For the Record: To Pimp a Butterfly

By Aesop Mulligan

Kendrick Lamar’s masterwork To Pimp A Butterfly was not recognized as Album of the Year because the art he creates is far too bold to be contained within the safe and comfortable world of “mainstream music,” and the Grammy committee simply does not know how to handle that.

In one regard, it is disheartening to witness such an assentive public response to the impudent verdict. Yet the reaction may further demonstrate that the global power of the Grammy Awards is slowly losing steam. Sofía Vergara’s last-minute cameo in the grisly finale performance by Armando Christian Peréz (aka Pitbull) encapsulates the impetuous, star-powered culture that the Grammys is still trying to run on after 58 years. It is encouraging to hear listeners voice their opinions over these kinds of contemptible decisions, but the music industry is an unyielding bastion that requires more than passive disagreement to see real change.

It is inspiring to live in a time when younger generations are actively dissatisfied with elite rule as each missed opportunity passes. Although unique in its own context, discontent with the Grammys comes from the same force that has driven so much of the intense social action we have witnessed or been a part of this past year, as well as those of more recent, like #OscarsSoWhite.

To get one thing straight, a lot has gone down since February of last year, and it is time that the Grammys step up to recognize legitimate change instead of holding the world back. This is not meant in any way to disrespect the other nominees of this year, but simply put, Kendrick is creating something real — trying to change our culture, force an understanding through artistic vision — while others are not.

Take a look at the list of nominees: Beauty Behind the Madness by The Weeknd, Traveller by Chris Stapleton, To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar, 1989 by Taylor Swift and Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes. Consider these albums holistically, as greater than the sum of their pieces. Break down each part of the work and step into the mind of the original intent. Never be afraid to disagree. Now ask why each of them is a significant creation of art and seek answers.

Let’s begin with Taylor. Without any shadow of a doubt, her team has shaped her to become one of the most powerful celebrity figures on the entire planet. This rise in global status is absolutely astonishing, but the way in which Taylor Swift designed her 1989 project is a simple-minded continuation of her previous successes, and an arrant waste of an exceptional opportunity. Her music has literally reached billions of people. The sheer potential for worldwide change through what she creates is nearly inconceivable, but ironically, that potential is spoiled when such music focuses exclusively on traditional pop themes and ephemeral passion. Although somewhat unique in sound, thanks to brickwall limiters by Max Martin (the unseen puppeteer behind her recent triumphs), this advancement of progress changes mainstream music at the same glacial pace it has sustained for the last three decades.

The Weeknd’s debut might also serve a similar purpose as Taylor Swift’s recent collection: to be heard simply as musical euphony and then allow time to wash over its remains until the next big thing is released. As an entity, The Weeknd has created something remarkable this past year — and absolutely blowing up all social media — but how is this any different from its many precursors, aside from carrying slightly darker, bolder overtones?

Country artist Chris Stapleton has been hinting at the importance of breaking down mainstream barriers with his debut Traveller. While the Grammys should certainly be commended for recognizing the often disregarded style through a newly rising solo artist, the album still offers little more than a unique development and twist of two separate, but merging, modern styles.

Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color is tapping a little further into that mainstream potential, but the album appears to lose its momentum halfway through and sadly misses the mark. Its first impressions are promising, but it soon releases that intense, discomfiting grip that held the listener in with its well-crafted opening tracks.

And so, we are left with Kendrick: the modern day virtuoso who has graced this world with yet another fragile sliver of his (and so many others’) life story. This is real art that talks about real life. This is something that tries to make sense of a senseless world and bring people together, not separate them. If there is anything that the torn-up communities of the world need right now, it is a sense of togetherness and harmony. And that is what this album shares in a beautifully contradictory, anxiety-filled, blissfully designed and completely deteriorating way that every other recent album has yet to fully achieve.

It is legitimately worrisome that Butterfly was not given due recognition by the world’s dominant music judges, but what else can we expect from the Grammys these days? Perhaps it is within the audience to create change, but until passivity transforms into an active voice, let Kendrick’s work epitomize how real art will continue to suffocate beneath the crushing weight of mainstream pop.

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