Sunday, May 03, 2015

Kendrick Lamar, Part I

"To me, the album is perfect for right now.  If the world was happy, we'd give you a happy album.  But right now, we are not happy."

- Mark "Sounwave" Spears, producer, To Pimp a Butterfly

"What I admire most and enjoy most about this album is that it addresses African-Americans straight up and leaves the rest of the hip-hop audience to listen in if it wants. It’s a strong, brave, effective bid to reinstate hip-hop as black America’s CNN — more as op-ed than front page, but in the Age of Twitter that’s the hole that needs filling."

- Robert Christgau, review of To Pimp a Butterfly

You bought it?


I was going to give you notes and stuff to prepare your elder white self.

- Text exchange with Son #2, April 30

Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly is an epic work of such depth and complexity that in this piece I'm going to tackle only one song on an album that is 78 minutes in length.

Being a 55-year old "elder white self," it's safe to say that I'm not the target audience for this album.  Also, I've never been a "lyrics first" guy, and in rap, well...lyrics are sort of the point.  When I listen to an album like this it takes me a while to absorb the songs, although on one like "The Blacker the Berry," it's not all that difficult to get the point.

Understandably, it's that song that has drawn the most attention, but today I want to focus on "How Much a Dollar Cost," which I've had on continuous loop in my head for the past four days.  Even before I was entirely certain of what Lamar was saying in the song, the music drew me in.  Finding words to do it justice are difficult.  "Ominous" comes to mind, but also "stately," "compelling" and ultimately "thrilling."  Hearing it for the first time (during my commute into work, and I immediately proceeded to listen to it four consecutive times), I felt the thrill that comes with hearing a song you suspect on first listen will become an enduring classic.  That doesn't happen too often, and when it does it's with a song like "Gimmie Shelter," "Every Breath You Take" or "Rolling in the Deep."  That's the kind of power the song held, which was only strengthened when I - with the help of - began to hear and understand what the song was all about.

The song begins with the narrator, who has just "parked his luxury car," encountering a homeless man on the streets of South Africa, who asks him for ten rand (roughly, $1).  The assumption in the first verse is that the dollar will go towards crack:

Contributin' money for his pipe, I couldn't see it
He said, "My son, temptation is one thing that I've defeated
Listen to me I want a single bill from you 
Nothin' less, nothin' more"
I told him I ain't havin' it and closed my door
Tell me how much a dollar cost

In the second verse, the man won't stand down, and the narrator feels a growing sense of frustration:

I never understood someone beggin' for goods
Askin' for handouts, takin' it if they could
And this particular person just had it down pat
Starin' at me for the longest until he finally asked
Have you ever opened up Exodus 14?
A humble man is all that we ever need
Tell me how much a dollar cost

Near the end of the first two verses, you begin to hear a voice, almost hiding in the background, with what can almost describe as a plaintive moan.  On my first few listens I didn't even notice it, but once I did I couldn't get it out of my head - haunting may be the best way to describe it.

In the final verse, the narrator questions himself but then increases the intensity of his attacks on the man, until the dramatic and unexpected climax:

The jig is up, I seen you from a mile away losin' focus
And I'm insensitive, and I lack empathy
He looked at me and said "Your potential is bittersweet"
I looked at him and said "Every nickel is mines to keep"
He looked at me and said, "Know the truth, it'll set you free
You're lookin' at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power
The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit
The nerve of Nazareth, and I'll tell you how much a dollar cost
The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss, I am God"

And at this moment, Kendrick hands the song to Ronald Isley, who sings a beautiful plea for forgiveness that ends with these words:

Shades of grey will never change if I condone
Turn this page, help me change, so right my wrongs

Powerful doesn't do the song justice, and this is just one of many great (if complex, and sometimes hard to hear) moments on the record. No doubt, To Pimp a Butterfly is an album of great depth, one that both speaks to the times and reacts to them.

 "How Much a Dollar Cost":

No comments: