A few days ago Complex posted a piece by Justin Charity with the somewhat inflammatory title, “Why Did Everyone Pretend To Enjoy Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly?'”. As a Kendrick fangirl at heart, I took issue with some of the writer’s arguments – in some ways, he seemed to be defaming a Holy Cow to provoke engagement. Overall, however, in discussing with a friend, I came to the conclusion that Charity had a point when it came to the differences between an album being enjoyable and it being important – and for all I think To Pimp A Butterfly is superb, it falls into the latter camp for me. More than that, in using the almost unanimous praise that TPAB was subject to more or less immediately after it leaked, Charity has raised some salient questions about how exactly the internet influences and, I would argue, pressures us to prematurely react to new music.
Firstly, I completely concede that the album isn’t a comfortable listen: it’s not a record I can have on in the background for the most part – rather, I genuinely have to be sitting and listening to it. This can be overwhelming and even overbearing at times. If all three Kendrick records set out with visions, this one was definitely the most provocative – meanwhile GKMC I can listen to any time really because it is, in essence, straight-up enjoyable hip hop, versus the dizzying free jazz of TPAB. The “overwhelming blackness” that Clover Hope referenced in her review for Jezebel, was apt – this album was evocative down to the bone, and Kendrick’s intention was surely to get to the charged heart of black America. Whilst compelling and breathtakingly powerful, this of course doesn’t make for an easy listen. Obviously this does not detract from how good it is, but I was certainly part of the vocal social media majority talking almost blindly about what an amazing, game-changing album it was, mere hours after first hearing it, and I think in doing so I did the record an injustice.
Indeed, a lot of reviews were inadvertently undermining the album with the overall thesis of: “wow this is an instant classic, so funky and he is saying so many important, relevant things!” without really listening because of there being this internet-induced rush to have an opinion. News in the internet age is astoundingly quick and, with streaming and leaks, our unprecedented access to a constant flow of new music is phenomenal and incredibly exciting. But I would still posit that it is to the detriment of music and arts journalism to put out premature, half-formed reviews because of this – “we have no time to stand and stare” seems fitting, yes, but moreover it seems a shame if that is how we are to deal with all of our consumption of new music. In my years as music editor at student-run tn2 Magazine, a lot of writers submitted reviews of new albums that were very clearly paraphrases of the Pitchfork opinion of the record, and I often had to wonder if people had even listened to the albums they were reviewing. Read other reviews, of course, but take time to digest the record and use those other reviews to inform your own opinion – maybe it’s a personal thing, but I am far happier putting out a review that I feel is fully formed a week later, compared to putting out something poorly-judged and even quasi-plagiarised on the day of release.
Again, I will stress that just because a lot of the To Pimp A Butterfly reviews were sort of half-formed, that doesn’t mean they were wrong. It is a truly impressive album, I just think (and the Complex article goes some way to showing) that premature, not fully formed consensus can lead to apathy and even backlash later on, however unfair that is. We’re obsessed with the latest, the freshest; in having “engaging” opinions which may well be platitudes, and it does an injustice to some of the astounding music that is being released. We don’t seem to have time to actually appreciate before we give the world our opinion. And, thinking about it, for all the praise heaped on it, how much time have you actually given To Pimp A Butterfly since it came out?