Column: off the record ..., vol. 16-715
March 20, 2016
One of the best albums of 2015 was Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. I know I'm not alone in this assessment, but I feel quite strongly about it as an artistic piece. It is an astonishingly honest, angry, frustrated and NSFW statement from a young man who has seen far too much violence in his 28 years.
My favorite track on the album is the first song, "Wesley's Theory." Named for Wesley Snipes' tax problems, it's a very tongue-in-cheek piece about spending the first couple decades of your life trying to avoid going to prison due to the violence in your community, only to have to face the new reality of going to jail due to avoidance of taxes on a newly enlarged hip-hop star income. The most intense song on the album is "The Blacker The Berry." It is Kendrick raging at himself, exploding at his internalized racism and despairing at the situation he finds his community in. It makes me want to cry when I listen to it, sometimes. "So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!" (If you do listen to those songs, I highly recommend reading the lyrics while you do it.)
I've been listening to this album a lot lately. I don't listen to a ton of hip-hop and rap. When I do, I gravitate to the outwardly creative artists like Missy Elliott and Outkast, even if they aren't as prolific as they used to be. There is a lot of hip-hop that I don't feel like I can honestly understand. I don't come from the societal frustration and sadness that inspires much of it, especially on such an overwhelming scale as conditions that affect an entire race.
Kendrick is something special, though. He's energetic, intelligent, creative and expresses his message adeptly. He raps and sings in a variety of voices to convey different messages and become different characters. In some ways, he's Kanye without the crazy. I've been thinking about him in relation to U2 as well lately. There's not a whole lot of music that affects me so deeply, that hits my logic and emotion cores so throughly, but the songs of U2 and Kendrick Lamar do. They grew up in more or less developed cultures that were still regularly affected by violence. The violence that U2 had to grow up with was inspired by religious and political segregation; the violence that Kendrick sees is inspired by racial and economic segregation. These are completely pathetic ways to justify hurting someone else, but they exist.
U2 aren't as angry or sad as they used to be. They still make angry and sad music, although it is much less frequent, and what they do make isn't as much of a gut punch as songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" or "Please." They've all got families, they've got so much more freedom, they've got comfort. I don't begrudge anyone these benefits. For many people, they are the goal of a life of work and effort. For artists, though, they can dull the blade. It's a weird situation to be in as a fan of their art: I don't wish anyone to feel suffering, but I miss the art that their emotional suffering inspired. I thoroughly enjoy the arc their careers have taken, and I deeply value what U2 are today immensely. They're wiser, more experienced, more able. At this point they function as examples as much as creators. But I want to hear Bono rage-yell again in live songs. The Innocence + Experience incarnation of "Bullet The Blue Sky" was a breath of fresh air to what had become a musty live song, so they still have it in them. It's just ... smaller.
U2 seem to have turned a corner in their musical self-assessment. Bono spent quite a while wondering what U2 needed to be relevant. They seem to have recognized that they may not ever be at a peak of cultural power again, at least not in the same way as they were in the late 1980s, and then again in the early 1990s, and then again in the early 2000s. Given Adam's comments in the Grantland interview last year, they seem to be considering that they are at a point where making art for art's sake may be a better focus than making art for everyone. But I get the feeling it's because that's where the culture is putting them, not because they're cool with it.
When U2 talk about their influences and what they're drawing inspiration currently from, it always seems like they're talking about artists who are decades old. If they do want to make a bid for modern relevance outside of being massively distributed by Apple, perhaps looking at something modern and truly energizing like To Pimp A Butterfly would be a good place to go. As Bono has said, modern western rock is a combination of European melodies and African rhythms. I would argue that U2 have mastered the European side of their music, especially in their last four albums. They seem to love hip-hop culture, but what could they build if they internalized the best of it into their music more?
Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.
© @U2/Ryan, 2016.