DAMN., Goddamn.

At some point I need to admit to myself that there are so many articles about music I can get published before people start getting annoyed at me. I’m no music critic; I’m not even an upstart music industry/related field major – I’m just an upstart politics student whose entire conception of life is framed by art.

Within 12 hours of To Pimp a Butterfly being released, I had the skeleton of an article ready. Who didn’t? There was so much to analyze, so much to deconstruct, so much to contextualize. With Kendrick Lamar’s latest release, DAMN., it’s different. It’s the kind of album you mull over for hours, listening and re-listening – and that’s not to say TPAB wasn’t that way. I still realize new things about it every time I do a full-album re-listen. But with DAMN., I don’t even know where to begin.

Actually, I do: we’ve been blessed.

Kendrick Lamar is the kind of artist who has every right to disappear after one album, let alone after (give or take – but, well, mostly give) four absolutely stellar pieces of art. He could have been a one-hit wonder and we still wouldn’t have been worthy. And that’s not out of some weird celebrity-worship; he is the absolute cream of the introspective-music crop. With each album, we are given a window into the mind of an artist, watching an author write their treatise, their magnum opus right in front of us.

Every time I go to a museum, I try to stop by the conservation galleries so I can catch a glimpse of conservators working on restoring art. I have yet to be successful in catching a restoration in progress. Still, I like to read every thing; I like to look at the tools, touch all the interactive aspects of the exhibit, try to envision what it must be like to be a conservator entrusted with handling – fixing – works of art. What an absolute honor – and what an honor to be able to witness that, right?

With DAMN., I feel like I’ve finally been able to catch a conservator in action. Hell, I feel like I’m watching Langston Hughes whisper the words of a nascent poem aloud to himself to see if it sounds right. And maybe that’s dramatic, but as a poet that uses her medium to strip herself completely raw, regarding DAMN. is both somber and exhilarating. But what is it about DAMN. that makes it the prime artistry that it is?

It was hard to anticipate how Kendrick would follow up TPAB, an album so intensely political that it leaves you feeling exhausted when you’re done with it; an album so intensely political that one of its singles became the anthem for an entire anti-oppression movement. That was the power of TPAB. But DAMN. didn’t need to be a manifesto – frankly, it didn’t need to be anything. But what it became was the breathless musing of a man coming down from a protest high: slumping down into your favorite couch, the feeling of taking your shoes off after a long day, the – well – depression and malaise after you’ve emptied every reserve of your adrenaline.

Introspection. That’s what follows. As a friend noted, DAMN. is a return to Section.80, a contemplation of self, and the role of self. Kendrick positioned himself to be a messiah of sorts in To Pimp a Butterfly, but in the life of every prophet, there is a moment of doubt; a falter, a question of “Is god actually there? Do I matter? Will anyone ever stand with me?”

We caught glimpses of that in TPAB, and certainly in good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but DAMN. tackles these questions in renderings not unlike “u” or “Swimming Pools” – especially the latter with its misleadingly party-friendly vibe. I firmly believe that if you go into a Kendrick Lamar song without heavily considering that he might be talking to himself, about himself, then you have no business having an opinion about his music. Damning (hah)? Sure. But this is a rapper that means so much in today’s politically charged climate that to access him is a privilege, and we at least owe him, and ourselves, the ability to understand where he’s coming from.

“Ain’t nobody praying for me,” he declares repeatedly, and the bravado gives way to anxiety as a motif throughout the album. Kendrick Lamar has struggled with depression throughout his life, not unlike Chance the Rapper, and both young stars have been extremely public with this fact, using music as a conduit for introspection and even extrospection. The songs in this album are so raw, pained, desperately hopeful and desperately despondent at the same time. He tries to hold the world accountable, but invariably turns back at least some accountability onto himself. There are specific times in the album (the bridge in ELEMENT., the entirety of FEEL. – especially 2:50 – the intro to PRIDE., the tail-end of FEAR.) where I want to drop every thing and cry because it hits home so hard that I need it to bruise, to be sore, so that it can linger and I can remember how I felt when I first listened to DAMN. for the rest of my life.

For an otherwise not very good class, I read literary giant Chinua Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah. I had read Things Fall Apart quite a few years ago, so I knew the kind of author Achebe was and I was rightfully excited about this one. It was situated in a much more contemporary context, and unfortunately, the novel ages pretty damn well. For the corresponding essay, we had to pick our favorite passage, and mine was the following:

“Do I contradict myself?” asked Walt Whitman. “Very well, I contradict myself,” he sang defiantly. “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Every artist contains multitudes. Graham Greene is a Roman Catholic, a partisan of Rome, if you like. Why then does he write so compulsively about bad, doubtful and doubting priests? Because a genuine artist, no matter what he says he believes, must feel in his blood the ultimate enmity between art and orthodoxy […] Those who would see no blot of villainy in the beloved oppressed nor grant the faintest glimmer of humanity to the hated oppressor are partisans, patriots and party-liners.

Every artist contains multitudes. It felt incredibly timely that right after reading this novel, DAMNdropped in all of its glory, in all of its contradictions: in all of its multitudes. Kendrick Lamar is that partisan of Rome; he is that genuine artist; he is myriad and beyond. I aim to memorize that quote so I can remember the lesson inherent in it: not only is to err to be human, but to contradict oneself is to be human; to be multitudinous is to be human. What other species could carry such capacity for horror, and such unmatched capacity for beauty?

Blessed.

And maybe that’s a funny thing to say when Kendrick Lamar struggles with the concept of being blessed, or not, but regardless of whether he feels like he is god-sent, god-sped, he is for me.

There are not enough words in the world to discuss all the facets of this album that I want to. I have a feeling I will be coming back to this a lot.

Until then – I’m waiting for Sunday.

From K-Dot to Kunta: the New Fate of Kendrick Lamar

First published in the Northeastern University Political Review

Photo by John Francis Peters for the New York Times

Compton, California has birthed its fair share of artists who have gone on to make a mark in the rap and hip hop industry, but it’s Dr. Dre’s protege, Kendrick Lamar who has taken the industry by storm. Formerly known as K-Dot,  the rapper’s Section.80, and good kid, m.A.A.d city have all been critically acclaimed. good kid, M.A.A.d city was dubbed an instant classic by many, and the album went platinum. According fellow singer-songwriter and producer Erykah Badu, good kid is, “…an album that not only tells a compelling story, but a near-definitive one of a specific time and place, offering a window on the varying complexities of turn-of-the-century Compton.”[1] An important observation; like most rappers, Lamar waxes lyrical about his upbringing, his hometown – struggling Compton – and his desire to,  in the words of the character playing his mother at a skit at the end of “Real,” “Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton.” These words, taking into consideration the current context of race relations in the United States, are extremely powerful.

That brings us to his most recent release To Pimp a Butterfly, an intentional reference to To Kill a Mockingbird – appropriate, given the racially-charged content of the album. The anticipation was cultivated almost tenderly, with singles dropped periodically and the release date left unannounced until three weeks before the official launch date – March 23rd. The first single released off the album was “i,” divisive in that it deviates from the dark, cinematic undertones of Lamar’s usual fare. The single is inundated with confidence and optimism, self-love that can only be forged in the smithy of racial empowerment. Undeniably funky, it foreshadowed the jazziness that plays Atlas to Kendrick Lamar’s world in Butterfly. The second single off the album was a divergence from the uplifting message of the first, a track called “The Blacker the Berry” presumably in response to the controversial Azealia Banks’ criticism over Lamar’s comments regarding Ferguson.[2] Addressing the looting and violent rioting that some protesters following the grand jury decision were accused of, Lamar emphasized the importance of black self-respect: “[change] don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.”[3]

“The Blacker the Berry” is scathing, and Lamar is as accusatory of America’s institutionalized racism as he is of himself, spitting, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” and weaving the theme of hypocrisy throughout the song. He explores his identity as a black man, struggling with the label of African-American, his African heritage, speaking to the “institutionalized manipulations and lies” perpetuated by the system, demanding the listener admit, “You hate me, don’t you? You hate my people […]” Anti-black slurs ricochet: “I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.” At the very end of the song, he turns the mirror back towards himself, recalling his own history of gang violence – almost lambasting himself. “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gangbanging made me kill a ni**a blacker than me? Hypocrite!”

The explosive last line is unapologetically difficult to swallow, and Lamar has no intention of making Butterfly easy to swallow. Layers upon layers of historically black musicality in every song; a cacophony, if not for the masterful way in which brass, wind and bass weave together.

The third single released, “King Kunta,” was quickly overshadowed by the arrival of something far bigger than it: the album itself. Accidentally released March 15 on iTunes, it was fully released on March 16th, taking many fans by surprise and setting a Spotify record with 9.6 million streams in a day.[4] Right off the bat, with “Wesley’s Theory,” you are taken on a ride akin to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne: a celebration of black excellence, as Jay-Z would put it, “opulence, decadence.” A critic called Butterfly “[…] black insomuch as the album is a cosmic slop of nearly every musical movement that we Negroes have founded on this continent.”[5] The album opens with a sample of “Every Ni**er is a Star” by Boris Gardiner, and features George Clinton of the Parliaments, an avowed inspiration.[6] “King Kunta” is deceptively evocative beneath unabashed rhythm – Kendrick Lamar often refers to himself as “King Kendrick” but in this subversion he relates to Kunta Kinte, a Gambian slave who had the front part of his foot cut off as punishment for trying to escape slavery in the burgeoning United States. The next few tracks follow with similar funkadelic allusions to the race conversation that will proliferate the latter part of the album; but the arrival of “u” radically changes everything and jolts a new perspective into “i.” The outro to “These Walls” preludes “u,” with a spoken word piece by Lamar that transitions one song into the next throughout the album:

I remember you was conflicted

Misusing your influence

Sometimes I did the same

Abusing my power full of resentment

Resentment that turned into a deep depression

Found myself screaming in a hotel room…

“u,” appropriately, begins with Lamar screaming and repeating “Loving you is complicated” ten times in a frantic voice. “Complicated—” an Atlantic piece submits, “not impossible, not difficult, but complicated. Everything in Lamar’s world is complicated, probably because everything in the real world is.”[7] He stumbles through the song, crying, drinking, eviscerating himself with cruelty: he wasn’t there for his sister, he wasn’t there for his city, he wasn’t even there for his friend Chad while he died in a hospital bed save for a Facetime call.[8] The last lines in the song are jarring: “And if I told your secrets/The world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness” and lead into the cautiously optimistic “Alright” with Kendrick singing against a broken, brassy backdrop, “I’m f*cked up/homie, you f*cked up/but if God got us/then we gon’ be alright.”

Not enough can be said about the juxtaposition of “u” against “i,” but it is necessary to know that these existential questions are a pivotal part of the black experience. Kanye West explored these questions in Yeezus, and Watch the Throne is a twelve-song testament; Frank Ocean alludes to it in “Swim Good” (referenced by Kendrick in “These Walls”), Janelle Monae actively preaches against it in The Electric Lady.[9] Even the September-released “i” receives a facelift inButterfly. It gets stripped down to seem like it’s being performed live, but retains its optimism until a fight breaks out in the crowd. Kendrick stops immediately, exclaiming “Not on my time – not on my time!” and demands of the crowd, “How many ni**as we done lost, bro, this year alone?” He continues, trying to silence the arguing and instill a sense of camaraderie amongst them with an a capella verse and a lesson in linguistics: “N-E-G-U-S, definition: Royalty; King Royalty.” Instead of the “n” word – the turn of tongue that has damned so many black people to slavery, and that renders many, like Oprah who condemns the use of the “n” word, uncomfortable – he encourages the use of this word of black excellence, validating Oprah and offering an olive branch in the form of a word that only has empowering connotations.[10]

“Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive.”

There is no way to dissect, discuss and lampshade every single track on this album under a word limit. But the last track of the album demands a paragraph of its own.

Tupac “2Pac” Shakur is regarded by many as being the most influential rapper of all time; Lamar has repeatedly mentioned 2Pac as one of his greatest influences, and it stands to reason.[11] 2Pac’s legacy is controversial but it is undeniable. His music is influenced by his family’s Black Panther notoriety, including his step-aunt Assata Shakur, the first woman to be added to the FBI’s most wanted list.[12] “Mortal Man” is to this album what “Real” was for good kid: putting lessons learnt throughout the album into perspective, to realize oneself in the grand scheme of things. Kendrick Lamar asks of the listener, “When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” citing all the ways in which he could get in trouble over the course of his lifetime: being framed for crimes he did not commit, arrested on exaggerated charges to fit the agenda of institutionalized racism. Not unlikely scenarios given the backdrop of continued, arguably escalated, police brutality against black people and people of color. He invokes the legacy of Nelson Mandela, a man jailed for more than two decades for his commitment against apartheid – it’s not just homage, it is a statement of intent, a promise to fight the good fight, working for justice and peace. It is a bold promise, and one that he obviously wants to be held to. But it is the outro of the song that leaves the most lasting impression. He starts reciting the poem that has laced one song to another in its totality. Blackness must unite to prevail; blackness must forget the colors of gangs; blackness must forgive itself and reject the evils of “Lucy” – Lucifer, who has haunted Kendrick through his career. “If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us/But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another ni**a.”

Paper crumples, and you can almost visualize Lamar looking up with an almost sheepish look on his face, “Sh*t and that’s all I wrote.” The outro quickly establishes itself as a conversation between two people: Kendrick Lamar and his idol, Tupac Shakur. The late Shakur’s words are taken from his 1994 interview with a Swedish radio station, but it doesn’t seem like a conversation with a ghost. He may as well have been talking to Dr. Dre with the familiarity and slight awe that is in Lamar’s voice.[13] They contemplate poverty, impending revolution, the future of black youth: and isn’t it natural for a 27 year-old black man against the background of Ferguson, “I Can’t Breathe,” and #BlackLivesMatter to be asking such questions of his idol? Butterfly is an album for disenfranchised youth of color struggling to find a voice in a society that purports to be post-racial and is anything but.

Perhaps Kendrick Lamar is a butterfly, and his discography is his evolution. Section.80 wove together a setting for the story of Kendrick’s Compton; good kid, m.A.A.d city was a memoir, one teeming with his experience of racism and exploring vice along the way; but To Pimp a Butterfly is bigger than Compton: it’s America. It’s Kendrick Lamar exploring his role as a black man with a voice that is becoming increasingly influential; it is the narrative of a man terrified and insecure of the temptation that surrounds him in his new-found fame, and – and perhaps most importantly – it is the manifesto of an apostle. In his words, Lamar is doing “god’s work” on earth; how timely, this album, given what is essentially the reinvocation of the civil rights movement.[14] If to To Pimp a Butterfly is a “75-minute story of “survivor’s guilt” that finds some sort of resolution at the end, the question must be begged: what is next for Kendrick Lamar?[15] Activism has always manifested itself through multiple mediums and Lamar joins the ever-increasing number of black artists that have anointed themselves activists. Will he work through musicianship? Or will he step out from behind the curtain of artistry and take the helm of the resurging civil rights movement? Continue reading

BREAKING: Masses take to streets as distraught world struggles to come to terms with self

LONDON – The recent departure of Zayn Malik from the world-renowned boy band One Direction has left swaths of people – adolescent girls and grown men alike – distraught and confused. News that One Direction will continue as a 4-piece band has done little to alleviate the worries and concerns weighing down these bereft masses, who have taken to the streets in their wild rage.

Burnt and bloody copies of Seventeen Magazine were strewn across the asphalt. Most reporters who tried to approach the throng of protesters rioting and looting were found either absconding from the scene out of fear for their lives or abandoning recorder and mic and being absorbed into the howling crowd as their inner “Directioners” came out in a furious tempest. The few individuals who were able to collect themselves enough to respond were all clutching posters of Malik circa 2012 – notably clean-shaven and short-haired.

“I just- I don’t understand. We love him,” said one individual who wished to be identified only as ZaynLuvr97. “Wasn’t that enough?”

Shortly after giving us the quote, ZaynLuvr97 ripped a pink extension from where it was attached to her bangs and threw it into a gutter before rejoining the protest.

“All this is beyond me. He was such a handsome boy,” said Tasneem Begum, 43. A mother of 3, including a 21-year-old daughter, she immigrated to the United Kingdom while she was pregnant with her oldest. “My daughter, you know, she is a premed student. Very intelligent. Her face is a little full, only, and she has gotten a little darker recently, but very pretty. I was hoping to contact Zayn-beta’s esteemed mother for a rishta, but I’m not sure if that’s appropriate right now.”

As the press left the scene, Tasneem Begum was wondering whether a basket of laddoos and other confectionery would be a good way to send her condolences to the family, along with a picture of her daughter. The throng only thickened as time went on. As schools across the world get out, the protests are expected to become a global movement. #AlwaysInOurHeartsZaynMalik is the number one Worldwide trend on Twitter, followed by #GodIsntReal.

At press time, reporters were trying to figure out what to do with what seemed to be a husk of a 20-year-old woman who had aimlessly wandered into the office in, quote, “pursuit of some kind of meaning to life.”


My sincere condolences to any Directioners out there. And best of luck to Zayn bhai, you’re gonna kill it. Future Timbastan fo sho.

disclaimer: this is satirical etc etc

Album review: Some Nights by fun.

Let’s face it, all I do on this blog is either gush or rant but this, this post is going to be the epitome of gushing on my side.

I was first bullied into listening to fun. by a bunch of my friends in the summer of 2010. It was their debut album, Aim and Ignite and in a nutshell, it was probably the only thing that helped me cope with an unbearably tumultuous and stomach-crushingly tense summer. Hell, between Ra Ra Riot and fun. my summer vacation actually remained a summer vacation. I am emotionally attached to fun.

So when Some Nights came out, I was really, really excited. I loved We Are Young and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the rest of the album. The excitement waned when I actually listened to it the first time around; I didn’t really give them a chance, I was so enamored with the style of Aim and Ignite that the sudden barrage of auto-tune at the end of Some Nights made me cringe. I couldn’t listen to more than one song and about…15 seconds of another. I was sorely disappointed.

I went back to it a day later. And I listened to Why Am I The One. And then I listened to Carry On. And I kept listening the album the next day, and then the day after, and now I can’t stop.

The album is about the different faces a person takes on through the course of a night and while, at first, I didn’t really see it, it hit me. The melody in each song is not stationary, each song goes through the stages of the night and leaves you wanting more. Nate’s voice is perfect for the sound of the album and, contrary to what I’ve heard, the auto-tune is most DEFINITELY not to cover up the flaws in his voice of which there are none but it is to enhance the artistic feel of the album. And, ladies and gentlemen, THIS is how you use auto-tune. I look forward to each auto-tune moment in the song, with my favorite towards the end half of Stars, where Nate’s voice is just this thrilled and yet anguished scream, pleading desperation, and the auto-tune provides a drunken gargle that just sends goosebumps all over my body. Haven’t we all had that moment of desperation, where we’re just inwardly BEGGING someone, anyone, to save us contrary to our self-sufficient exterior. And then the moments of uplifting marching band melodies, as in the beginning of One Foot, that is both angry and triumphant and each song has such a cacophony of emotions that play side by side that you, as a consumer of music, are left utterly overwhelmed and yet satisfied.

You miss your parents. Independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You miss your parents and you need your friends, you need someone to carry you home. Ruined dates and opportunities, seeing someone you’ve loved and lost across the bar from you and wanting to talk, but things interrupt every attempt to do so, and people keep trying to save you from the fires of hell and making you atone for your sins but it gets better, even when you’re all alone, it’s all alright, because Janelle Monae is a damn good singer and she’ll hold onto all the stars when you’re just trying to carry on.

The album is, in its entirety, everything everyone has felt at night. It’s something to relate to. It’s sheer genius. Also, it’s got Janelle Monae in it.

Don’t judge the album on your first listen. Listen once. Listen again. If you loved Aim and Ignite and hate Some Nights, believe you me, it’s going to hit you like a sledgehammer at some point and then you will NOT be able to stop.

Now click the picture below and go listen.

Piracy and the apple store

Let’s be honest: how many of us people living in Dubai actually buy overpriced CDs from Virgin Megastore? Frankly, it’s difficult. Dubai itself is a very expensive city but actually buying media is well beyond what anyone can afford. Dhs320 for a newly released CD? You might as well go attend the concert in that money.

Which is, in fact, what most people do. Concerts in Dubai have an INCREDIBLE turn out, but piracy is rampant. And the record labels certainly don’t seem to be hurting very much, nor do the big popstars whose CDs go neglected. I mean, you take one look at the amount of seating and how you can buy a ticket that can go up to Dhs1000 for a seat that’s slightly elevated from the rest and you start smelling something fishy.

But that’s just Dubai. Everything is expensive here.

So you can either shell out a lot of money, download illegally, buy bootlegged CDs from that one person who frequents your apartment building, or go to the appstore where things are pretty inexpensive in comparison!

Unless you live outside of the USA, in which case, you’re confined to the three initial options because, hey, guess what? You can’t buy a $10 album unless your apple account is registered in America!

You know what sucks even more? If the album you’re trying to buy is an indie album.

And as far as I’ve seen, Virgin doesn’t exactly stock indie rock albums.

And if it did?

I sincerely doubt I’d be able to afford it.

So you know what? Instead of being able to support artists I would really, really like to support, I’ve been forced to enjoy their music by “illegally” downloading it because very few people would want to wait three weeks for their CDs to arrive via Amazon and, hey, I’m one of them.

Thanks for that, music industry! Not only are you unaffordable, but you have pretty much stripped the entertainment industry of its raison d’être and, simultaneously, limited what little meaning it has left to a singular country (and Canada/some European countries in some cases).

Kudos to y’all. Doing a great job.