Imagery has always been an instrumental narrative to Kendrick Lamar's music. Whether it's his mother's van that houses the tales of his youth in Compton on the cover of good kid m.A.A.d City or the picture of a mother breastfeeding her children as a way to discuss the origins of African-Americans in "The Blacker the Berry," there's a visual commentary that hints to a major theme in his music. Similarly, To Pimp a Butterfly's album artwork encapsulates the album's frank discussions on race, self-love/hate, and most of all, to be black in America. But in recent times, in much the same way The Roots did with Things Fall Apart and its depiction of humanity's failure in the civil rights era or Green Day's American Idiot symbolism of post 9/11 turmoil, TPAB's cover has come to be one of the most powerful and representative pieces of iconography of the Obama era.
The photo—taken by famed photographer Denis Rouvre under the direction of Kendrick Lamar and TDE CEO Dave Free (otherwise known as visual duo The Little Homies) and Vlad Sepetov—depicts a group of primarily black men and children in a celebratory display in front of the White House, with the rapper in the center holding a child. At their feet lies a white judge with his eyes crossed out, the presumption being that he's dead. According to Lamar, the photo represents, "just taking a group of the homies who haven't seen the world and putting them in these places that they haven't necessarily seen, or only on TV and showing them something different other than the neighbourhood and them being excited about it. That's why they have them wild faces on there." In another sense, the image represents the long-traveled road of bringing your kin up to that front lawn and the joyful exhale of closing the gap between literal black and white. And it's in this way TPAB cover art also symbolizes Obama's invitation of hip-hop and, by proxy, blackness into the White House.
Rouvre's choice in lighting and exposure reveals the well-worn scars and burns on the skin of all the subjects as they proudly show off the bottles and cash in their hand within the foreground. Every detail of the picture pops juxtaposed against the faded backdrop of the White House, as Lamar and co. metaphorically illustrate the gutted urban communities in D.C.'s Southeast area that surround the presidential mansion in reality. Likewise, hip-hop has always orbited around the politics of the president, leveling criticism at its greatest antagonists like Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. The idea, however, of getting inside the Oval Office always felt far off so when a person of colour made an attempt, artists got behind it. But it wasn't always so easy. In 1984, DJ Grandmaster Flash and Melle-Mel made a song called "Jesse," a tribute to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who would make history as the second black presidential candidate to run and would also ignore or refuse to recognize the song in any meaningful way. (In his defense, MC and political activist Sister Souljah would speak at his Rainbow Coalition forum several years later). And then, of course, there was Kanye's inescapable Bush moment in 2006. Yet, by the time Obama made his 2007 run for president, hip-hop was the dominant genre in popular music and the future president understood it as an important tool solicit votes—one of his first major pre-presidential co-signs would be Ludacris—and to gain young voters. His ability to embed and allude to elements of rap on the campaign trail felt like genuine appreciation for the first time.
That's not to say Obama embraced it without critique. "There's no doubt that hip-hop culture moves our young people powerfully. And some of it is not just a reflection of reality," he'd state. "It also creates reality. I think that if all our kids see is a glorification of materialism and bling and casual sex and kids... then they are getting an unrealistic picture of what the world is like." Still, when Obama finally became elected president he would invite black people from all spaces, especially creative, into the affairs of the White House. A space we had literally never occupied before in such numbers with the likes of JAY Z, Chance The Rapper, The Roots, De La Soul, Nicki Minaj, Wale, Janelle Monae, Killer Mike, and Common to name a few. The presence of these artists is all the more important when considering one simple fact: the White House is not only a traditionally non-black space but is, in fact, a landmark of black oppression.
Referenced by both Barack and Michelle, D.C. commissioners in 1792, according to White House Historical Association's website, "planned to import workers from Europe" but response was dismal so they "turned to African-Americans — enslaved and free — to provide the bulk of labor that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings." While the Obamas have altered that narrative to a degree by way of Barack's own presence, Lamar's cover art calls for a more forceful entry of the space we built. He notes on "Wesley's Theory," the album's opening track, "I'mma put the Compton swap meet by the White House/ Republican run up, get socked out," and it's the spirit of this sentiment that mirrors the inclusion we've seen over the last eight years. However, it's the following line (Hit the Pres with a Cuban link on my neck/ Uneducated, but I got a million-dollar check like that) that underlies Lamar's own relationship with the president.
The mutual admiration between Lamar and Obama is well documented. In a live YouTube Q&A where Obama was asked who between Lamar and Drake would win in a rap battle, he chose the former and has gone on record several times to declare his praise TPAB and album cut "How Much a Dollar Cost." Kendrick, too, has always been an ardent observer of Obama, referencing the nature of his politics in songs like "Hood Politics." Their first public meeting, though, would come when Lamar and other prominent musicians were called to discuss a new initiative of the president called My Brother's Keeper, "meant to help younger generations of blacks and other minorities stay on the right path" through mentorship. Reflecting on the moment in "Pay It Forward," a 2016 PSA in support of Obama's mentorship program, Kendrick said, "I sat down with President Barack Obama and shared the same views. Topics concerning the inner cities, the problems, the solutions, and furthermore embracing the youth, both being aware that mentoring saves lives." The video carries on Lamar's personal manifesto of caretaking for those in your community and showing that they "have a place in the world." This sentiment seems to colour much of what Lamar admires in Obama, as he'd mention to XXL. "I meet a lot of people in high places and sometimes they get so detached from the world and from the people, they don't even know how to interact with you. Basically watching him interact with my mother, my little niece, myself as a human, I think that's the greatest thing. "
To be treated like a human is a simple ask, but countless times the black community has had to remind the rest of the world of this fact while being slain without cause, telling ourselves that we're "alright" even in the most dire circumstances. It's this idea of endurance that Rouvre seems to capture so well for the TPAB cover through his claustrophobic framing of the group that projects an aura of invincibility and fortitude. The cover art also illuminates some of the Obama era's most glaring issues in hip-hop and politics. For Obama, it's a reminder of the people he tried to serve dutifully but fell short because of his own lofty, optimistic visions of a unified country as well as continued resistance on the part of the Republican party and a populace that refused to acknowledge racial discrimination. TPAB's cover then emphasizes rap's relentless alliance to masculinity that has continued to overlook women. It's quite literal within the context of the photo, as the several women in the group are barely visible amongst the crowd of men. What's left is the idea of the dead "Republican" judge from "Wesley's Theory" who by all recent accounts is alive and well through President Donald Trump, who invites black artists and entertainers to exploit for photo ops.
Brief as it may have been, for a brief eight years, through Obama, blackness and hip-hop culture found a place in the White House. Regardless of who the new occupant is—and in fact even more now—we should let the image of the men, children, and women jubilantly displayed on the lawn they built remind us of how central this narrative is to American politics. Black people aren't going anywhere although a long, long road lies ahead. And though now but a fond memory, To Pimp A Butterfly's music and imagery best exemplifies this as a something of a relic of this moment, a fact that's not lost on Lamar. "I think the world, not just hip-hop, owes him," he said of the president. "We all have to give him his credit due for even allowing us into the building. We [will] probably never get inside that house ever again." Hopefully, he's wrong on this one.
Jabbari Weekes has spent a lot of time looking at photos. Follow him on Twitter.