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New American Songbook

Hip Hop And The Politics Of Now

Merlijn Hoek / Wikiportrait / Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Rapper Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp a Butterfly is as much manifesto and rallying cry as it is an LP. While it’s now difficult to listen to hip hop without hearing echoes of Ferguson, Mo., Lamar intentionally places Butterfly squarely in the center of that conversation. The online magazine ‘The Root’ called it the music of the Black Lives Matter hashtag.

It isn’t hard to find Lamar’s politics in this album. Towards the end he likens himself to Nelson Mandela and there’s an extended mock interview with the late rapper and activist Tupac Shakur. His musical persona has always been a complicated swirl of swagger and self-doubt, and here he’s no different, although the intensity and immediacy of the moment propels Butterfly from merely great to once-in-a-generation.

But hip hop is never monolithic, and a beautiful counter-point to Butterfly can be found in an album called Water[s] by Mick Jenkins. Where Butterfly is fully immersed in rage and doubt, Water[s] plays like the testimony of someone who has found some kind of land to stand on, even if he hasn’t completely escaped the turmoil. Water[s] is highly metaphor-driven—water is the stand-in for spirituality, peace and clarity.

Where Lamar is framed in the context of civil rights leaders like Dr. King or Malcolm X, Jenkins chooses the writer James Baldwin as his political muse, which allows for a more patient exploration of self and community in the post-Ferguson era. Taken together, both albums present the serious listener with some of the most challenging and important music on record.