Kendrick Lamar performs liveBatiste Safont

To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s exquisitely dark third album, has been archived at Harvard Library. A staunch political statement tinged with Colemanesque free jazz, the record is supremely funky, and filled with rapidly delivered spoken word verses. Lamar’s masterpiece was selected by 9th Wonder, a long-serving hip hop producer and rapper, as part of the ‘These Are The Breaks’ programme at the university’s Institute for African and African-American Research. That the programme aspires to catalogue a “collection of albums that are the standard of the culture” indicates the significance of the piece.

Lamar himself is no stranger to such reverence. Not only did To Pimp a Butterfly make the Top 10 lists of innumerable music magazines (including being named the best album of 2015 by The Guardian, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork), but David Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti revealed that it was the principal inspiration for Bowie’s swansong Blackstar. Former US President Barack Obama is a long-time Lamar fan, and invited him to perform at the his Fourth of July party in 2016. He was the first hip hop artist ever to play at the White House.

“Kendrick Lamar’s witty lyricisms are nothing short of poetic genius”

The inclusion of To Pimp a Butterfly in the Harvard Library suggests that hip-hop is finally being appraised and admired for the sheer power of its best lyrics and the sophistication of its sound. Lamar’s album is one of the most sonically interesting releases I have ever heard, with an underlying yet overwhelming dissonance flowing through each of the 16 flawless tracks, giving the whole piece a sinister tone. The lyrical content of To Pimp a Butterfly deals with many of the issues faced by African-Americans on a daily basis, from ‘Alright’, a message of hope in which Lamar rallies together African-Americans to stand up for themselves against police brutality and firearm violence, to ‘Hood Politics’, which examines the American distrust of government with the lyrics “Ain’t nothin’ new but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans, Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’? They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs, Make it they promise to fuck with you.”

While unconventional by traditional standards and challenging to the commonplace classifications of the genre, Kendrick Lamar’s witty lyricisms are nothing short of poetic genius on the level of Bob Dylan, Lou Reed or Morrissey (the first of whom was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature). His lines range from expressions of his pride to be black, such as “I’m African-American, I’m African, I’m black as the heart of a fucking Aryan, I’m black as the name of Tyrone and Darius”, to his complete reclamation of the “n-word” in “N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty – wait listen, N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish, The history books overlook the word and hide it, America tried to make it to a house divided.”

Lamar’s Butterfly entirely deserves to be archived at Harvard Library as it offers a window into a fascinating period of American history from the point of view of a young African-American. Furthermore, at a time when divisiveness, bridge-burning and wall-building appear to be overwhelming the United States, we can all take inspiration from Kendrick’s lyric “Knock these walls down, that’s my religion

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