The world wasn’t ready for To Pimp A Butterfly. Hell, Kendrick Lamar wasn’t even ready. An accidental iTunes leak brought the release of the Compton rapper’s third full-length forward by a week, and its psuedo-surprise drop was swiftly followed by a string of poorly written first-listen reviews.
I get it: knee-jerk reactions fuel online traffic. Satisfying the demands of digital journalism (speed and shareability) with those of reviewing (quality and consideration) is something that I continue to find challenging. But there’s an even bigger problem surrounding the way in which the record was received. The only thing worse than a first-listen review is a review from a position of privilege and, in the case of A Butterfly, many have been both.
Such reviews see critics visibly stumbling over Lamar’s subject matter – reaching for the right words but ultimately failing, settling for empty descriptors like ‘heavy’ and ‘experimental’ – and for good reason. A Butterfly, besides being a brilliant album, is above all else a black album, and a trip to Rap Genius doesn’t make you any more or less qualified to critique it. (I will say that YouTuber Anthony Fantano, aka theneedledrop, makes a valiant effort).
If I, a white suburban male, felt emotionally exhausted after A Butterfly‘s hour and 19 minute minutes, I can’t begin to imagine how the listening process affected its target audience. Where I see a bedroom in These Walls, others will see a prison cell; when I feel sympathy for Lamar’s racialised self-hatred in The Blacker the Berry, others will feel empathy. Sure, I can appreciate the level of artistry at work here, but to claim that I truly understand the motivations and context behind an album so informed by its own blackness is both naïve and problematic.
It makes me think back to 2014, when the majority of mainstream reviews for Perfume Genius’s fiercely queer third album Too Bright were written by straight, cis-gendered critics. As a gay man I felt cheated: yes, they’ve read up on gay panic and teen suicide, but do they really know? Granted, most reviews were kind, but nevertheless the act of art criticism had become an arena for subtle sexual politics. Substitute ‘sexual’ for ‘racial’ and you have the same issues at work with A Butterfly.
“I’m not talking to people from the suburbs,” said Lamar in a recent interview with Joe Coscarelli of the New York Times, “I’m talking as somebody who’s been snatched out of cars and had rifles pointed at me.” Strong words indeed, especially given the commercial success he enjoyed with good kid, m.A.A.d city, but he has a point. A Butterfly‘s staunch sense of otherness is necessary simply because we don’t see enough of it.
As such, Kendrick Lamar doesn’t speak for me, and that’s okay. I can be a fan, I can be a listener, but in this instance what I can’t be is a reviewer.