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>.
Really interesting that you mentioned Obama. I seem to remember an article on Vice a while back which was Kendrick’s reflections on his and Obama’s meetup together in the White House when Kendrick performed there (tried to find the article while i was writing this but it made my computer spaz out since I probably have like 10 other programs running rn). Anyway basically Obama said something along the lines of how profound it was for them, as two black men, to be sitting together in the white house able to discuss political issues relating to youth in Americas society, and this album cover is certainly just more reference to how this discussion of ideals about big issues based on skin colour are becoming more appropriate to talk about.
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Hey Frank, I love how you wrote this blog about something you are knowledgeable and passionate about. I also love how you emphasise your knowledge of encoding and decoding in the 1st paragraph to convey your own knowledge to other people who are not familiar with it. The photo in itself seems simple yet so complex when you truly uncover the different meanings which can be derived from it. In the last paragraph you express your interpretation from the image which portrays a unique perspective, emphasising the different interpretations which can arise from one simple, yet in a way, complex image.
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Great blog post Frank! first look at the image, I noticed the large amount of African-American’s (dominantly males), holding money, weapons and alcohol, posing in front of the white house. Your blog helped me question the ideologies around it. The group of males being positioned at the bottom of the white house, with the ‘white’ judge tied up and eyes crossed out and the bottom, it potentially gives the men power, especially since they are holding weapons and money. With this album being released in 2015, how do you think this image portrays what was going on in America during this time? Would be very interesting to know how Kendrick’s lyrics also relate.
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I think the image says a lot about the political climate of 2015, especially with BLM being at its peak (a result that Kendrick definitely played a role in). If you check out genius.com, they have breakdowns of Kendrick’s lyrics and its really interesting how people interpret what he is saying. Genius.com is actually a perfect example of representation/interpretation, with people differently interpreting lyrics and then voicing them online, allowing them to compare with others. Thanks for your comment!