I don’t care what happens on that Grammy stage in February: Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” is album of the year, no matter who gets the gold trophy.
In Grammy nominations announced Monday, the rapper leads the pack with 11. Even Taylor Swift, who is also nominated in that top category and favored to win, loves the Compton lyricist.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” is just as important to music this year as “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is to the literary world. While the country was festering with violence, brutality and injustice, Kendrick was writing lyrics to reflect it. He was going deep into himself and sharing how it feels to escape the streets of Compton, Calif., gain fame and still face the hardships of the world.
Materialism, colorism, inequality — they’re all in the lyrics. He cries, he raps, he sings, he triumphs. He is the caterpillar and the butterfly. And he is unapologetically black. From “Complexion (A Zulu Love”):
Black as brown, hazelnut, cinnamon, black tea. And it’s all beautiful to me. Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens. We all on the same team, blues and pirus, no colors ain’t a thing.
If Taylor wins album of the year over Kendrick, it would be like Coates’ National Book Award going to a coloring book.
When the Charleston Church Massacre shook our souls in June, only Kendrick could comfort me. I put on my headphones and blasted his “i,” singing:
I love myself. The world is a ghetto with big guns and picket signs. I love myself. But it can do what it want whenever it want, I don’t mind. He said I gotta get up, life is more than suicide. I love myself. One day at a time, sun gone shine.
Is there a place for dance-happy music, heartbreak anthems and you-go-girl lyrics set to one sick beat? Hell yeah. I shamelessly scream these songs at the top of my lungs in my Volkswagen Beetle with the windows down. I love dancing with my niece to Taylor’s “Shake It Off.” We can lose ourselves in pop music’s fun sing-along moments.
But “To Pimp a Butterfly” is a social masterpiece, solace in the storm, an uprising booming through my system. It’s music that makes a difference.
When Kendrick released the album earlier this year, who was more excited than me? Taylor Swift. She even invited him to appear in her star-studded “Bad Blood” video and rap on the remix; the two were both nominated for best pop duo/group performance for the song.
That’s the thing about Kendrick. He’s your favorite artist’s favorite artist. He will not be boxed in to rapper stereotypes, West Coast gangsta cliches or the need to simply fit in. Kendrick released one of the most important and blackest albums of this generation and turned around and rocked one of the most bubblegum pop star’s video and remix. That’s the beauty of hip-hop. It defies the rules, crosses all genres and, even when it’s written from one perspective, it appeals to all.
But the Grammys have been known to get it wrong, especially in hip-hop.
Kendrick’s 2012 album “good kid, m.A.A.d city” was a critical darling. It was “Boyz N the Hood” on record. But Macklemore took home the Grammy rap album of the year. And he felt guilty about it. He texted Kendrick, snapped a photo of that text and posted it to Instagram. Since then, he’s used that moment to as a platform to talk white privilege.
Kendrick Lamar is hip-hop at its finest: a sampling of sounds, brazenly capturing the times and emotions of a people. His accomplishment is nothing to shake off. I’m not looking for the gold gramophone to validate Kendrick. Because with or without it, King Kendrick is taking no losses. Fly, black butterfly, fly.