Kendrick Lamar's just released album, To Pimp a Butterfly, is a soulful collision of hip hop, jazz, funk, and Afrofuturism. Feeling less like an album, but perhaps more of a personal manifesto, Lamar plumbs the depths of the black conscious with dark humor and piercing cultural references on this sprawling follow-up to his 2012 good kid, m.A.A.d. city debut. A tour de force, TPAB has easily spurred think pieces and hyperbole from a myriad of social critics, but it's Taylor Swift's response to the album that has made us pause.
Taylor is a Lamar fan — gushing, profuse, as she is about most things. When the album dropped, she tweeted she simply could not be touched until she had a full listening. Perhaps she retreated to some cavernous room of her New York penthouse to study the lyrics, alliterations, production, and liner notes (as we all did), only taking intermittent meals or restroom breaks. Taylor seemed super *serious*, y'know? Days later, though, she emerged and tweeted the following.
Is she really reducing an album — unapologetic in its blackness and confrontation of American race relations — to an image of two white women frolicking in the sun?
This is not to suggest that two white women cannot assert themselves as hip hop fans — that's too simplistic of an argument — but somehow it feels as though Swift's cursory read of Lamar's salient treatise on race, fame, and political resistance is ostensibly about her. Instead of referencing stand-out lines from Lamar's 16-song body of work ("King Kunta," the title of the album's critical favorite, is an obvious hashtag that has been employed repeatedly) or tweeting a Photoshopped image of Lamar talking to TuPac Shakur (also a reference to the album), Taylor instead uses an outtake from her own Vogue photo shoot with supermodel bestie Karlie Kloss. Clueless and trivial, it feels like self-promotion disguised as an expression of admiration.
It isn't just Swift's clumsy tweet that's grossly problematic, but the pop star regular insertion of herself into many artists' indelible moments. While Kanye West is perhaps infamous for cutting off Swift's acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards ("I'mma let you finish…"), she's enacted a similar, if not wholly signature, form of intrusion. In fact, that public embarrassment with West allowed for Swift to become a literal focal point at award shows ever since: No camera can resist cutting to gauge her reaction to another star's success.
One example: Her effusive chair-dancing at this year's Grammys, with Pharrell smiling knowingly at the performativity of it all. Another: Taylor interjecting into the national debate around Kanye West's incendiary comments about Beck's Grammy win, only to announce plans to collaborate with her one-time nemesis. Swift has a deft ability to hijack the spotlight from anything in her path with a studied, almost affected guilelessness. This makes Tay a shrewd businesswoman, I will give her that, I also think it makes her a thirstbucket.
You see, Taylor Swift is a pop beacon and I reckon she doesn't like culture to happen without her. It's like any moment in pop music must happen around Taylor, and any major player in the music industry must be a part of her largely engineered core group of friends. (Please see her cloyingly asking Jay Z to brunch in this clip. He laughs at the idea.) Swift may not know the words to a song, or in the case of Lamar's album, the meaning of it at all, but she will attempt (at all costs) to appear on beat at all times.
While Taylor loves to hog the spotlight, Taylor's cursory preoccupation with music and culture lends itself to the greater idea that the appearance of a certain taste level is more important than actual connoisseurship. To steal a phrase from Haley Mlotek's incisive essay "Free Joan Didion," Kendrick Lamar acts as a "mental shortcut" for Taylor Swift: she doesn't need to elaborate on TPAB because a passing reference to it is a way to tacitly express a certain level of musical and cultural aptitude. Mental shortcuts of this nature "require very little explanation to a very large group of people, representing a class of consumers." In other words: Game recognizes game. But Mlotek argues that taste is, ultimately, an idea regarding "worthiness" and if one is able to exude good taste, "we maybe, perhaps become worthy of the attention we crave."
Which is to say, when Swift acknowledges Lamar's greatness, she in turn acknowledges her own.
Swift's tone deaf reaction move forces you to in turn question whether she actually listened to TPAB. Her misguided response seems dismissive or blithely unaware of the gang-embattled Compton or black respectability politics that Lamar raps about — which is fair, given her privileged vantage point of being white, female, and from wealth. However. She still uses its acclaim to help bolster her street cred and her brand — a brand that stands in stark opposition to Lamar's. Like Elvis and Miley Cyrus before her, Swift uses a proximity to black culture to help build edge (which just might be the most pop music thing she's done since crossing over from country).
Swift's attachment to this groundbreaking project — and so many big moments in music — has me wondering if she latches on so as not to be left behind. We're just three months into 2015 and we are already reveling over some of the most important musical works in years; from D'Angelo's Black Messiah to Drake's If You're Reading This It's Too Late — and we're still waiting on works from Kanye West, Rihanna, and Frank Ocean. Music is entering new terrain, often circumventing the stronghold of pop (Taylor's territory), and instead leaning on the influence of hip hop and R&B for innovation. You have to wonder if Taylor can keep up.
Marjon Carlos is a style and culture writer for Fusion who boasts a strong turtleneck game and opinions on the subjects of fashion, gender, race, pop culture, and men's footwear.