I guess the last thing you might expect me to be listening to is Kendrick Lamar, yet here I am. I was listening to Astral Weeks, as usual for this kind of disaffected day, whilst reading Lester Bang’s equally inspired piece on Van Morrison’s greatest work. Like Lester I get drawn back to it, something in it’s off the cuff stream of consciousness jive talk and the soaring melodies, rhapsodies in G, D and C, the occasional minor chord thrown in, Van’s capo just moving up and down the neck of his guitar: the music both integral and superfluous. Thing is, I needed to listen to something new, something a bit more hopeful, something else with that stream, that rap, that flow.
Enter To Pimp a Butterfly. The melodies both integral and superfluous, changing gear from the intimidating, biggest cock in the farmyard, strutting his stuff of the opener, Wesley’s Theory in which he confidently asserts his rap credentials; to the vulnerable, delicate, beautiful Momma where he defines his humility, his humanity, his knowledge of what matters and what does not, the refrain of “We’ll be waiting for you” both a threat and a promise.
I found myself searching for my copy of the collected works of T. S. Elliot. The Wasteland and quickly found what I was looking for, that opening stanza, so simple yet profound:
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
The most beautiful lilies grow in the deepest mud, as a friend recently reminded me, and Kendrick proceeded to prove as “These Walls” sprung into life, the opening moans either a little death, the orgasmic le petit mort, or groans of pain bringing new life into the Wastelands of the streets. It is perpetual winter here even in the midst of summer, life is fed here with little sustenance for the soul or body. The dried tubers yet forcing up gold from the parched landscape, the harshness of growing and living and surviving on the streets. Kendrick is writing his own Wasteland, his own manifesto of the sheer unfairness, the bleakness, the futility of life after life, yet clawing his way to a plateau, a safe conclusion, an assertion of his own worth and that of the community around him.
Knock these walls down, that’s my religion
Walls feeling like they ready to close in
I suffocate, then catch my second wind
I resonate in these walls
I don’t know how long I can wait in these walls
I’ve been on the streets too long
Looking at you from the outside in
They sing the same old song
The walls which contain us all are universal in their presence, yet so much higher, so much tougher, so much more containing, so unfairly for some of us. As Kendrick reminds us “the evil’s of Lucy was all around us” and in these post Trump days, it is all so much more in focus, the racially divided danger of society has grown up as a weed, suffocating our black brothers and sisters. As white as I am, and as desperate as times are for me and my mixed race part Asian son, I know my walls are so much easier to climb than those of my black sisters in similar desperate circumstances. I see it. I see it in the shelter I live in, I see it play out around me on the streets. I see it and stand there uselessly wondering how I might help to smash those walls down, to offer a hand, a comfort, a hope of a hope that is not false or built on denial and come up with nothing I fear that is of much use at all.
Since moving here to SF, I have met more people than I ever thought I would, that have been shot on the streets of the Bay Area. Leg-shot. Gut-shot. Laughing, conflicted, surviving but barely thriving. That YOWL of death and birth and what comes in the moments between, is mirrored in the following track U. It flows on, a continuum, a river, a city main drag in the middle of night, jazz Devil’s horn, coming on like some old school fusion. I love these streets and fear them too, but yes, Kendrick, loving here is sure complicated. Unlike loving Kendrick’s vision: that much is easy.
The second part of this couplet of songs, the stunning U, in it’s desperate shattered voice pleading for mercy, for understanding, the jagged edges of his drunken desperate brutally honest self doubt hauling the listener over the coals, a long drunken phonecall to the world, leaving you pleading, but Kendrick doesn’t leave you waiting on relief. “I fucked up, homie, you fucked up…we gonna be alright.” He doesn’t leave you waiting for this comfort, pulling you into the epic Alright which runs on as soon as he puts down the phone on U. The final stanza of Kendrick’s journey through the wasteland of the streets and self doubt, and the guns and the sex and the loss and the deprivation and the fears and the lack of possibilities that he refused to accept and so carved himself a space, a creative canvas for his own success.
My son looked at me. He told me. “ma…we gonna be alright.” And that is the genius of Kendrick, he doesn’t just tell you it is going to be alright, you would dismiss him as having not suffered with you, of not being down there in the gutter, of not understanding or struggling. What does it mean when someone who hasn’t been down on in the bottom of the pit of despair and hopelessness, tells you that it is going to be ok? How do they know! They ain’t never been there! Except Kendrick has just proven his credentials, he’s let you into the big secret, it was not always alright for him either, yet, here he is, singing the song, preaching the news, telling you, that everything is going to be ok in the end, that there is the rainbow! The jazz riff of For Sale blinking into the sun and the heat of a new day, making platinum and gold from the discarded junk food wrappers, broken needles, piles of shit, and locked away bottles of shampoo in the local Safeway.
This album is as beautiful as it can be, anything else would be gilding the lily.