Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding Model of Communication suggests that audiences actively derive their own meaning from media texts, whether these meanings are dominant, negotiated or oppositional (Knite, 2016). In the case of Kendrick Lamar’s cover art for his third studio album, To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB), the collective audience interpreted the text that may not have been the way Lamar had intended. This is known as the negotiated reading.
The album cover – taken by photographer Denis Rouvre – depicts a group of black men and children celebrating in front of the White House, with a white judge at their feet, presumably dead. Lamar commented on the photo, saying it represents “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” (Weekes, 2017). A seemingly simple explanation to an album cover, however to me and many other viewers, the album cover represented a lot more.
The TPAB cover art encapsulated the albums themes of race, self-love/hate and the trials and tribulations of an African-American man in modern America. Much like he embraces the stereotypes of an African-American man in songs like The Blacker the Berry, Lamar continues this through the imagery of cash, alcohol and chains. As Obama once stated, “there’s no doubt that Hip-Hop culture moves our young people powerfully. And some of it is not just a reflection of reality, it also creates reality” (Weekes, 2017).
My interpretation of the image is that, while Lamar portrays a reality of a stereotypical African-American juxtaposed to the White House, he is also demonstrating the life of an African-American man in ‘White America’. From the teenagers shown holding cash, indicating what kind of society the children are born into in such gang territories, to the adults who embrace this through gang hand signs. It’s an endless cycle. And all of this is taking place under the American flag, right in front of the White House, representing the ignorance of institutional authorities who are supposed to take action towards stopping the violence (Adam, 2015). Much like the album, To Pimp A Butterfly’s cover art is a masterpiece; that beautifully reflects the continually conflictual relationship between African-Americans and ‘White America’.
Adam 2017, ‘Kendrick Lamar’s New Album Title is ‘To Pimp A Butterfly and Analysis of Album Cover’, justrandomthings, 25 September, viewed on 23 March, <http://justrandomthings.com/2015/03/11/kendrick-lamars-new-album-title-is-to-pimp-a-butterfly-and-analysis-of-album-cover/>.
Knite N 2016, ‘Encoding / Decoding Theory’, MediaKnite, 2016, viewed 23 March, <http://www.mediaknite.org/encoding-decoding/>.
Weekes J 2017, ‘How Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ Artwork Is The Lasting Document of America’s Hip-Hop President’, Noisey, 26 January, viewed 23 March, <https://noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/vvz45j/how-kendrick-lamars-to-pimp-a-butterfly-artwork-is-the-lasting-document-of-americas-hip-hop-president>.