Album Review: Kendrick Lamar—“To Pimp A Butterfly”

By Emily Scherzinger & James Li

On his game-changing “Control” verse, Kendrick Lamar took shots at his hip-hop peers and anointed himself the “King of New York,” a ballsy move considering he’s from the West Coast. But heavy is the head that wears the crown. Kendrick spoke in an XXL feature about the pressures of having young fans – many of whom struggle with depression or addiction – hang on his every word. Kendrick must have felt the pressure to top his highly-praised breakout album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, which he boldly billed as a “short film.” But his follow-up album, To Pimp a Butterfly, doesn’t just match good kid, m.A.A.d city’s ambition — it exceeds it.

It’s not like good kid, m.A.A.d city isn’t ambitious, but To Pimp a Butterfly is in an entirely different league. The Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño found it sad that readers preferred short perfect works to long torrential ones, taking Melville’s Bartleby over Moby-Dick or Flaubert’s A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet: “They want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” The same principle applies here: good kid, m.A.A.d city is a perfect exercise, To Pimp a Butterfly is total war.

For starters, To Pimp a Butterfly is Kendrick’s most musically expansive album, drawing deeply from jazz, funk, neo-soul, and even dancehall and Afrobeat. It’s appropriate that Kendrick shouts out Killer Mike on “Hood Politics,” as, on his 2012 album R.A.P. Music, Killer Mike declared that rap music stood for rebellious African people’s music: “this is jazz, this is funk, this is soul, this is gospel.” To Pimp a Butterfly is heavily indebted to these genres not just for their sound but for their power as protest music.

Kendrick is from Compton, and there’s a strong lineage of funk in West Coast rap. But To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t so much the G-Funk of the 90s, but rather the P-Funk of the 70s. George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic even appears on the album opener, “Wesley’s Theory.” That track, like much of the album, is a synthesis of the old and the new, kicking the album off with a poignant Boris Gardiner sample and a James Brown-esque “hit me!” before it launches into a squiggly jazz-rap beat produced by Flying Lotus and propelled by Thundercat’s rapid-fire bass playing.

The contrast between old and new is everywhere on To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s an album that’s indebted to the past, but it’s also refreshingly forward-thinking. Check how he quotes Parliament and Michael Jackson lyrics on the eminently danceable “King Kunta,” flips Radiohead on “How Much a Dollar Cost?,” and Sufjan Stevens on “Hood Politics.” The jazz beats are bolstered by some excellent live instrumentation, courtesy of Thundercat on bass, Robert Glasper on piano, and Terrace Martin on just about everything else.

Album art for To Pimp a Butterfly

Album art for To Pimp a Butterfly

Kendrick also refuses to spit straight bars, opting to take on several personas and plying his voice to fit them. The hard bop piano-driven interlude “For Free?” has Kendrick slamming like a jazz poet: “This! Dick! Ain’t! FREE!” Kendrick hollers, “Loving you is complicated,” repeatedly on “u” until we realize that he’s talking to himself. The song’s conclusion is Kendrick at his most emotionally fraught, as he chokes back tears and slams a drink. On “The Blacker the Berry,” he screams that he’s the “biggest hypocrite of 2015,” at first an attempt to deflect racial self-hate, but as it goes on, he gives into it. And then there’s the album’s recurring coda, where Kendrick wrangles with fame: “I remember you was conflicted / Misusing your influence.”

The thread that runs through all of these tracks is the theme of self-love. When “i,” the first single off To Pimp a Butterfly came out, Kendrick’s fans were divided. It was a sunny slice of Pharrell-influenced pop, but hip-hop heads who craved another song like “Control” were disappointed. The timing couldn’t be worse, too — after the police-related deaths of unarmed black males like Michael Brown and Eric Garner, was “I love myself” the best rallying cry Kendrick could come up with?

But To Pimp a Butterfly is a complicated exploration of self-love. “I love myself” is a simple declaration, but later on in the song, Kendrick talks about “dealing with depression ever since an adolescent.” Kendrick deftly explores the implications of America’s legacy of racism within the context of mental health, an issue that is commonly reserved for discussion among upper-class white people.

Kendrick suggests that self-love is hard-earned, especially when the world you live in is built to keep you down. For example, on “u,” Kendrick blames himself for his teenaged sister ending up pregnant and his best friend getting killed. He tells his reflection in the mirror: “I place blame on you still / Place shame on you still / Feel like you ain’t shit / Feel like you don’t feel / Confidence in yourself, breakin’ on marble floors.” But on “King Kunta,” named after the titular slave in Alex Haley’s Roots, Kendrick boasts that he’s going from being “a peasant to a prince to a motherfuckin’ king.” And on a monologue on “i,” Kendrick delves into the history of the “infamous, sensitive n-word” in this case, though, the n-word is “negus” – Kendrick reclaims a racial slur by bending it into an Ethiopian royal title.

So this album is not necessarily about meek, one-dimensional declarations of black self-love. Instead, it is a declaration of aggressive self-love, to the point that it can be a weapon that comes in many forms:

To assert that, despite the boundaries of a racist world that strangles your very view of what is possible, you are still going to be out here stuntin’ on everyone, that you will love yourself and love yourself excessively, is powerful beyond measure. And as many black artists have said before, for black folks to love themselves is a political act. The poet Audre Lorde captures it best: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

As we learn on To Pimp a Butterfly, love is hard, and loving yourself in the face of adversity is even harder.

Listeners are also taken into Kendrick’s mind in “These Walls,” in which he repeats, “If these walls could talk,” in order to represent the isolating walls of his mind; however, walls are commonly used as symbols of strength, as they hold up peoples’ homes, the place where they are meant to feel most safe. And just like “These Walls,” every single aspect of To Pimp a Butterfly is multi-faceted — lyrics can be construed as gasps for mercy or rallying cries (“Institutionalized”); songs that detail racialized bodies at the lowest rung of society are reframed to place these bodies at the highest (“King Kunta”); and labels, such as “crazy” or “schizophrenic,” are reworked to depict a legitimate response to societal trauma (“The Blacker the Berry”).

There’s a lot of conflicting messages on To Pimp a Butterfly, but these dualities aren’t necessarily hypocritical. On “Hood Politics,” he criticizes institutional racism that runs from “Compton to Congress” but at the same time, he turns his rage at black-on-black violence – is it hypocritical to cry over Trayvon Martin when you perpetrate violence yourself? There’s also Kendrick’s complicated relationship with women. He tells off a selfish girlfriend on “For Free” and personifies the evils of temptation as a devil-like figure named Lucy, but he also depicts women as sources of wisdom (“You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”) or people to be elevated (“Complexion (A Zulu Love)”). It’s interesting that the only rap feature on To Pimp a Butterfly goes to female MC Rapsody, a stunning verse that elevates black men as “magnificent” and women as “queens,” regardless of their skin tone.

Perhaps most extraordinarily, though, is Kendrick’s interpellation of the listener into the album. If good kid, m.A.A.d city was a short film, then To Pimp a Butterfly is a feature-length movie in which Kendrick consistently breaks the fourth-wall through his many personalities’ voices in order to bring the lived reality of living in racialized America to the listener’s ears. In “King Kunta,” a voiceover wedged between two gunshots says, “By the time you hear the next pop, the funk shall be within you,” a hint towards brainwashing that will occur regardless of the listener’s skin tone.

The thesis of To Pimp a Butterfly might be the closing track, “Mortal Man.” Kendrick compares himself to a prophet, but it’s not to boast. He looks at political leaders like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X and cultural icons like Jackie Robinson and Michael Jackson and wonders if he’ll get killed or fall from grace like they were. So he asks his listeners – maybe the same ones who say they hang on his every word: “When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?”

There are two icons at the heart of “Mortal Man,” though. The first is Nelson Mandela. Kendrick deeply wants to follow in Mandela’s footsteps, even having visited Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned, to do some soul-searching. The other is Tupac Shakur, a more controversial icon. Using an archival interview, Kendrick holds an imagined conversation with Tupac: “What you think is the future for me and my generation today?” 2Pac suggests that there will be a bloody uprising: “it’s gonna be like Nat Turner, 1831.”

But will Tupac’s prediction actually come true? Kendrick seems to suggest that the world can be saved by “music and vibrations,” but what kind of music? He seems to suggest the kind of music that will be warfare in and of itself. As Kendrick explains, “Sometimes I be like, get behind a mic and I don’t know what type of energy I’mma push out, or where it comes from.” His music comes from the horrific history of racism that still remains a lived reality for the many Americans. Tupac agrees, stating that “we ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us” — homies that may be dead from gang violence, police brutality, and, as Kendrick details, all-encompassing trauma.

Tupac is a contradictory character — he did ballet and wrote poetry, he was politically radical, and he glorified the gangsta lifestyle. He wrote “Dear Mama,” but he also wrote “Hit ‘Em Up.” In this way, Kendrick sees a lot of himself in Tupac, especially when he spends the whole album detailing his conflicted feelings and calling himself a hypocrite. Tupac is also widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, rappers of all time, so for Kendrick to put himself in conversation with him, especially at the end of the album, suggests that Kendrick is taking the torch that Tupac once held both in terms of musical skill and political radicalism. Tupac once said, “I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.”

Are we saying that Kendrick is changing the world right now? No. But when a rapper has a mainstream platform and chooses to make a musically progressive masterpiece that delves into personal conflict and racial politics, it’s because they want to. Kendrick might just be that brain that Pac talked about. (Interscope)

Listen: “The Blacker the Berry”

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