Out in the Midwest, the Default don’t provide much connection to Black Culture. The barrier’s mostly cultural I’ll admit, but I’d like to suggest the geographical plays a part as well. Bumping bass amidst corn fields and moldering barns just feels mostly lonely. To “get” hip-hop you really got to put some work in.
I met To Pimp a Butterfly in a sort of twilight state. They say coming off opiates your brain can take up to six months to re-adapt. From a road I barely swerved off from I can attest though that the process for some takes more than a lifetime. I wandered day-to-day through mere mechanical process, expecting nothing other than the possibility that someday the fog might clear. I first heard Kendrick’s album with nerves frayed beyond the ability to make it past the first track.
But over the next couple months something uncanny kept me coming back. I remember venturing out past that first track like my first forays into authentic non-medicated existence. Each track I mastered felt like coming to grips with undealt-with aspects of my own self. It’s strange that a hip-hop artist from Compton, CA could reach so deeply into the soul of a white boy from Ohio and bring him back to life. I think now that Kendrick’s will to evoke the particularities of his own community’s anxieties enabled him to find a universal language that could be felt deeply by all Americans. For a certain demographic of white folks, spiritual desolation cuts so deep as to allow a passing-over of the racial divide, given the right set and setting.
The next year, I made a sort of chronicle of the journey Kendrick had taken me on in an article favorably comparing To Pimp a Butterfly to Kendrick’s last EP. It was one of my first published pieces—not sure if it was worthy but I tried to combine a critic’s ear with a fan’s heart. I waited another year for Kendrick’s next effort. Months ahead of any announcement, I occasionally fretted like one who’s worried a long-awaited meeting with an old soul-mate and mentor will turn out a minor disappointment for both parties.
When DAMN. finally dropped, it was Good Friday, and all the schools were out. At my entry-level service job, I asked a poor high-school soul now working on what’s normally his off-day why he thought school was out. “Good Friday?” “Naw,” I said. “We got separation of church and state. There’s a different holiday going on, haven’t you heard? Kendrick Lamar just released his new album. I listened to half of it on my way here. I think it’s straight fire.”
I got a look of half-forced appreciation—but the befuddlement wasn’t lurking too far underneath. The Pop world is diverse and sprawling. Who am I to demand name-recognition of my current fave? Dejected, I drove home like some first-year Muslim immigrant on American Ramadan.
Later that night, I watched the sun set on my semi-rural landscape I’ve seen too many times to take much notice of. Tomorrow’s Saturday, which means for me showing up to work an hour early and trudging through the weekend rush. I want to give Damn. another listen for the day, though. On my nice headphones too this time, instead of my third-rate car speakers speeding to work. I get set up, and head outside to smoke a cigarette along to the first track, when I hear something familiar wafting over across the road from a neighboring house. They’ve got their music up way too fucking loud, and my two-beer vibe is killed before I even get to the music. I’ve got a kid inside trying to sleep, and I’ve been here before too many times. I’ll listen to vague bass-rumblings a side-street or two away competing against hillbilly goings-on and laughter that inevitably dissipates into drunken shouting and police sirens. But this time there are change-ups. I’m surprised by where the noise is coming from–the people who live in that house are anonymously middle-class denizens of my particular nowhere-ville. I’ve watched their steady rise up the ladder lead to an accumulation of SUVs, boats, and 4-wheelers. They’ve got a couple middle-school aged children who my daughter is too young to play with (though she’s old enough to feel envious when she hears delirium caused by backyard trampoline romps.) Where are those kids tonight? It’s their first weekend of spring break, I think, but the ruckus coming across the road is out of hand regardless. They can’t, or shouldn’t, be home—they must be staying at a friend’s.
The other thing is that the muzak horns I distinguish on first listen are really familiar. It’s not the standard heavy-metal/nu-country fare that usually starts off a drunken night’s descent into petty assault. I listen to another bar or two and am genuinely shocked—it’s “Hol’ Up” from Kendrick Lamar’s 2011 Section.80. Tha fuck? Who are these people? I’ve lived across from them since I was a kid and have anticipated nothing from them except they were bound to a move to a swankier neighborhood.
I set down my headphones, postpone my scheduled private session of Damn., and sort of just float into the voyeuristic night air. “Hol’ Up” comes to an end, and petty fireworks start to get drunkenly set off. Both male and female voices now organically rise up in a state of orgiastic pleasure. I imagine the husband and wife and some friends letting loose after a benumbed week of white-collar office work. Though by all appearances they’re the near-gentry of the surrounding community, something missing has compelled blowing it all out on this Saturday night. The song comes to a fade and I expect a return to usual order–a follow-up track that won’t touch my heart in the slightest. “ANOTHER WORLD PREMIERE” barks out over the speakers and with goosebumps I immediately recognize the song from the album Kendrick just dropped which I’d locked on my morning drive to work. It’s “LOVE.” I can’t pin my neighbors’ set-list down to accident now—a couple out there from across the gulf of a gravel road and empty field have soundtracked their Friday night to the same record I planned for mine. I drift off into the voice of Kendrick relaxing his neurotic warble into a jarringly human serenade:
So give me a run for my money
Sipping’ bubbly, feelin’ lovely-
Just love me
If I didn’t ride blade on curb would you still
If I’m outta my mind and work would you still
I wanna be with you, ayy
I just wanna be with you.
The bad feelings Kendrick helped me work my way through are still on the ground floor somewhere. Just now, instead, for one minute, we’re ten floors off the ground. I get drowsy pretty quick, sitting outside and listening to music and voices across a street that once seemed miles away. But I get an inkling of the truth a lonely few have uttered through the ages—the Kingdom has already come. What was it that I was thinking of when I woke up this morning? “Tonight, after a couple listens to Kendrick’s album, will I have something interesting to say?” “Can Easter morning the day after next truly bring any sort of resurrection?” I’m drunk—and a little giddy, but I stumble back into my house feeling my fantasy holiday’s become real. K-Dot dropped DAMN. on Good Friday. It was the People, though, who everywhere lifted it up and blessed the release date as St. Kendrick’s Day. The Midwest can seem mad scary—and in a certain sense it definitely is. But it all starts to fall together once you’ve grown the ears to actually hear it.