by Nick Schupak

ast week Kendrick Lamar’s second major label album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” was released on Interscope Records. An artist’s second release is typically a work that can be interchanged with the one that precedes it. Even Yours Truly plan on releasing a follow-up record that one can consider an extension of our debut — a debut that will be completed soon. Of course, we will introduce more than new melodies and lyrics, we will tinker with new styles of composition and arrangement, delivery, perspective and instrumentation, but you likely won’t hear terribly much that might scare you away. There are two primary reasons why artists tend to follow this recipe. The first reason grows out of the run-before-you-can-walk directive. For us, it took a long time to learn The Motor Tom sound because first we had to invent it. Our next step was getting very good at it. Proof of our prowess will be presented in the form of a full-length album, which is nearly finished as of the writing of this article, and proof of our mastery (of our particular and specific form of music) will be presented in the form of our second full-length. The second reason artists tend to follow this recipe is because of branding. You shouldn’t process the term “branding” in the pejorative sense, in the sense that someone sells his soul to Pepsi; but for our purposes, “branding” will mean the process of self-identifying. Since an artist is characterized by the message he or she sends, it is important that the message be delivered clearly.

Things can get muddy for the listener if an artist is at one moment This and the next moment That. But, after enough time together, as with any relationship, a bond of trust emerges; and it’s at this point that the boys from Liverpool can grow beards and their listeners will understand, and love them for it. (Though plenty were thrown for quite the loop when they did.) It’s at this point that the Jewish folk singer can trade his an acoustic guitar for an electric. (Though a lot of people were downright angry about it when it first happened.) With his latest release, Kendrick Lamar bucked the trend and presented a (mostly) new message, lyrically and musically.

His first full-length, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” marked Lamar as the heir apparent to artists like Jay-Z (east v. west antagonism aside), Biggie Smalls, 2-Pac, et al. It also bore an honesty to identify it as something potentially timeless, because, more-so than other musical forms, facade operates as a distancing agent in hip-hop. Rock n Roll has a far easier time being quixotic. The fourth song on the record, “The Art of Peer Pressure” represents Lamar’s uncanny ability to combine confession with accessibility. One line in particular, “Really I’m a peacemaker, but I’m with the homies right now,” encapsulates the confessional trope, which is a mechanism that that would carry over to the next record.

His is a call for global confession, acceptance and peace.

With “To Pimp a Butterfly” he adds poignant sociopolitical critique to the mix, most apparent in the song “The Blacker the Berry,” a chilling, brutal diagnosis of racial identification. As a white person listening to the song, particularly after having listened to the rest of the album that precedes it, one can hardly help but be struck by the depth and constance of what Lamar calls “genocism” that is as persistent as it is pervasive. Consider two phrases from the song’s final verse: “Excuse my French, but fuck you- no, fuck y’all!” and “Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street / When gang bangin’ make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!” On one hand we’ve got a scenario of declaratory self-identification vis-a-vie the exchange of the universal “fuck you” for the markedly black “fuck y’all,” and on the other hand we’ve got a narrator that baldly admits a culture of hypocrisy. As he undertakes this examination of his black culture, Lamar also turns the mirror to the white community, a community that he says quite simply hates black people. While I am sure that many like myself and most every white person with whom I associate are not members the hateful cohort, it would be not only foolish but incorrect to presume that the lens of history does not paint a painfully spiteful picture. Herein lies the essence of Lamar’s message in “To Pimp a Butterfly.” That is, the ridiculousness of what could be deemed cultural hierarchical-ization, a system where white is better than black, essentially, is a symptom of pandemic dishonesty. His is a call for global confession, acceptance and peace. Blacks need to confess to having succumbed to the caricature of blackness; accept that blackness exists and it’s a beautiful thing; and make peace with themselves and one another. Whites need to confess to having been — and being! — enslavers and torturers; accept that phenotypical differentiation is a very cool thing rather than a means to exert privilege; and make peace with themselves and everyone else.

The disaster of inherited responsibility is that it makes us confess to crimes we feel we did not commit.

have a tendency to write in the parlance of academia. I’d like to see if I can’t shed that skin for a moment.

White America doesn’t like admitting that they’ve — ahem — we’ve been fucking assholes for a really, really long time. We in The Motor Tom take great umbrage with that. Kendrick Lamar’s album ought to be as encouraging of white honesty as black honesty, for it is impossible to correct a mistake one refuses to admit. I’m white. I’m American. And I’m often embarrassed to admit as much. That is a sad and unfortunately common truth.

The RKO Coliseum in Washington Heights, NY — photo courtesy of Oscars.org

There wasn’t a Schupak in America until around 1919 when my great grandfather Philip escaped to Washington Heights to make a life, a career and a family. There would have been more Schupaks, but Nazis killed the rest of them. Nevertheless, my Polish roots exist as conduits to past stories, to people who have contributed lessons, status and genetics to me and my kin. I love them for it and feel proud to contain some of them in me.

But as soon as that marking word American got suffixed to my cultural label, or really to my great-grandfather Philip’s, I inherited another shareable past that dictated my present and future identity. Great-grandpa Philip became a Polish-American and I am simply an American, specifically, a white American. (I consider myself a New Yorker above all else, but that’s for a different article.) I was a Settler, a Colonial, a Confederate and a Yankee; I was a slave-owner, a Union soldier, a Reconstructionist and a Mugwump; I was twice an Allie and once a Hippie. My present and future are contoured by the pasts of countless others who contribute to my identity by mere association. But the weakness of connection has no bearing on responsibility. Indeed, I inherit the responsibilities of all those strangers whose names I’ll never know whose lives define what it is to be a white American. The disaster of inherited responsibility is that it makes us confess to crimes we feel we did not commit. But whether you believe in original sin or that we are all made of stars, interconnectedness and the notion of cause and effect are inescapable. So, while the strands of yarn that associate one with another creates a map that is difficult to follow, navigation is nonetheless essential to finding harmony.

As a person grows older he or she acquires more and more responsibilities. So, to me, it seem quite obvious that as mankind grows older the species on the whole acquires more responsibilities. It’s strange to me that this apparently proves to be an unpopular view. We’re all heard the phrase “what separates us from the animals is (blank),” right? If we wanted to complete that phrase with something like a conscience, shouldn’t we be able to do so honestly by now?