"If this society ascribes roles to Black men which they are not allowed to fulfill, is it Black women who must bend and alter our lives to compensate, or is it society that needs changing? And why should Black men accept these roles as correct ones, or anything other than a narcotic promise encouraging acceptance of other facets of their own oppression?" - Audre Lorde, "Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface"
This is part of an ongoing series on Kendrick Lamar's album To Pimp A Butterfly (Part 1; on Track 8 "Alright", available here). This post covers Tracks 1-3 ("Wesley's Theory", "For Free?", and "King Kunta") as well as the opening monologue to Track 4 ("Institutionalized").
Loving this album is complicated.
The beginning 3-and-a-third tracks are a minefield. The song's inaugural track "Wesley's Theory"begins with a sample that repeats the refrain "Every nigger is a star". So much for easing into things. K Dot develops an extended metaphor that figures the manifold of temptations that have plagued his rise to stardom in the form of a woman. These temptations take various forms. In its first verse, a young Kendrick daydreams about what it will be like when he gets signed to a major label, imagining that the wealth that will come with this deal will enable him to allow him to fulfill hypermasculine standards of success: he imagines "snatching" a "blue-eyed"(racialized-as-white) secretary "for the homies", and buying M16's from the CIA to pass out to the hood. The following interlude begins with a woman berating Kendrick for not providing her with enough money to get a new outfit and Brazilian hair (putatively for a weave - unlike the secretary in "Wesley's Theory", the woman in this track seems meant to be racialized-as-Black). Kendrick, unappreciative of this pressure, responds with a spoken word poem of dizzying complexity, centering around the refrain "this dick ain't free". Armed with the psychological armor of this (particularly gendered) understanding of his worth, Kendrick declares himself "King Kunta" in the equivalently titled third track.
So, that's a lot. But despite the appearances here, I suspect these tracks show Kendrick at his very most thoughtful. Selma James' piece "sex, race, and class" may be something of a companion here. James argues that the overlapping categories of Black and feminist political movements should not be understood as alternatives to class struggle, but as forms thereof. This is because where people take themselves and are taken to fit in the social superstructures of race and sex informs how people seek to and are allowed to develop their capacities - capacities which are differentially financially compensated, which both reflects and helps to comprise the racial and sexual systems of oppression.
One result is that we come to believe complement of skills and priorities that result are the associated identity group's "nature", which will affect the "quality of our mutual relations". For example, an observation that Blacks in the United States are statistically overrepresented in the elite groups of various forms of entertainment might owe itself to the contingent historical fact that this sector of the economy one of their few available routes to economic mobility, yet cement itself in the public consciousness as Black people being "naturally" athletic or soulful. This materializes in the kind of interactions Kanye West recounts in New Slaves, ("what you want, a Bentley, fur coat, a diamond chain? / All you Blacks want all the same things") - even those Blacks who defy the expectation of their cannot escape assignment to the Black, typically degrading schedule of expectations concerning how they are thought to perform in situations given their socioeconomic status, gender, or other relevant dimensions of identity.
The first tracks of To Pimp a Butterfly seems focused on the epistemological consequences of this kind of social arrangement. While James and Ye were primarily concerned with how marginalized groups are perceived, K Dot focuses on how he is doing the perceiving. Specifically, he is concerned here with both aspirational and evaluative affects of occupying a socially marginalized perspective, particularly with how these affect the imagination - what constitutes success, what is deserving of respect, and what is required for self-respect all crucially involve imaginatively projecting one's self into different situations, and dragging these semi-mutable pieces of conceptual baggage along for the ride.
The evaluative affects take center stage in "For Free". Kendrick defends himself to the woman accusing him of being an "off brand ass nigga" (for not buying several things) by taking stock of his place in the economic order of things. His spoken word poem notes the cruel interplay between economic marginalization and the cultivation of self respect within a materialist culture, particularly one with the US' racial history: "Livin in captivity raised my cap salary / Celery, telling me green is all I need / Evidently all I seen was spam and raw sardines."
This is experienced by Kendrick within the context of gendered expectations for the kind of man he takes himself to be (heterosexual, cis): "I mean, baby, you really think we can make a baby named Mercedes / without a Mercedes Benz and twenty four inch rims...Hell fuckin naw, this dick ain't free". At the end, the woman in the poem is revealed to be a representation of the United States: "Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton that made you rich / Now my dick ain't free", casting the poem as a whole as a structural critique - though the use of a Black woman's voice to accomplish this critique seems like a misstep in this context, especially given the above epigraph from Audre Lorde. However, the force of the point is still made: in adopting an evaluative perspective towards his goals and responsibilities, Kendrick here rejects any version of his attempting to fulfill either that doesn't involve him (and his peoples?) striving for material wealth, as he feels he is owed, from his particular class/social position.
But the poem's gendered dimensions seem neither incidental nor a mere device, as Kendrick's aspirational commentary reveals. In Track 3, Kendrick's crowning of himself as "King Kunta" too is cast in gendered, masculinist terms, as a"Black man taking no losses". This song features the version of himself he aspires to reach, despite a world organized against this possibility. The hook claims "everybody wanna cut the legs off him" (in Roots, Kunta Kinte's punishment for attempting to escape slavery was the severing of his right foot, an outcome he chose over the second option of castration) . This imagined version of himself commands and demands respect and validation, and the importance of material wealth turns out to be instrumental or otherwise secondary to this goal: "And if I gotta brown nose for some gold / then I'd rather be a bum than a mothafuckin baller". While the preceding track shows a keen awareness of the ways in which the standards by which he is negatively evaluated are structured by social forces, this track on the surface seems to accept them as rules of the game to which he goes about imagine winning.
The tension here is immediately addressed, but not resolved. The song ends abruptly with the first line of a poem that props up periodically throughout the album (also, notably, in the video for "Alright"): "I remember you was conflicted / Misusing your influence". This introduces the introductory sequence for Track 4, "Institutionalized", a sequence foreshadowed by the concluding verse of Track 1: ""And when you hit the White House, do you / But remember, you ain't pass economics in school"
Kendrick acknowledges here the surmountable but hefty limits on his aspirational thinking: despite a financial success that would allow him to physically take up residence about anywhere, he's still "trapped in the ghetto" and "could still kill me a nigga, so what?" If he were to imagine himself in the most socially powerful position that he could think of, what can he imagin that he'd do? Anna Wise and Bilal sing: "I'd pay my mama's rent / Free my homies and them / Bulletproof my Chevy doors / Lay in the White House and get high, Lord" - the fundamental problems against which his manhood was challenged and defined in Tracks 2 and 3 now figure in as possible limits to the imagination - not because there is any "natural" sense in which these are the imaginative limits of Kendrick's formidable intelligence, but because, as Selma James notes, the specific capacities for which which his intelligence had been honed were so intimately tied to those structurally imposed features of his life.
The introduction to "Institutionalized" concludes: "Master, take the chains off me!"