By the mid-1950s, a culture of rock stars emerged, often epitomized by Elvis Presley. These new male stars were a focal point of popular culture, as they were the role model or crush of every American child.
However, in the past 25 years, a new culture of rock stars has blossomed: the rap star. Evolving from N.W.A and Rakim to Schoolboy Q and Jay-Z, this radical echelon consists of mainly black poets. Rap has prevailed, regardless of its countless enumerations as misogynistic and derisive to children.
Rap has not only sustained, but it has also evolved in a way not dissimilar to Darwin’s thinking. The genre has emerged as a stronghold of popular culture, as kids of all classes and races have songs from these artists on their iPhones. The genre’s mainstream popularity appears in tandem with an ignorance towards its original purpose and former black hegemony.
I feel like I have to provide a disclaimer before going any further. I am a well-off, white kid from New York City; but rap is by far my favorite genre.
Unlike many, I’m not solely a pop-rap fan; my favorite artists range from those mentioned previously to the lesser-known CyHi Da Prynce, Travi$ Scott, Tech N9ne as well as the fresh-faced Goldlink. Although I esteem these musicians, I am not the intended or original consumer of their sonic products.
African and Caribbean poets laid the sonic foundation for the modern-day rap that so much of us love. Rap emerged as a purely black form of art, although the tri-decadal shift from Sugarhill Gang to Childish Gambino has deviated from this original singularity. As rap gained desirability and respect in America, its black qualities were slowly stripped away. No longer are rappers telling an inherently “black story,” and even if they are, they probably have white listeners. For better or worse, rap is currently accessible to people of all color and social status.
Indistinguishable from popular music, rap completed its descent from the classification of “black music.” This distinction is vital to understand the critical and personal dissimilarities between Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and Kendrick Lamar’s recent “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
Although both albums spawn from black-American rappers, they are different in many ways. Kanye West is a personal favorite, and at the time of “Fantasy,” he had four critically acclaimed, top selling albums under his belt. However, for critics and fans “Fantasy” was distinctive and superior. The Independent described “Fantasy” as, “one of pop’s gaudiest, most grandiose efforts of recent years,” and “a no-holds-barred musical extravaganza.”
Similarly, the LA Times called it, “Picasso-like, rearranging form, texture, color and space to suggest new ways of viewing things.” These two reviews described West’s “Fantasy” as his statue of David, although his piece was one of masterful sonic perfection, rather than the nonpareil of David’s physical ideal. In this case, West’s lyrics came second to the overwhelming musical eminence, although many of these lyrics were indicative of the American black experience: “Is hip hop just a euphemism for a new religion? / The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing.”
Rolling Stone and Pitchfork both gave “Fantasy” a perfect 10/10. NME christened Fantasy as the twenty-first greatest album of all time. Billboard, Rolling Stone and Spin all crowned it the best album of 2010. In the end, the lyrics were secondary and oft irrelevant to many critics and listeners, as “Fantasy” was named an eminent pop-rap album, but not an exceptional black album.
Compared to West, Kendrick Lamar is the new kid on the block—a fact he often acknowledges. Before “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar had two critically renowned albums, although his debut was not as highly regarded as West’s. Regardless, at the time of Butterfly’s release, Kendrick was acknowledged to be one of the premier rappers.
However, “Butterfly” was received in way wholly dissimilar to West’s “Fantasy.” Rolling Stone described it as, “mastery of fiery outrage, deep jazz and ruthless self-critique,” while also explaining that along with D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, it makes 2015 “the year radical black politics and for-real black music resurged in tandem to converse of the nation’s pop mainstream.” Robert Christgua, a renowned music-critic, defined it as “a strong, brave effective bid to reinstate hip hop as black America’s CNN.”
Finally, Billboard explained that it is “speaking to the continued discussion of race and racism in America—the matter of Black lives mattering—that has dominated the national discourse over the past half year.” “Butterfly” is revered as rap, as music, but most intelligibly as inherently black music. Unlike West’s “Fantasy,” the lyrics of “Butterfly” were clear in the mind of critic and made a lasting imprint. For critics and listeners alike, the racially tinged lyrics of this album are unforgettable and unshakeable. This designation as black music did not diminish its critical success, with Rolling Stone and Pitchfork giving it a 4.5/5 and 9.3/10, respectively.
On first listen, “To Pimp a Butterfly” is jarring, confusing and loaded. Rap has been so engulfed in the vacuum of pop culture that albums such as “Butterfly” are unexpected. Pop culture is composed of products marketable to as many people as possible: black, white and everything in-between. However, “Butterfly” protests this norm, appearing as a rap album stripped of pop culture’s mandates. While “Fantasy” was Kanye’s statue of David, Butterfly is analogous to Basquiat’s “Untitled (History of the Black People).” Kanye achieved a beautiful masterpiece without a clear, discernible message. On the other hand, “Butterfly” is Kendrick’s magnum opus, which outlines the black-American experience in a tremendously personal way, deviating from the script of American pop culture in the process.
Listening to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” shows that it is masterful and polished. Every piece of the album is manicured and perfected. West even manages to acquire a truly adept verse from pseudo-drug dealer Rick Ross. As a result, “Fantasy” fits relatively neatly in the American notebook of pop culture.
Although the album makes racially charged assertions and commentary, it is an easy-listen. There are no moments in “Fantasy” that make the listener uncomfortable, a tactic Lamar utilizes on songs such as “u.” Unlike “Butterfly,” “Fantasy” focuses on West’s own life, “a hedonistic exploration into a rich and famous American id,” as Pitchfork describes it. West’s album certainly contains black themes and concepts; but the overall theme is a rich, American one.
The American public hungrily gobbles up the soup of the rich, American experience, most notably seen in the popularity of Kanye’s family-by-marriage, the Kardashians. The rich, American experience is not perturbing, nor does it leaving a lasting impression on the viewer or listener. Through its topic choice, “Fantasy” is not full-fledged social commentary, but an expression of sonic and musical perfection as well as an attempt to thrust rap into the same category of excellence as the Beatles or Beethoven. It is a fairly non-racially-charged album that which reaches for the musical ultimate, and to do so safely remains within the American consortium of pop culture.
This entire article spawned from a late-night, text debate with a hometown friend. I prefer “Fantasy” and he prefers “Butterfly”; I’m white and he’s black. I believe that in this case, our preferences are semi-rooted in the melanin contents of our skin. I explained to him, “‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ details the experiences of a community I am not a part of.” No matter what any rap-loving white kid does, he or she will never be black, and therefore not privy to this unique community. Using a Jewish experience as an example, I explained, “You will never feel the same way about the Holocaust that I do.”
Certain things symbolize and convey more to certain communities. While in this case, our preferences line up racially, it is important to remember that music is open to all. “To Pimp a Butterfly” is not only for black people, as “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is not solely for rich Americans. I would urge all white rap fans to listen to “Butterfly” with an attentive ear, as the album is truly a modern masterpiece, lyrically and sonically. Regardless, if you told me I could only listen to one album for the rest of my life, it would be “Fantasy.” Both albums are critically and widely loved, and one’s preference is simply subjective at this point.
However, it is important to remember that rap is a black art form and that “Butterfly” is not the exception to the genre, but the reason it exists. Albums like “Butterfly” are the purpose of rap, a purpose which American pop culture has distorted beyond recognition. This is not to belittle “Fantasy,” as it is truly a tour-de-force that attempts to seat rap at a table of musical preeminence. These albums serve incompatible purposes, as “Butterfly” fights the crusade of the black American, while “Fantasy” fights rap’s crusade for musical deference and honor.