Since it first broke into the mainstream in the 1980s, hip-hop has been at the forefront of the music industry. As a relatively new genre, it has one of the largest followings to date. With this, hip-hop has constantly been scrutinized for its aggressive language and substance, even being labeled as one of the main causes for violence due to its influence on youth. But now, hip-hop is being honored as something much greater by the Harvard Library due to the organization’s work with Producer 9th Wonder.
Under the project title “These are the Breaks,” named after legendary hip-hop artist Kurtis Blow’s song of the same name, four albums will be entered into the Harvard Library’s archives. Those selected are ones that made a difference, whether in music or the people consuming it, with substance and depth.
Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Low End Theory,” and Nas’ “Illmatic” were the first albums selected. In part one of a four part series, APN will take a look at Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” and why it was selected for archival.
On March 15, 2015, Lamar released his sophomore album, following his critically acclaimed debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” Before its release, Lamar had the hip-hop world waiting for a follow up, with some very high expectations. Everyone was wondering what route he was going to take and what he would touch on. Upon its release, even with these expectations, it was met with large critical acclaim. We got an album of race and society, a look at the internal thoughts of a black man in current day America, all interwoven with a broken-up poem, and concluding with an unreleased 2Pac interview.
Nobody really expected to get the finished project that was released. But what makes it worthy of being a part of Harvard’s library after only such a short time of being released? “It’s timeless, after the first listen you could tell, it was like nothing that’s been out,” said Kyle Richardson, avid hip-hop listener. “Everything from the sounds down to the messages was just on another level.” During a time of high racial tensions and societal issues, Lamar delivered an album that touched on these topics and more, addressing these political issues and stances that are still major topics after its release, all mixed with the sounds of funk and hip-hop.
Songs like “The Blacker The Berry” and “Alright” speak on police brutality and black-on-black violence. They bring up the topic of internal conflicts and society’s effects on African-American men. The concept of “the loudest one in the room” comes up on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie,” perfect for a time when everyone wants to be the toughest and biggest person in the room.
Lamar has had many songs where we get an introspective look into his mind but nothing like on this album. Depression and suicidal thoughts are present in the song “u,” where we get a drunk Lamar talking to himself in the mirror of a hotel bathroom, arguing how his rise to fame has put him in the world but strained his relationships with friends and family. But then we get the song near the end of the album, “i,” where Lamar is singing about loving yourself and fighting those negative thoughts we all think about ourselves at times. It’s a message to people with this self-hate that it can get better, but you have to start from within.
These songs aren’t Lamar preaching to everyone; this is his therapy, putting out songs that deal with real issues and internal thoughts, in hopes that someone takes something from the whole album or one song, to help them in their lives.
For most albums, their biggest enemy is time. Will the music still have that effect 10 years from now? Does it sound too dated if you put it on long after its release? Will younger generations be able to grasp the full impact from the time it was released? After multiple listens, it’s easy to see that this album doesn’t have that feeling.
Topics like racism and violence are always prevalent. Depression is something that not many are safe from, and his choice to speak on this is what makes this album even more important, especially in a genre that doesn’t usually touch on depression.
These messages of self love and happiness are what make this album worthy of being archived. He could have gone the radio and club route, making songs that people could party to and have a good time while they’re out. But instead, he decided to go with a message and with songs that can help people when they’re down and feeling defeated. It’s exactly why “To Pimp a Butterfly” deserves to be archived in the Harvard Library.