Before the album dropped, Lamar was already talking about how the album would be "taught in college courses someday." He's right: Every track on To Pimp a Butterfly is a complex look at the personal and political sides of race relations. They are dense, academically and historically informed, and they've revived one massive debate about race relations: culturalism versus structuralism.
That means that Lamar attacks the structural racism of this country while simultaneously suggesting that black culture itself incidentally perpetuates racial inequality in this country. It's an idea that has a lot of people very upset.
This has come up before. Lamar's belief that black culture is partially at fault for our country's current racial conflicts earned him a mess of controversy in January. Speaking to Billboard about recent high-profile incidents of race-motivated police brutality, he said:
"I wish somebody would look in our neighborhood knowing that it's already a situation, mentally, where it's fucked up. What happened to [Michael Brown] should've never happened. Never. But when we don't have respect for ourselves, how do we expect them to respect us? It starts from within. Don't start with just a rally, don't start from looting — it starts from within."
Lamar's comments share a history with a theory of racism that many find troubling, and the same logic threads throughout his new album. At the time, several cultural figures attacked Lamar's comments. Rapper Azealia Banks tweeted that it was the "dumbest shit I've ever heard a black man say." "Lol do you know about the generational effects of poverty, racism and discrimination?" she wrote.
But Lamar is no idiot. It's clear he does know. Instead of lashing back at his critics on Twitter, Lamar simply released To Pimp a Butterfly. The album turns a critical eye to both ideas about racism in this country: the theory that all discrimination is institutionalized and the idea that some is invited through behavior.
The culturalist tradition. Culturalists hold that one of the biggest impediments to the elimination of racism comes from black culture's perceived shortcomings. W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the first major thinkers to push this idea. In a 1899 essay called "The Philadelphia Negro," Du Bois, according to New Yorker contributor Kelefa Sanneh, helped shape the field of sociology. Du Bois argued that whites have to do their duty to stop employment discrimination, which is "morally wrong, politically dangerous, industrially wasteful and socially silly." But blacks also had their own responsibility to work against "Negro crime" and adapt more to mainstream norms.
Many modern writers have elaborated on these assertions. This is the sort of thinking that, at its worst, leads people to pin racism on the height of one's pants. Recently, the culturalist argument has found a home in hip-hop. Sociologist Orlando Patterson, editor of a new anthology attempting to redeem the culturalist tradition, believes this especially. In a 2006 New York Times article, he examines an anecdote about the startlingly high number of black male dropouts at one high school. Patterson's answer is that it's an obsession with "cool-pose culture": "For these young men, it was almost like a drug, hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture."
It's a dangerous idea — dangerous because it threatens to ignore the real and dire systematic bias working against black people in the United States. But it isn't one that serious critics of racism can dismiss.
As a rapper, Lamar insists on examining his own role in shaping black culture. In the song "You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)," Lamar describes meeting a young kid who tries to impress him. "Askin' 'where the hoes at?' to impress me / Askin' 'where the moneybags?' to impress me," he raps. "It's all in your head, homie."
That's the central idea of the album: Lamar worrying over his role perpetuating hip-hop culture — for better and for worse. On many of the songs, he recites, "I remember you was conflicted / Misusing your influence / Sometimes I did the same." The record can be seen as a search for the right message to encourage with his influence. At the end, he claims he's found it: "Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned," he spits. "The word is respect."
Neither culturalism nor structuralism. What he's saying amounts to far more than a simplistic pull-up-your-pants argument. One especially high-voltage line is "So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gangbanging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? / Hypocrite!" To some, this seems like a way of excusing the racist laws and actions that led to 17-year-old Martin's unconscionable death in 2012.
But that completely misses the point. Lamar's "Hypocrite!" is a way for him to acknowledge that he believes both the culturalist and structuralist arguments to a degree, but that he accepts neither as dogma. It's a bold way to collapse a historic opposition that Lamar doesn't necessarily believe, because too often it reduces the role of the individual and the hope for someone like Lamar to make an album that actually changes things.
"My moms always told me, 'How long you gonna play the victim?'" Lamar told Rolling Stone in a recent profile. "I can say I'm mad and I hate everything, but nothing really changes until I change myself. So no matter how much bullshit we've been through as a community, I'm strong enough to say fuck that, and acknowledge myself and my own struggle."
It isn't an either/or for Lamar. It's a struggle, and a question that cannot be reduced to dogmatic responses. This is a dangerous and necessary album. There are no easy answers on it. But this is why it's so important. Hopefully, its controversial depiction will act as a catalyst, provoking more thoughtful discussions. Through these, whatever direction they take, we may be able to progress toward a more just society.