica Miller introduces a new series at JSTOR Daily.

New Black Godz is a new column that considers the manner in which racialized social actors navigate complex protracted life options in U.S. and global cities (often through creative manipulation of religious themes and language). New Black Godz explores the lives, legibilities, and “diasporic” tactics of historical figures such as James Baldwin and contemporary artists like Jay Z and Kanye West.

Her inaugural post just a few days before Easter discusses the mythic themes in Kendrick Lamar’s new #1 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, “a kind of post-industrial Pauline Epistle.” Miller centers on the album-ending invented interview Kendrick produces by splicing together clips of an old Tupac interview with Kendrick’s own questions. Kendrick asks Pac how he kept his sanity in the midst of his success, but he probes deeper than positive thinking. When Kendrick asks Pac how long until black Americans finally feel like they’re fighting a war they cannot win and they’ll be ready to lay it all down, and what Pac thinks the future holds for Kendrick Lamar and his generation, Pac answers — hauntingly considering Pac’s original interview was recorded long before Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner — that he thinks they’re tired of “just grabbing shit out the stores … next time there’s a riot, there’s gonna be bloodshed, for real. I don’t think America knows that. I think America thinks we were just playing … it’s gonna be like Nat Turner …” Miller writes: “Kendrick tells Pac that all he really has is music, vibrations. To which the savior Pac responds that it’s ‘the spirit. We ain’t even rapping. We just letting our dead homies tell stories.'”

Tupac Amaru Shakur, or 2Pac, via Flickr.
Tupac Amaru Shakur, or 2Pac, via Flickr.

Kendrick tells stories. His major-label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city was heralded for his storytelling finesse, and To Pimp a Butterfly is even better. The penultimate track on the album, just before the Pac interview, was a single released last year but is an entirely new song in the album version. When Lamar released “i”, it sounded like an odd ode to positive thinking but not a Kendrick Lamar track. On the hook, Lamar repeats “I love myself.” But in the flow of To Pimp a Butterfly, and with new elements added to extend it from 3:52 to 5:36, it is now a track of intense pathos. Near the end of what now sounds like a live performance, the music stops and Lamar asks the crowd: “How many we done lost? This year alone?” After numerous sordid reminders of police brutality in 2014, this refrain — “I love myself” — opens up Lamar’s oration of black power.

So I’ma dedicate this one verse to Oprah
On how the infamous, sensitive N-word control us
So many artist gave her an explanation to hold us
Well this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia
N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty – wait listen
N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish
The history books overlooked the word and hide it
America tried to make it to a house divided
The homies don’t recognize we be using it wrong
So I’ma break it down and put my game in the song
N-E-G-U-S, say it with me
Or say no more. Black stars can come and get me
Take it from Oprah Winfrey, tell her she right on time
Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive

Miller hears Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly as “an allegory, the tension and duality of the caterpillar and butterfly serving as a vehicle for Lamar’s presentation of contemporary black life in its complexity, an expression of the nuances of truncated options incubating intense creative beauty and vulnerability. Blackness is whole, blackness is complete, blackness is human.”

She concludes as the album does, with Pac leaving his impression on us as Kendrick Lamar asks the final question and receives no answer:

Pac is here. The stone has been rolled away from Pac’s tomb, and we find it empty. Where is Pac? Is he alive? The question of whether or not Pac cheated death matters so much to so many because so many continue to be cheated by a life framed around early death at the hands of law enforcement thugs as much as neighborhood thugs. Where is Pac? Where else, but alive in the flow, proclaiming the good news of the gospel of black humanity.