Sadly I have never been into rap so the following review may fall into the errors of a noob. The first time I have sincerely listened to hip hop was Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! last year where I was taken aback by the power of his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, and how his quick line dropping resonated with me was a huge surprise. Kendrick’s latest album, To Pimp A Butterfly is a continuation of that unexpected pull I felt when listening to Never Catch Me. As a white eastern European I haven’t had to deal with racial prejudice too much personally, or by proxy, and yet this record speaks to me very strongly. But to reduce it only to its views on blackness, prejudice and social struggle would be to sever one of the wings of the pimped butterfly in question and Lamar’s work is so much more than just social commentary.
In its massive ambition, Kendrick’s album tackles the classic yet unsolvable issues of fame, aesthetic honesty and coherence, choosing art over politics, social implications of success and wealth and other heavy, heavy stuff, but at its core, it’s about his own anxiety, self-doubt and difficulty in coping with great achievement. The beats throughout the album reflect all this turmoil by being mainly collages of classic funk and soul samples, jazz licks, errant phrases and serve a more narrative purpose than a strictly groovy one. They scream, they interrupt, they pierce closely following Kendrick’s progress through stardom, pride, doubt, communal resentment, depression, and some sort of redemption and acceptance of responsibility at the end. King Kunta marches proudly, the two interludes For Free and For Sale drift in and out of jazz grooves, in perfect sync with lyrical content and delivery. All the aspects of the songs gel so well together despite their often unpredictable movements that you cannot but wonder at how heavy, but still satisfying a listen through the entire album is.
Wesley’s Theory kicks open the album with teenage dreams of wealth and fame counterpointed by anxiety of coping with the immense pressure of stardom, themes treated on a more materialistic level in the following interlude, For Free. Here focus starts shifting towards the racial aspect of the album underlining the contradiction between an ancestry of enslavement and social repression and being rich and famous, and all the inherent confusion in trying to be conscious of both. King Kunta preaches dignity and pride above all that is oppression and violence and introduces the finest element of the whole album, Kendrick’s poem developing as a leitmotif throughout most songs and culminating in the genius outro of the album. Next is a series of introspective, downward spiralling meditations on betrayal and prison life (These Walls) weakness and cowardice (u), self-delusion (Alright), temptation and compromise (For Sale? – Interlude) and meekness and penitence (Momma). Turning towards the communal, Kendrick first pleads for the need of art being outside politics, also admitting his guilt of choosing the aesthetic over partisan bias on Hood Politics, after which he gets really into social commentary. Complexion (A Zulu Love) decries strife within the black community based on skin tone, while The Blacker the Berry and You ain’t gotta lie attack black stereotypes and clichés, but also the sadness of being overtaken by such images and unwillingly reinforcing them, wishing a return to an honest and moral presentation of the black self. i is a final falling in sync with one’s self and one’s community ties, a final acceptance of your own status and achievements or failures, and also a wonderful production trick. Kendrick chose a live performance rather then the polished production of the previously released single, wonderfully emphasizing his point of being within your community, accepting roots and origins, while learning the stand as an individual and develop on your own. The album closer, Mortal Man, further emphasizes this final acceptance of responsibility, the need to take strong, yet peaceful action and finding his place in a role model canon.
And as if the whole introspective story of finding your way and accepting responsibility was not deep enough, the album turns extra meta with Kendrick’s poem which he keeps getting back to periodically. This poem flows along the whole album and is finally revealed in full in the imagined interview with Tupac. This outro summarizes the whole album into a conversation between the two rappers, showing Kendrick asking for advice from one of his great idols and cultural predecessors, seeking guidance from someone who already went through these troubles, but Tupac can only do so much to help him. Kendrick exposes his anxieties in the final poem synthesizing the whole album into the metaphor of the caterpillar and the butterfly, but Tupac is already gone. He has to accept his role, his own idol status and start becoming the kind of role model he wishes to be. The album ends with pride, but also with fear of taking this task on by himself. The three calls for Tupac’s response which end the piece perfectly encapsulate this feeling of hope and uncertainty in suddenly realizing immense responsibility which you have to handle on your own.
To Pimp A Butterfly is filled to the brim with everything from grand themes, musical adventures and unexpected turns of phrase (lyrical and sonic) to great supporting artists (Snoop Dogg, Thundercat, Flying Lotus, George Clinton, and a handful of others) and can be quite a tiring experience. It takes lots of emotional sharp turns, shifts perspective from deeply personal to communal and grand a great number of times and is deeply literary in its development. Funny thing is, Kendrick keeps insisting that he wants to be a great leader and a great spokesperson for his community, which he probably will be soon enough, but in the process of devising these ambitions he has undoubtedly become a great artist.