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To Pimp the Black Woman: On Kendrick Lamar's Limited Black Liberation

05/04/2015 12:18 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

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Credit: EyesOnFire89/Flickr

If music is the product of its original environment, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar has become the quintessential arbiter of this notion. Through his storytelling abilities and lyrical prowess, his latest release, To Pimp a Butterfly, seeks to elucidate the current state of black consciousness and liberation in his most combative effort to date.

The album has instantly become a classic in hip-hop circles, but has also -- on a larger scale -- become a portrait of race dynamics in a post-Ferguson America. Compared to D'Angelo's Black Messiah, which was seen as a necessary therapeutic response to the overarching discussion of police brutality and anti-blackness, Lamar's Butterfly takes a more aggressive stance -- baring visceral angst, discontent and a call for deeper consideration.

Lamar is clear in his position -- both of his own accord, and through factors out of his control -- as a black man who has "made it" in America. He discusses being a pawn for white capitalism and his desire to see more opportunity and growth for the entire black community, however, for all of his racial "consciousness," there seems to be little room in his conversation for where black women (and other black bodies) stand.

The first major tell of his brand of black liberation was the album artwork. It's striking, for sure: A group of black men (ostensibly from "The Hood") in front of the White House hovering over a fallen white politician -- no doubt Republican. There's even a little girl who appears to be white in Lamar's arms, which seems to play on the long-standing idea of black men being a threat to white women. Perhaps it goes further to suggest that black men already covet the white woman, a la Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. But what's most striking is the lack of black women in the image. It visually suggests that Lamar's view of black liberation stops at black men acquiring power  -- or at least that he thinks once black men are free then everyone else will be.

Lyrically, the album prompts very little discussion of black women, but the sole major inclusion is a misguided use of one in the "For Free" interlude. In the jazz-laden track, the woman represents the pressures and expectations that white America places on the black man. It's an ill-favored conflation of the relationship between black men and black women, and the relationship between black men and the ills of white supremacy and capitalism -- suggesting that in America, black men suffer an oppression that black women routinely serve to augment. This choice would have been better executed had Lamar personified his issues with an actual white man to portray what it seems he was truly trying to say. It serves as an "artistic deployment" (or pimping) of the image of the black woman to do his bidding, to present his need to resist being used by White America.

Further, this antagonist serves as a caricature of black women and plays on tropes of the "gold digger" conflated with the "Sapphire" and the "Strong Independent Black Woman." She's presented as an exacerbation of Lamar's problems, as if black women do not deal with their own struggles at the hands of White America and capitalism. (Part of that struggle being the attempt to exist outside of these stereotypes.)

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The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden (1509-1510), Michelangelo Buonarroti

Stripped of the racial context, this character ultimately hearkens to "the woman as temptation." Think the biblical Eve, even Lilith. It speaks to the underlying misogyny that many marginalized men (black, gay, etc.) feel they can skate past because of their minority status. No doubt many black men deal with the expectations of taking care of the women they may be dating and having to work harder than other men -- mainly white men -- to be half as successful and valued, but for an album that is being touted as a great reflection of racial oppression it does so at the expense of black women.

I must admit that my bias against the hyper-masculinity displayed throughout the album threw me off at points -- not unlike the hyper-masculinity that categorically finds a place within hip-hop and the black community on a larger scale. Often the mindset is that because black men have been historically emasculated -- through castration of their bodies, limitation of power and the dismissal of their worth -- that any criticism only eclipses the "real" struggle.

There is no denying this emasculation (and adherence to an inherently misogynistic system) is why rappers often refer to themselves as wielding power through the metaphorical use of their genitals. In the "For Free?" interlude, Lamar repeats through a rapid-fire explanation of his anger at white, capitalist America and the black woman, "This dick ain't free." This serves as subversion --  a penetration and domination of White America, the antagonist. But this unwieldy concept spills over into the consciousness of black men, one that often covets the position of white men without grasping for respect and power on behalf of black women, as well.

To feminize the negative or to negate the feminine serves nothing new or revolutionary to hip-hop or art in general. The woman as muse concept has been used to portray womanhood and femininity as properties that must be organized and made sense of through the lenses and voices of men. Hip-hop, both as an artistic genre and a historic outlet for the black experience, is no different.

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