Review: Norman F-cking Rockwell

Years and years ago, I used to publish music reviews on this blog. They were usually my most engaged-with posts, albeit before “engagement” was as much of a buzzword as it is now. But the reason I posted those reviews was not for engagement purposes. I was at an important moment in my life, passing from teenage-hood into adulthood, and a lot of albums that were released spoke to me directly at that juncture in my life. And so, in lieu of being able to do much else, I wrote through my feelings. In the process, I got other people to listen to the music I listened to.

Now, Lana Del Rey doesn’t really need exposure. But I have needed to write through my feelings about her music for years. I wrote my college application essays to Born to Die and Lana Del Ray (catch the spelling) A.K.A. Lizzy Grant; refused to listen to Ultraviolence during a tumultuous summer after my freshman year of college; blossomed through Honeymoon; finally went back to Ultraviolence and mourned; exulted in Lust for Life; and relived it all over again through Norman Fucking Rockwell.

I love Lana Del Rey. I used to not at all; around the time she released Blue Jeans, I thought she was emblematic of everything wrong with the world. I thought she romanticized abuse, engaged in dangerous nostalgia for Americana (“I belong in the 50s!!”), and was just generally not talented.

And then I listened to Video Games. Or maybe it was Born to Die. Or maybe it was Blue Jeans. I can’t recall what I listened to first because I had instantly devoured her entire discography. And I got it. I intuited what she was trying to do, the artist she was trying to be, the themes she was trying to explore, and I saw the spite that was threaded through her work. I felt a kinship with her spite. Yes, the character of Lana Del Rey was mired in abuse and darkness and she thought she was loving it, but we were invited to live in the wrongness of it all with her, and through living in it, were exposed to the lushness and neons and filters that allow you to think, just enough to make it real, that “Maybe this (the pain, the abuse, the darkness) isn’t so bad.”

That’s the genius of Lana Del Rey. She doesn’t write music for the lowest common denominator to consume thoughtlessly: she wants to invite you into the nostalgia with her and learn, with her, that it’s terrifyingly easy to excuse toxicity when it’s couched in beauty.

Simultaneously, she is unapologetically feminine. She engages in the usual tropes: jealousy, cattiness, ruthless ambition, the Virgin, the Whore, the helplessly devoted girlfriend… and then she subverts it with tenderness, with moments of light and escape. In those moments, you realize. The femininity, Lana’s content, is not the issue: the problem is in the negative space. Implied to be kitty-corner from Lana’s music is the toxic masculinity, the patriarchy that makes Blanche DuBois – fragile, afraid, mentally ill – so much more villainous than Stanley Kowalski – a rapist, a misogynist, a wife-beater. We lionize Marlon Brandos at the expense of the Marylin Monroes. Lana Del Rey’s early music was uncomfortable because it was a reflection of our own proclivities.

It was lazy and simplistic of me to blame Lana Del Rey for romanticizing abuse; just as it’s lazy and simplistic and dangerous of us to blame the victims of abusive relationships for not leaving their partners.

Maybe this isn’t actually a review of Lana’s latest album. I’ve been growing and evolving with Lana since Born to Die. To be here with her, occupying the world of Norman Fucking Rockwell, is to luxuriate in the person I have become, to reflect – with tenderness where it should go (towards me) and spite where it should go (to those who have hurt me). And it feels like a homecoming.

Norman Fucking Rockwell is not painless. It forces you to lock eyes with the person you used to be, the places you used to inhabit. It exposes the pretenses of your past, reminds you that the wounds you used to have are still a part of you. But it loves you unconditionally. It shows you where you are now, and nods to the people who are there with you. It tells you it’s okay to hide for a little while so you can get back to the growth promised you. It reminds you that there are walls to lean against when you can’t stand on your own. It tells you that hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like you to have – but you have it. And, most importantly for me, it tells you it’s okay to ask to be treated tenderly.

I always knew I loved Lana Del Rey. She has been one of my favorite artists since 2011. But I didn’t realize she was my favorite artist until I got to the end of this Billboard article ranking all the songs she’s released. As soon as I saw what #1 was, I broke down crying. I may not have agreed with all the rankings, but the name of each song brought up a memory, a feeling, an experience from the past decade of my life. The epiphany that came with the tears was undeniable in its strength.

Lana Del Rey has gone from being an object of scorn to my favorite artist. And – though I accept that this may be a reach – that is a pretty solid parallel to my own journey, from self-loathing to knowing that every day, I become a better version of myself.

Maybe Lana Del Rey didn’t teach me self-love, but she taught me to be patient with myself. Things might be rough now. But there’s always another album on the way. There’s always more tenderness to be found.

From K-Dot to Kunta: the New Fate of Kendrick Lamar

First published in the Northeastern University Political Review

Photo by John Francis Peters for the New York Times

Compton, California has birthed its fair share of artists who have gone on to make a mark in the rap and hip hop industry, but it’s Dr. Dre’s protege, Kendrick Lamar who has taken the industry by storm. Formerly known as K-Dot,  the rapper’s Section.80, and good kid, m.A.A.d city have all been critically acclaimed. good kid, M.A.A.d city was dubbed an instant classic by many, and the album went platinum. According fellow singer-songwriter and producer Erykah Badu, good kid is, “…an album that not only tells a compelling story, but a near-definitive one of a specific time and place, offering a window on the varying complexities of turn-of-the-century Compton.”[1] An important observation; like most rappers, Lamar waxes lyrical about his upbringing, his hometown – struggling Compton – and his desire to,  in the words of the character playing his mother at a skit at the end of “Real,” “Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton.” These words, taking into consideration the current context of race relations in the United States, are extremely powerful.

That brings us to his most recent release To Pimp a Butterfly, an intentional reference to To Kill a Mockingbird – appropriate, given the racially-charged content of the album. The anticipation was cultivated almost tenderly, with singles dropped periodically and the release date left unannounced until three weeks before the official launch date – March 23rd. The first single released off the album was “i,” divisive in that it deviates from the dark, cinematic undertones of Lamar’s usual fare. The single is inundated with confidence and optimism, self-love that can only be forged in the smithy of racial empowerment. Undeniably funky, it foreshadowed the jazziness that plays Atlas to Kendrick Lamar’s world in Butterfly. The second single off the album was a divergence from the uplifting message of the first, a track called “The Blacker the Berry” presumably in response to the controversial Azealia Banks’ criticism over Lamar’s comments regarding Ferguson.[2] Addressing the looting and violent rioting that some protesters following the grand jury decision were accused of, Lamar emphasized the importance of black self-respect: “[change] don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.”[3]

“The Blacker the Berry” is scathing, and Lamar is as accusatory of America’s institutionalized racism as he is of himself, spitting, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” and weaving the theme of hypocrisy throughout the song. He explores his identity as a black man, struggling with the label of African-American, his African heritage, speaking to the “institutionalized manipulations and lies” perpetuated by the system, demanding the listener admit, “You hate me, don’t you? You hate my people […]” Anti-black slurs ricochet: “I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.” At the very end of the song, he turns the mirror back towards himself, recalling his own history of gang violence – almost lambasting himself. “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gangbanging made me kill a ni**a blacker than me? Hypocrite!”

The explosive last line is unapologetically difficult to swallow, and Lamar has no intention of making Butterfly easy to swallow. Layers upon layers of historically black musicality in every song; a cacophony, if not for the masterful way in which brass, wind and bass weave together.

The third single released, “King Kunta,” was quickly overshadowed by the arrival of something far bigger than it: the album itself. Accidentally released March 15 on iTunes, it was fully released on March 16th, taking many fans by surprise and setting a Spotify record with 9.6 million streams in a day.[4] Right off the bat, with “Wesley’s Theory,” you are taken on a ride akin to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne: a celebration of black excellence, as Jay-Z would put it, “opulence, decadence.” A critic called Butterfly “[…] black insomuch as the album is a cosmic slop of nearly every musical movement that we Negroes have founded on this continent.”[5] The album opens with a sample of “Every Ni**er is a Star” by Boris Gardiner, and features George Clinton of the Parliaments, an avowed inspiration.[6] “King Kunta” is deceptively evocative beneath unabashed rhythm – Kendrick Lamar often refers to himself as “King Kendrick” but in this subversion he relates to Kunta Kinte, a Gambian slave who had the front part of his foot cut off as punishment for trying to escape slavery in the burgeoning United States. The next few tracks follow with similar funkadelic allusions to the race conversation that will proliferate the latter part of the album; but the arrival of “u” radically changes everything and jolts a new perspective into “i.” The outro to “These Walls” preludes “u,” with a spoken word piece by Lamar that transitions one song into the next throughout the album:

I remember you was conflicted

Misusing your influence

Sometimes I did the same

Abusing my power full of resentment

Resentment that turned into a deep depression

Found myself screaming in a hotel room…

“u,” appropriately, begins with Lamar screaming and repeating “Loving you is complicated” ten times in a frantic voice. “Complicated—” an Atlantic piece submits, “not impossible, not difficult, but complicated. Everything in Lamar’s world is complicated, probably because everything in the real world is.”[7] He stumbles through the song, crying, drinking, eviscerating himself with cruelty: he wasn’t there for his sister, he wasn’t there for his city, he wasn’t even there for his friend Chad while he died in a hospital bed save for a Facetime call.[8] The last lines in the song are jarring: “And if I told your secrets/The world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness” and lead into the cautiously optimistic “Alright” with Kendrick singing against a broken, brassy backdrop, “I’m f*cked up/homie, you f*cked up/but if God got us/then we gon’ be alright.”

Not enough can be said about the juxtaposition of “u” against “i,” but it is necessary to know that these existential questions are a pivotal part of the black experience. Kanye West explored these questions in Yeezus, and Watch the Throne is a twelve-song testament; Frank Ocean alludes to it in “Swim Good” (referenced by Kendrick in “These Walls”), Janelle Monae actively preaches against it in The Electric Lady.[9] Even the September-released “i” receives a facelift inButterfly. It gets stripped down to seem like it’s being performed live, but retains its optimism until a fight breaks out in the crowd. Kendrick stops immediately, exclaiming “Not on my time – not on my time!” and demands of the crowd, “How many ni**as we done lost, bro, this year alone?” He continues, trying to silence the arguing and instill a sense of camaraderie amongst them with an a capella verse and a lesson in linguistics: “N-E-G-U-S, definition: Royalty; King Royalty.” Instead of the “n” word – the turn of tongue that has damned so many black people to slavery, and that renders many, like Oprah who condemns the use of the “n” word, uncomfortable – he encourages the use of this word of black excellence, validating Oprah and offering an olive branch in the form of a word that only has empowering connotations.[10]

“Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive.”

There is no way to dissect, discuss and lampshade every single track on this album under a word limit. But the last track of the album demands a paragraph of its own.

Tupac “2Pac” Shakur is regarded by many as being the most influential rapper of all time; Lamar has repeatedly mentioned 2Pac as one of his greatest influences, and it stands to reason.[11] 2Pac’s legacy is controversial but it is undeniable. His music is influenced by his family’s Black Panther notoriety, including his step-aunt Assata Shakur, the first woman to be added to the FBI’s most wanted list.[12] “Mortal Man” is to this album what “Real” was for good kid: putting lessons learnt throughout the album into perspective, to realize oneself in the grand scheme of things. Kendrick Lamar asks of the listener, “When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” citing all the ways in which he could get in trouble over the course of his lifetime: being framed for crimes he did not commit, arrested on exaggerated charges to fit the agenda of institutionalized racism. Not unlikely scenarios given the backdrop of continued, arguably escalated, police brutality against black people and people of color. He invokes the legacy of Nelson Mandela, a man jailed for more than two decades for his commitment against apartheid – it’s not just homage, it is a statement of intent, a promise to fight the good fight, working for justice and peace. It is a bold promise, and one that he obviously wants to be held to. But it is the outro of the song that leaves the most lasting impression. He starts reciting the poem that has laced one song to another in its totality. Blackness must unite to prevail; blackness must forget the colors of gangs; blackness must forgive itself and reject the evils of “Lucy” – Lucifer, who has haunted Kendrick through his career. “If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us/But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another ni**a.”

Paper crumples, and you can almost visualize Lamar looking up with an almost sheepish look on his face, “Sh*t and that’s all I wrote.” The outro quickly establishes itself as a conversation between two people: Kendrick Lamar and his idol, Tupac Shakur. The late Shakur’s words are taken from his 1994 interview with a Swedish radio station, but it doesn’t seem like a conversation with a ghost. He may as well have been talking to Dr. Dre with the familiarity and slight awe that is in Lamar’s voice.[13] They contemplate poverty, impending revolution, the future of black youth: and isn’t it natural for a 27 year-old black man against the background of Ferguson, “I Can’t Breathe,” and #BlackLivesMatter to be asking such questions of his idol? Butterfly is an album for disenfranchised youth of color struggling to find a voice in a society that purports to be post-racial and is anything but.

Perhaps Kendrick Lamar is a butterfly, and his discography is his evolution. Section.80 wove together a setting for the story of Kendrick’s Compton; good kid, m.A.A.d city was a memoir, one teeming with his experience of racism and exploring vice along the way; but To Pimp a Butterfly is bigger than Compton: it’s America. It’s Kendrick Lamar exploring his role as a black man with a voice that is becoming increasingly influential; it is the narrative of a man terrified and insecure of the temptation that surrounds him in his new-found fame, and – and perhaps most importantly – it is the manifesto of an apostle. In his words, Lamar is doing “god’s work” on earth; how timely, this album, given what is essentially the reinvocation of the civil rights movement.[14] If to To Pimp a Butterfly is a “75-minute story of “survivor’s guilt” that finds some sort of resolution at the end, the question must be begged: what is next for Kendrick Lamar?[15] Activism has always manifested itself through multiple mediums and Lamar joins the ever-increasing number of black artists that have anointed themselves activists. Will he work through musicianship? Or will he step out from behind the curtain of artistry and take the helm of the resurging civil rights movement? Continue reading “From K-Dot to Kunta: the New Fate of Kendrick Lamar”