The newsworthy transformations wrought by Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, and Robert Mapplethorpe have been replaced by shiny ghosts. They are not news and they are not new. Some work is just more recent. The last ‘new’ thing I saw was break dancing.
— Dave Hickey
I spit on your grave then I grab my Charles Dickens.
— Method Man
SOMETIMES I IMAGINE a sort of inside joke with myself that entails remaking the famous album cover from Nas’s Hip Hop Is Dead, on which Nas is crouching over an open grave — presumably hip hop’s — and dropping a rose into it, with James Joyce instead, looking befuddled and dropping some artifact — I don’t know, a clover? — into the same pit. The premise of this joke is the much-beleaguered topic of “death” in literature; the “death,” mostly, of the novel in the mainstream, but also “deaths” of certain genres and styles in critical discourse — prophesied endpoints for tried and true types of “literary” writing, expiring in turn as if from one chain-smoked cigarette to the next. These moments of stylistic termination extend from Tom Wolfe’s decrying of postmodernism in his 1989 essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” to David Foster Wallace bemoaning the “Neiman-Marcus Nihilism” of Bret Easton Ellis and Brat Pack writing, to James Wood’s ruing the “hysterical realism” of Zadie Smith and Underworld-era DeLillo, proving that recent literary history forms a Bermuda triangle of irrelevant or nonviable forms limned by resemblance to the “realist,” the “modern,” and the “avant-garde.” Further interweavings of social activism, cultural politics, and racial or ethnic identity into literary relevance and representation, fostered in part by the rise of the MFA system and the interlinking of literary and university developments — as Mark McGurl posits in The Program Era — further unsettle and destabilize these models.
Due in part to this tumult over aesthetic categories, and the division of preferable categories for identity writing and social activism, a specific fictional genre arising at the intersection of ethnic identity-driven realism and postmodernism-driven avant-garde aesthetics has all but disappeared from our modern age: the black postmodern novel, and specifically, the “encyclopedic” black postmodern novel — the latter formed by theories of the time-spanning “mega-novel” often-including Moby-Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Infinite Jest. The exemplar of the genre is Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, published in 1972 — a literary time capsule of dialogues, languages, dialects, magic, and media. However, the absence of similar models since Mumbo Jumbo’s publication — except for the “ethnicized” science fiction epic, à la Samuel Delany, or neo-comic book/fantasy work of code-switching and hybridized language, à la Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao — has been marked, until the arrival of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly — the fully realized apotheosis of a new kind of postmodern rap “mega” or “concept” album. Not only does the album fulfill many specific qualities of postmodernism, and postmodernism specifically shaped by black experience, but also does so within a form traditionally consigned to canonical, usually white, “masters” like Melville and Pynchon.
To better understand the significance of this exceptional model, it is helpful to unpack McGurl’s concept of university and MFA influence on postwar fiction. McGurl defines three significant categories born of and tied to this system: “technomodernism,” “high cultural pluralism,” and “lower-middle-class modernism.” The former two are of most concern, which McGurl discusses as reformations of the more recognizable forms of “postmodernism” (here allied with its driving force of information technology) and “multiculturalism” (here stripped of its connotative baggage from the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 90s). Both are inextricably defined by their proximity to the university: “technomodernism” is allied with scientific advancements in “the modern Cold War laboratory” on-campus, “high cultural pluralism” reflects the specialization and subdivision occurring within the humanistic disciplines, namely “the emergence of Ethnic and Women’s and Cultural Studies, and, within English departments […] the demarcated study of alternative literary canons.”
The distinction between “technomodernism” and “high cultural pluralism” — an essential one in explaining the relative paucity of texts that blend both — can best be understood as a split between high-postmodernism and ethnic realism. While McGurl believes this split simplistic, and perhaps slightly misleading, the popular conception, and relative lack of exceptions to the trends (McGurl remarks on Ishmael Reed as someone epitomizing both “blackness” and the “postmodern,” yet Reed is more aberration than convention) makes the popular conception worthwhile to explore as a general model. (McGurl further blurs the distinction between the two forms by their shared reflexivity, or what he calls their “autopoetics,” noting that “high cultural pluralism” is reflexive in its self-aware performance of racial identity, and hence effects a modernist aesthetic in its “reflexive realism,” while technomodernism’s reflexivity is employed in its substituted “technicity,” or knowledge of a specialized scientific field.)
So why the reticence to blend the two styles, generalized by McGurl as the postmodern and the ethnic realist? Or, more specifically, how does one account for the scarcity of black, archly postmodern novels in the decades following Mumbo Jumbo? The editors of Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology cite the feeling of lost identity-buttressing stability and self-definition felt by African-American critics when African-American writing is joined with the slippery, relativistic aesthetics of postmodernism. This hesitance is primarily sourced in postmodernism’s critique of “essentialist” notions of identity, based in nature, and its proposition of “identity” as a “linguistic” and “cultural” construct. The editors note in the introduction that,
While many African-American critics recognize that this shift [from essentialist identity to culturally constructed identity] opens up new possibilities for comprehending and combating racist ideologies […] they also recognize that this new conception of identity might work against their attempts to define and validate the specificity of African-American identity, which has been denied for hundreds of years.
Bell hooks reaffirms this hesitance to abandon specific, concretized “identity” for postmodernism’s murky cultural constructions, writing in “Postmodern Blackness” that “it never surprises me when black folks respond to the critique of essentialism, especially when it denies the validity of identity politics, by saying, ‘Yeah, it’s easy to give up identity, when you got one.’” Further, Cornel West lays out the obstacles of postmodernism’s “Eurocentric[ity]” and ties to modernism and Euro-American academia, hence the difficulty in allowing real “change in how cultural power is distributed.”
Productive exchanges across this fractious divide are still possible, however; see, for example, the “opening out of history” found in Beloved’s reenvisioned slave narrative, and conceptions of “intertextuality” undergirding the rap-fiction of Ricardo Cortez Cruz. However, arguably the most effective and exceptional collision of postmodernism and black identity occurs in Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, a singular bloom of the two convergent influences. The novel is an assemblage of conflicting media — images, infographics, hand-written letters, and “official” text all intersect. The language is inflected by the unpredictable mutations of avant-jazz, alive with a crackling incorporation of real and imagined African-American slang. Voodoo is adopted as a parallel religious and epistemological system. Dialects both “low” and “high” commingle at all levels. In a sense, Mumbo lies at the intersection of McGurl’s Venn diagram of “technomodernism” and “high cultural pluralism,” playing within the complex historical language, codes, and backgrounds of African-American art, language, and culture in the same style Pynchon does with missile technology or thermodynamics. This is the mantle Lamar will take up, fusing McGurl’s camps to weave uncertainty into new aesthetics of street philosophy and malleable models of identity, calling for the action and self-determination of listeners to fill in what is left deliberately absent or ambiguous.
However, both Reed and Pynchon — and, as I will argue, Lamar — offer a very specific kind of “complicated” postmodern novel: what Edward Mendelson called the “encyclopedic” novel. Called alternately a “systems” novel, a “modern epic,” or at times a “maximalist” novel, the “encyclopedic” novel contains in its expanse a multiplicity of languages, literary styles, and knowledge fields — a telling and almost archeological slice of the artistic and cultural temperament of one’s nation or national culture. While Mendelson leans on the monumental and once-in-a-lifetime qualities of the “encyclopedic” novel, thinking of them almost as intellectual arks, there is a softer, less exceptional version of the genre allowing looser catalogs of styles and knowledges. Postmodernism is also invoked in the “encyclopedic” model; Mendelson cites the inclusion of styles ranging from the “anonymous levels of proverb-lore to the most esoteric heights of euphuism,” or a juxtaposition of the demotic with the affectedly “high” literary. There are cracks formed by such drastic compaction and mass containment, as Franco Moretti notes in his conception of the “modern epic,” which he claims are inherent failures, such as they are caught between the “totalizing will of the epic and the subdivided reality of the modern world.” In essence, Moretti points to the postmodern fissures erupting when an epic enclosure struggles to contain all aspects of a “subdivided” world or atomized culture.
Discussion of the “modern epic” will inevitably conjure Joyce’s Ulysses — the modernist epic par excellence. And, in a way, Lamar’s first major “concept” album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city — subtitled “a short film” — resembles Ulysses in its airtight organizational method, broad, overarching conceit, and even the mixture of mythological struggles occurring on a prosaic, small-city scale during an Aristotelian slice of time. As Steve Marsh reported in his GQ piece on Lamar and good kid, “The album—about a day in the life of nerdy Compton teenager K.Dot and his homeys as they run around in his mom’s minivan chasing ‘that crazy-ass girl Sherane’—is practically a black Ulysses: a portrait of the rapper as a young man.” Just as Ulysses chronicles the day-long perambulations of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, the latter arrested in a state of artistic stasis and the former delaying an eventual confrontation with his adulterous wife, good kid’s “concept” status is hinged on the protagonist Kendrick, wandering in his minivan, coming to terms with his own moral, musical, and sexual development. There are also the “mythological” elements good kid shares and traffics in: the recurrent invocation of a last-ditch conversion (see Stephen’s lapsed Catholicism and the born-again prayer opening track one on good kid), the self-conscious prophesying of one’s own artistic fulfillment (see Stephen’s “Parable of the Plums,” and Kendrick’s “Backseat Freestyle”) and the pursuit of a woman we see from various, fractured angles (Molly Bloom and Sherane). There is also the sheer productivity of a “genius” in his or her “matchless” period, as Faulkner’s 1929–1942 stretch spanning The Sound and the Fury to Go Down, Moses was called. Complex reported that good kid was culled from 60–70 songs (one of which was cast off as a hit for A$AP Rocky: “Fuckin’ Problems”); as of late 2014, To Pimp had amassed 30–40 new songs. The performance of the beautifully rendered “Untitled” on The Colbert Report, then lost to the ether, is proof that such “extras” are no mixtape filler.
The initial movement from modern to postmodern is signaled by To Pimp’s title. Taken in full, the title was originally intended to contain a secret acronym. As Lamar revealed in an MTV interview, the working title at one point was Tu Pimp a Caterpillar, spelling out Tu.P.A.C., or Tupac, the ghostly — one might even say Hamlet’s ghost-like — presence that haunts the album and is resurrected in its final track “Mortal Man.” The decay of the title from this original, hermetic presence or ideology — Tupac’s — diverges from Joyce’s near-exact matching of his Ulysses to Homer’s Odyssey. Instead, we are left with a cryptic and polyvalent phrase that might not have an ultimate interpretation. Lamar explicitly declared in a 2015 Rolling Stone interview that his intent was to make a title “that will be a phrase forever. It’ll be taught in college courses — I truly believe that,” already anticipating a Joycean industry of explication around his work. He elaborates on the phrase further to MTV, saying, “I just really wanted to show the brightness of life and the word ‘pimp’ has so much aggression, and that represents several things. For me, it represents using my celebrity for good. Another reason is, not being pimped by the industry through my celebrity.” The evocative ambiguity of the phrase is also suggested by Anwen Crawford in The New Yorker’s attempted summation as “a collision of the beautiful and the mercenary […] to offer the innermost self—in the classical tradition, Psyche, the soul, was often pictured as a butterfly — up for sale […] to extract profit from struggle.” Simple parable of “good kid” versus “mad city” this is not. Instead, in true postmodern form, the album opens up such phrases and symbols for cycling, near-endless, interpretation.
Central to Lamar’s embracing of fragmentary and cryptic symbols is the poem broken up throughout the album. “I remember you was conflicted / Misusing your influence / Sometimes I did the same,” he begins, describing a nervous breakdown where a “deep depression” led to “screaming in the hotel room,” which ends with a uncertain call to action — this “micro” poem-narrative, however, is distributed to the degree that the first few lines’ appearances seem one-off, improvised thoughts. Slippery symbols of tarnished royalty also bubble up throughout the album. “King Kunta” makes a complex elevation of the enslaved protagonist of Alex Haley’s Roots, Kunta Kinte, as well as offers a previously buried term for royal power in Lamar’s resurrected term “negus,” delivered in a fake-live performance of the single “I.” The term is a clever re-melding of the “infamous, sensitive N-word” that “control[s] us” to a different “n-word,” that of “N-E-G-U-S,” or “Negus,” a “black emperor, king, ruler” that “the history books overlook” and “hide.” The mysterious “yams” shows up on “Kunta” as well, describing, according to crowd-sourced annotations on Genius.com, the smell of yams perceived by the unnamed narrator in Ellison’s Invisible Man walking down the street; the annotations also suggest a reference to yams signifying wealth in the Ibo society of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Yet, at the point the yams reference seems a simple and one-track polemic against the drug of power, the reference to male genitalia is made evident — “the yam brought it out of Richard Pryor / Manipulated Bill Clinton with desires” — dissolving again into ambiguity. Symbols and icons aren’t didactic in To Pimp, but rather part of a rich tapestry of referents intentionally held back from one-dimensional meaning.
Part of To Pimp’s alliance with books like Mumbo Jumbo, and specifically encyclopedic postmodern novels, is its “epic” structure, which Mendelson describes as the foundation of “encyclopedic” works. In order to best elucidate To Pimp’s “epic” structure — and I mean epic here in the same sense as the Odyssey and other “epic” literary classics — it bears looking closely at the To Pimp song “Momma.”
The song begins, like many classic epics, with a list — normally a seemingly endless accounting of the persons, materials, or devices of war prefacing the central conflict, such as the catalogue of ships in the Iliad. Lamar begins “Momma” with the repetition of “I know,” again elongating the diverse catalogue of his knowledge while situating himself as guru, or all-knowing narrator. He raps, “I know street shit, I know shit that’s conscious / I know everything.” The list and its implied deep comprehension is overturned by the sudden introduction of “Until I realized I didn’t know shit / The day I came home,” at which point the song revisits another quality of the epic — the invocation of the muse. The muse in this case is a young child, that “resembled [his] features,” acting as the conscience of the song, a proxy of Lamar’s younger self, saying “if you pick destiny over rest in peace then be an advocate / Tell your homies especially to come back home.” The valiant aftermath that would usually arise from the call to arms — Lamar here both the inspired transcriber of tales and the central, Achilles-like hero — is twisted, however, by a new amphetamine beat set in conflict with Lamar’s meditation on what he is, in fact, seeking. “I thought I found you, back in the ghetto / When I was seventeen with the .38 Special / Maybe you’re in a dollar bill, maybe you’re not real.” Not only are his teenage criminal activities second-guessed, but so too is his current fame — he’s caught in the middle, an uncertain and uncomfortable hero.
The exceptional status of To Pimp is precisely in these postmodern turns toward uncertainty; the second most predominantly “postmodern” signal, however, is the classic mixture of “high” and “low” subject matter. This juxtaposition is likely most evident in abutted lyrics like “Pity the fool that made the pretty in you prosper / Titty juice and pussy lips kept me obnoxious,” moving from consonance-rich aphorism to pornographic frankness. As seen in the awareness of the “obnoxious[ness]” in that line, raw and often sexual straightforwardness is usually wielded by Lamar with a deft turn of the self-conscious — indeed, the line is part of a larger figurative concept about America as a titillating vixen, drugging “people less fortunate” with lower desires. As seen here, a larger product of Lamar’s method, and what makes his lyricism “new” in an Ezra Pound, make-it-new sense, is his elevation of street language to the level of dense, assonant poetry or deceptively simple philosophical motto. This includes, for instance, highlighting the common wisdom of folk sayings, like “shit don’t change until you get up and wash yo’ ass,” in the same way that T.S. Eliot co-opts the pub-closing mantra “IT’S TIME” for a more epochal, apocalyptic resonance in The Waste Land. See also the expansion philosophically on Jay Z’s famous “brushing” his shoulders off in asking “what brush do you bend when dusting your shoulders from being offended?” — or, as one might ask, what’s the aftereffect of living under persecution and offense beyond one’s temporary imperturbable coolness? The malleability between rap and street slang and expansive socio-political critique — long overlooked in rap due to lingering biases in academia, literary study, and mainstream media coverage — is also examined; see, for instance, the movement from personal pact, to seeming sexual entendre, to broader critique of state authority in the following: “Make it they promise to fuck with you / No condom, they fuck with you / Obama say, ‘What it do?’” The poetic complexity of his pronunciation is also what distinctly calls for a literary lens, as evinced in a song like “Momma.” The first line opens with stressed pronunciation yielding a set of inverted dactyls (“This feel-lin’ is un-matched”), with the second line repeating this reverse dactylic meter (“This feel-lin’”), then briefly suspending the line with double iambs (“is brought to you”), before returning with an artificially elongated dactyl set (“by a-dren–a-line and good rap”). The trapeze-like slacking of the line only to tighten the stresses immediately following reiterate the performative joy of the lyrical content — we hear cadences strung out and refolded like taffy. And again, Lamar is aware of his subject matter, and his perceived status, daring someone to question his virtuosity of cadence based on its subject matter: “Remember scribblin’ scratchin’ diligent sentences backward […] isn’t it lovely how menaces turned attraction?”
Aside from this elevation of denigrated “street” language, the postmodern mixture of high-low afoot in To Pimp is evident in its mixture of lyrical structures and pop cultural references. In terms of sampling, the movement from free jazz, to sampling Boris Gardiner’s title song from the Blaxploitation film Every Nigger Is a Star, to Sufjan Stevens’s The Age of Adz, reveals a range of cultural touchstones, from pulp-exploitative to middle-class precious, to say the least. Likewise, pseudo-naïve moments of Lou Reed-ish phrasing like “She just want to close her eyes and sway / With you, with you, with you” or the home-prayer-like structures of “Homie you fucked up / But if God got us / Then we gon’ be alright,” appear alongside signature sprees of rapid-fire delivery. Perhaps most emblematic of this high-low entwinement is the album cover itself: a group of Compton locals holding up rubber-band-bound stacks of money, drinking 40s, and celebrating in front of the White House. “I’mma put the Compton swap meet by the White House,” as Lamar says in the album.
An element of this sonic imbrication of influences is a self-conscious adaptation of musical genre — most overtly “jazz” (and to a lesser degree, funk), akin to Mumbo Jumbo’s original experiments with jazz improvisation. In Lamar’s employment of heavy-hitting contemporary jazz musicians like Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Thundercat, and painting with bursts of unwieldy noise in between and beneath structured vocal lines, we are returned to an early experiment: that of spoken word over jazz pioneered by The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, and extended in more free-jazz form by poet-poets like Amiri Baraka. Flying Lotus, the grand-nephew of John and Alice Coltrane, also supplies production on the album, providing a genealogical link to the era Lamar now taps. Spin reports that To Pimp follows the news that “jazz has become the lowest-selling music genre” — an art at a high point of canonicity and low point of commercial viability, now raised into visibility by the less canonical but commercially viable form of rap. The hand-picked, self-conscious inclusion of other canonical, West Coast rappers likewise gestures toward Lamar’s anxiety of influence — a phone call from Dre, a quick chorus from Snoop. One thinks of Kanye’s jewel box of an album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and tracks like “So Appalled,” with just enough RZA, a choice verse by Jay Z, and interjection of Kanye’s GOOD Music signee Pusha T to blend influences old and new.
To return to the model of the explicitly “encyclopedic,” Mendelson’s proviso about containing “the whole social and linguistic range of his nation” presents an interesting question in sonic form: how to create the multiple mouths from which to speak these perspectives of “social” range? The answer is actually much simpler than one would think: Lamar’s means of creating entire personas and vantage points using different shades of his polymorphous voice, much remarked on in reviews already. He adopts the harsh-toned voice of accusation in “U,” personifying his own guilt at abandoning his community and friends left behind: “Little brother, you promised you’d watch him before they shot him.” He speaks from the tragic, child-like rhythmic assent of gang-bangers mixing schoolyard taunts with incitements to gang warfare: “Oh yeah? Puto want to scrabble with mi barrio? / Oh yeah?” The frayed and raw conflict over dealing with institutionally fostered aggression arises in “The Blacker the Berry,” with a barked, raspy voice accusing that “sometimes I get off watchin’ you die in vain […] But homie, you made me.” The spirits of capital, and that of mesmerizing record producers and agents, speaks on “Wesley’s Theory,” through mock-euphoric, ping-ponging rhymes, trying to get Lamar to “buy a brand new Caddy on fours” and put “platinum on everything.” Each perspective comes with its own articulation, its tendencies, jargon, and actual vocal profile.
Yet, the full “encyclopedic” vision of the album is enabled by the complex creation of microcosmic narrative realities for individual “characters”; Mendelson alludes to a similar “extensive use of synecdoche” (or part standing in for whole) in relation to incomprehensibly large knowledge fields, but this quality is also adaptable, in a more metonymy-leaning sense, to charged, symbolic conceits. These embedded nests of metaphor approach the long-form, “metaphysical” conceits of poets like John Donne. Like Donne’s “The Flea,” in which a speaker’s sexual entreaty is mirrored by a flea sucking blood from the two partners, Lamar’s “These Walls” proceeds by pivoting movements between the “walls” of a sexual partner’s vagina, to the “walls” of Compton, to the concrete “walls” of an imprisoned man. Irony is built in, obviously — Lamar describes the woman’s genitalia like a color-schemed apartment, “interior pink, color coordinated” — yet the transition in the second verse forms a moment of explicit sexuality to Lamar’s estrangement from himself, and the woman in question, is subtle and twisting: “I don’t know how long I can wait in these walls / I’ve been on these streets too long / Looking at you from the outside in.” He is both safely ensconced in sexual reprieve while simultaneously watching himself voyeuristically from the outside, wandering the Compton streets in Siberia-like isolation. This estrangement is articulated and projected onto a third party in the third verse — a party we learn is actually the woman from the first verse’s former partner, and, coincidentally, the murderer of one of Lamar’s friends as described on good kid. Lamar’s quick and almost undetectable transportation to this third locale is reinforced in his mocking projecting of the “these walls” trope to the man now imprisoned by prison walls: “if your walls could talk, they’d tell you it’s too late.” Retroactively we realize the only reason Lamar is with the woman is so this man “can hurt / [Thinking] about me and her in the shower whenever she horny.” A romantic, feel-good ode to uninhibited sexuality peels back to reveal the actual motivation: revenge.
A more complex adjustment of perspective takes place in Lamar’s articulation of the phantom force/personage “Lucy” — a postmodern garbling of the desired figure of Sherane in good kid. Crawford in The New Yorker notes that though “Lucy” is addressed like a real person — “I said ‘where’s Ricardo?’ / You said ‘Oh no, not the show’” — it is possibly a “wordplay on ‘lucre,’ or slang for ‘Lucifer,’ or both.” Dan Weiss in Spin notes that there is a troubling or trite parallel of personifying Lucifer as Lucy or “likening fame to a first girlfriend he ‘just wants to fuck,’” but “Lucy” quickly dissipates more broadly into a branching, unconscious symbol of death caused by complacency, celebrity, and the intoxicating appeal of power. She is one of the women that Kanye maligns on Big Sean’s “All Your Fault” as having “diamonds in they coochie,” only here the admixture is literal. Lamar outlines the combined allure and deadly result of “Lucy,” saying “You said Sherane ain’t got nothing on Lucy / I said you crazy / Roses are red violets are blue but me and you both pushing up daisies if I (want you).” Any link to an actual partner is dissolved by promises that “Lucy gone fill your pockets / Lucy gone move your mama out of Compton.”
Uncontrollable desire as a propulsive force becomes paramount, and sexuality as a way to understand forces of economic gain and power is intrinsic to To Pimp’s central motifs. According to Mendelson, unsatisfied sexual yearning undergirds the mission of the “encyclopedic” narrative:
None of their narratives culminates in a completed relation of sexual love […] encyclopedic narratives find it exceptionally difficult to integrate their women characters at any level more quotidian or human than the levels of archetype and myth. These are imperial works, and they assert the claims of a grander imperium than love or the family.
Indeed, Lamar sees straight through “Lucy” to the “grander imperium” of desires she represents — namely, the skeleton key of capital and recognition; the real-life personage of Sherane is left behind in a world less postmodern. Sexuality in To Pimp intriguingly often takes the forms of discussions over capital, often misconstrued — perhaps in the way Jay Z’s 100th problem was seen as a problem of women, and not canines — as just libidinal bragging. The first track of the album, “Wesley’s Theory,” begins “At first I did love you / But now I just wanna fuck.” This would seem crass, if it didn’t then unfold as an allegory of how one’s original love of art — in Wesley Snipes’s case, acting — devolves into a hunger for acquisitions, for new “gators” and “Cuban link[s],” in which artistic desire is reified — what was like love in its abstract passion has become the empty “fucking” of material objects and emotionless acquisition. In the next song, “For Free? (Interlude),” a woman berates Lamar for his inability to provide for her, and his insufficient status as a “boss,” yet, as Lamar alludes to in lines like “I need forty acres and a mule / Not a forty ounce and a pitbull,” the woman is potentially America desiring either his “contribution” or supremacy within a narrow, controlled furrow of “success.” His rejoinder, “This dick ain’t free,” suggests that neither is his labor, or participation.
Lamar’s multivalent metaphors and penchant for morally ambiguous scenarios allow him to employ a postmodern relativity in teasing out the difficulty of his own desires, and moral codes, granted by success. A telling example is the song “How Much a Dollar Cost,” which, if you aren’t paying close attention, you might miss is a parable about giving God, incarnate as an addict, money for crack. Lamar narrates what initially seems a more or less straightforward anecdote about his own perceived selfishness with regard to a troubled and substance-addicted homeless man. He describes how in South Africa, “A homeless man with a semi-tan complexion / Asked me for ten rand [South African currency], stressin’ about dry land / Deep water, powder blue skies that crack open / A piece of crack that he wanted, I knew he was smokin’.” Yet, the man is quickly revealed to be God, reproaching Lamar for his selfishness and frugality. However, it becomes unclear whether “God” is actually Lamar misperceiving a mortal homeless man, or if the God aspect is correct, or — far more troubling — if God is indeed a crack head. What would one’s moral code compel one to do in that circumstance? Is Lamar’s reticence fueled by a new stinginess, or theoretical wish to not enable a crack addict? This kind of dark parable, in this case reiterated in its religiosity by the pseudo-church house clapping of the drum beats in the background, is elemental to Lamar’s purpose in raising questions and disassembling easy solutions while pointing again toward postmodern uncertainty: what to do in a circumstance with no perceivable, single “good choice”? Lamar’s embracing of this question actually unveils the deeper principles of his album: an overall relativity of being, and the projection of complex moral questions onto the listener as a means of activation — providing the tools, and authentic fragments of experience, for a listener to then assume unto themselves, choosing their own path forward.
As seen by the ambiguous framing in “How Much a Dollar Cost,” Lamar achieves this relativity by consciously occluding seemingly integral pieces of information or injecting contradiction at the heart of usually ironclad allegories. In this fashion, he is reminiscent of another recent pioneer of a new type of moral, yet also morally ambiguous, writing: David Foster Wallace. In Wallace’s decidedly encyclopedic Infinite Jest, key moments of epiphany are consciously excluded: the novel opens with one of two protagonists overtaken by a near-autistic state of either revelation or shell-shock, and closes with the second protagonist in a drugged dream state, either on the verge of sober epiphany or a renewed addiction. Likewise, Lamar pulls his punches before reaching a conclusive explanation. This withholding informs his sense of an all-loving, all-spanning definition of identity, excluded from yet tightly hemmed in by race and complexion, which is above all individual. The paean to self-love “I,” marked by the refrain “I love myself / Illuminated by the hand of God,” is balanced by the self-accusing and pained “The Blacker the Berry,” reflecting that “why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?” He is “dark as the midnight hour” yet “bright as the mornin’ sun.” Narratively, this ambiguity is encapsulated by his makeshift interview with Tupac in the final song, “Mortal Man.” Created through production ingenuity, and hence “fake” in the first place, Lamar’s attempt to solicit a direction, or concrete advice, from Tupac is cut short. After the prophesies from Tupac, including a “ground” of poor people swallowing up the rich who have become enervated by their own satiety, he suggests we’re now heading toward something like an apocalyptic race war — “Nat Turner, 1831, up in this mutherfucka.” Lamar tries to draw a more complex path to self-reinvention that is ultimately left unanswered as the conjured Tupac dissipates, like his Coachella hologram, before resolution can occur. The listener is left as the final arbiter of what the path forward might be, the “Tu” of the album’s original title — as in “Et Tu, Brutus?” — pointing outward, laying the blueprint of one artist’s experience yet leaving the final point of activation and realization on the one-who-listens.
The final keystone to the album’s aesthetic ambiguity is Lamar’s parable about the caterpillar and the butterfly, offered in “Mortal Man” as a finely teased puzzle of symbiotic interaction between abject circumstance and self-renewal. The caterpillar is a product of its environment, namely “the streets” that both “conceived” and “[im]prison[ed]” it. The caterpillar envies the butterfly as a symbol of the “talent, the thoughtfulness,” and the “beauty” of the caterpillar made manifest — presumably referring to the philosophical and artistic forms taken as extract from the caterpillar’s struggle and survival — yet still sees it as weak. Paradoxically, the brutality of the city and the caterpillar’s insulation against it is the very factor that creates a chrysalis and hence produces potential butterfly-like qualities — Lamar is well aware of the grinding processes that produce the tales of poverty and woe that can then be wrangled, made crystallized and concrete, in Grammy-winning, butterfly-filigreed prose. The butterfly is the idealized version of the caterpillar, yet it is also the societally acceptable version, the “world[’s]” version, and compromised by this “play nice,” easily-captured form. Rather than divorce the two, Lamar proposes to “pimp” the butterfly, or bend a societal perception, to the caterpillar’s, or institutionalized individual’s, own needs, using the polished prose to shed “light on situations” and end his own “internal struggle.” Both elements are necessary, as they are part of Lamar’s postmodern mosaic, half holy epic, half street-wise braggadocio. Such a process of reconciliation, brought on by the caterpillar’s independent realization of “going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city,” is what he likewise wants to push onto the listener. Lamar wants to create a tapestry of mythical self-struggle and Dickensian blight that, with the right angle of perception, will seem to lift its participants off the walls and into three-dimensionality, free now to adapt the rude materials of their own origin and, with art, tame them with the delicacy of a lightly harnessed butterfly.