“Like books and black lives, albums still matter.” – Prince, 2015 Grammy Awards
I’ve been so busy lately that I feel like one of my favorite events has sneaked up on me out of nowhere. I’m just now realizing that the Grammy Awards are only a week away. The GRAMMYs are a time for music lovers like myself to come together and celebrate the “best” in music for the year. I put best in quotations because oftentimes, these past few years especially, it seems as if the GRAMMYs haven’t always awarded the right acts. Rather it be nomination snubs or winner upsets, here are some of the most surprising outcomes over the past few years:
- Esperanza Spalding beating Justin Bieber and Drake for Best New Artist (2011)
- Beck beating Beyonce for Album of the Year (2015)
- Arcade Fire beating Lady Gaga, Eminem, and Katy Perry for Album of the Year (2011)
- Kanye West not receiving an Album of the Year nomination for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2012)
- And wait, hold up (I’m doing my research as I type this, by the way)…Fetty Wap didn’t get a nomination for Best New Artist this year? Come on, son! (and I’m being completely serious, too. Mr. Wap had three top 10 singles and his impact on pop culture is undeniable. How many 10-year-old white kids have you witnessed singing “Trap Queen?” I rest my case) (2015)
Another surprising Grammy upset happened in 2014, when Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ The Heist beat Kendrick Lamar’s (the man of the hour for this post) good kid, m.A.A.d city for Best Rap Album. The results sent social media into an uproar and ended with Macklemore sending Kendrick an apology text for winning, one in which he felt the need to share publicly through his Instagram account for some reason. Spare me! (I have special feelings about Macklemore, but won’t get into them here).
Did Kendrick losing and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis winning change our opinions of good kid, m.A.A.d city, though? No. If you ask any hip-hop fan right now to choose between the two, I’m more than sure GKMC would win by a landslide. I think Wendy Williams explains the award system best. She always uses Tom Cruise as an example. Does he have an Oscar? No. Do we care? No, because we all know he’s still a great actor. The same can be applied to the GRAMMYs. No matter who takes that little gramophone statue home, the art that made the biggest impression on your soul is the only one that will matter years down the line. Exhilarating isn’t it? Music, its power!
But while I am on team “arts over awards,” my heart just might break if one category doesn’t go my way this year. I’m talking about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly winning Album of the Year.
My sister got me a poster of this album cover for Christmas. Remind me to get a frame for it!
Along with Drake and J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar is undoubtedly one of the leaders of new school hip-hop. K. Dot’s critically acclaimed third studio album has earned him 11 Grammy nominations this year, making him the most nominated artist for next week’s ceremony.
TPAB is striking for two reasons. The first is it’s sound. Musically, the album is a fusion of jazz, funk, neo-soul, and hip-hop. Think about the George Clinton-influenced sound of Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle album and times it by one hundred. It sounds like the soundtrack to a Spike Lee movie, and that’s fine with me because I live for Spike Lee and all his weirdness (*makes mental note to check out Chi-raq and also write a post about why we should boycott Tyler Perry movies*). Where was I again? Oh, yeah. In a 2016 world fully of hip-hop trap beats like “Look At My Dab” (which I admittedly turn up to with no shame) TPAB is a breath of fresh air.
The second reason TPAB is so striking is its relevancy. Released last spring, it came out just a month before Eric Harris, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray were all killed in April. Gosh, that was a rough time. And let’s not forget that it came just months after the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and countless others. The album was pretty much released in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement and couldn’t have come at a better time. With its themes of poverty, colorism, black-on-black crime (sigh), and wealth & success among many others, TPAB struck a major chord with millions of Americans at the time of its release.
*All interpretations are my own. I did not use Rap Genius*
The album kicks off with “Wesley’s Theory.” The song opens with the Boris Gardiner line “every n*gga is a star” (I’m no prude, but for the sake of keeping it classy here at Black Girls Who Use Urban Dictionary Enterprises, I’ll be censoring lyrics) and goes on to explore how black men in America often reach success and make a lot of money, but have nobody around to teach them how to manage it. The title is a reference to actor Wesley Snipes, who served a three year sentence from 2010-2013 for tax fraud. Keep in mind the line “what you want? You [want] a house or a car? Forty acres and a mule, a piano? A guitar? Anything you see my name is Uncle Sam, I’m your dog. Motherf*cker you can live at the mall. I know your kind, that’s why I’m kind” Here, Kendrick is looking into how easily the black man is awarded with riches, but questions who is going to be around to help him keep it.
“King Kunta” details how Kendrick’s friendships has been affected by him becoming a successful black man in America. Hence the oxymoron of a title. While he’s acknowledging that he’s a successful man, he still recognizes that he’s a black man, simulating himself with the character Kunta Kinte from Alex Haley’s Roots. Kendrick repeatedly talks about how he has the “yams,” which could symbolize power and status as they do in Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Falls Apart (which is one of my favorite books, by the way). Kendrick uses the lyrics, “b*tch where [was] you when I was walking? Now I run the game got the whole world talking, King Kunta, everybody wanna cut the legs off him, Kunta, black man taking no losses,” to show how the same people who weren’t interested in him when he wasn’t famous want to hold him back from success now.
“Alright” is a celebratory and hopeful anthem. “If God got us then we gone be alright,” fully sums up the message of this track. Whereas our ancestors sang spirituals while they marched, “Alright” has become a staple at Black Lives Matters protests, with “we gone be alright!” often being chanted by activists, as seen in places like Chicago and Cleveland. Kendrick, his power! Oh, yeah! Remember the Uncle Sam line from “Wesley’s Theory?” Here we see Kendrick use that same exact line, but replaces Uncle Sam with Lucy, which is short for Lucifer. This is where we see a shift in the album. Along with “U” (the track before “Alright” where Kendrick discusses his struggles with guilt and accepting himself), we begin to see Kendrick take a more introspective approach for about the next four tracks.
“For Sale? Interlude” gives us a closer view into who Lucy really is. You know the whole idea of the devil tempting you in the form of something beautiful and not in the form of something ugly like you think he’d might appear? Kendrick plays right into this idea, with “Lucy” enticing him, saying things like, “Lucy gone fill your pockets, Lucy gone move your mama out of Compton inside the gigantic mansion like I promised, Lucy just want your trust and loyalty.” “For Sale” symbolizes Kendrick’s struggles between good and evil (something we all can relate to), which have only escalated since his fame. While it’s one of the darkest songs on the album lyrically, it happens to be masked by one of the most mellow melodies out of them all. Let 3:30-4:20 bless you.
“How Much a Dollar Cost” is arguably the best song on the album. No. I’m not even willing to argue this. It’s the best song on the album. President Obama even named this his favorite song of 2015. You know what, just stop reading this and go listen to it right now. Go! If you’re still here, the song recounts a real-life run in Kendrick once had with a homeless man and follows the conflicted feelings he has after refusing to give the man a dollar once he passes him off as just another bum. My favorite thing about this song is all of its religious allegory. Lines like “Have you ever opened up Exodus 14? A humble man is all that we ever need,” and when the legendary Ron Isley sings “I wash my hands, I said my grace, what more do you want from me?,” it’s a direct correlation to Pilate in the Bible when he attempts to wash his hands clean after sentencing Jesus to death, even though he knew it wasn’t the right thing to do. This mirrors Kendrick’s conflicted feelings. Genius!!!
“Complexion (A Zulu Love)” is a gem on the album that took me awhile to appreciate. This is partly due to the fact that I’m usually so slain from “How Much a Dollar Cost” that I can’t even imagine Kendrick topping himself and have to turn the album off. Slay me, Kendrick! “Complexion” looks at how light and dark skin blacks pit themselves against each other, and how we should put an end to colorism because “complexion don’t mean a thing,” AKA “we all black, so hush!” The best line from this track is rapper Rhapsody’s line where she says, “black as brown, hazelnut, cinnamon, black tea, and it’s all beautiful to me.” It basically makes this song the black is beautiful anthem of the 21st century.
“The Blacker the Berry” is the most aggressive and racially charged song on the album. Kendrick is unapologetically black in this piece, calling the American society out for its stereotypical views and oppression of black people. Kendrick starts every verse off with “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” After a long rant of pro-black stereotypes he feels he plays into, Kendrick finishes the final verse with “so why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street when gang banging made me kill a n*gga blacker than me? Hypocrite!” Here, he’s calling himself out on an issue several blacks feel conflicted on: black-on-black crime. You know, why cry over Trayvon Martin when guys up the block are killing each other everyday? Why am I not as upset over that? That’s a different topic for a different post, though. Not tonight.
So how can an album that is so thought-provoking, musically and lyrically superior, and relevant to what’s going on in America right now not take home the award for Album of the Year?
In this category, Kendrick is up against Alabama Shakes for Sound & Color, Chris Stapleton for Traveller, Taylor Swift for 1989, and The Weeknd for Beauty Behind the Madness (which I finally decided is a great album after having to give it five listens). Out of all of these albums, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Chris Stapleton walked away with the award. I have no problem with admitting that I don’t even know who Chris Stapleton is. That’s just the thing with the GRAMMYs, though. Like the list at the top of this post, it always seems like the person you’d least expect to win, well, wins. It’s always the dark horse who comes and steals everyone’s thunder. And just because I’ve never heard of Chris Stapleton doesn’t mean his album is any less great than Kendrick’s. The same idea can be applied to all of those “upsets” on the list above. Just because something isn’t as well known as something else doesn’t diminish its greatness.
And that’s why my rule of arts over awards shall prevail. Whatever happens next Monday night, I know what To Pimp a Butterfly has done for and will continue to do for my people. We gone be alright. (And no, we will not march if Kendrick doesn’t win like some suggested on Twitter.)
The GRAMMYs air February 15 at 8PM ET/5PM on CBS.
X’s and O’s,