Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Universal)
To Pimp a Butterfly, which suddenly went on sale March 16, in no way lends itself to 140-character reviews on the day of release: this is multi-layered, intense and—while still providing visceral pleasures, like singles “King Kunta” and “i”—demands to be studied as literature, as jazz, as a time capsule of Black America in 2015.
Start with the music. Lamar’s sonic vision is even more expansive than Kanye West’s, drawing from the futuristic electronic jazz of his L.A. neighbours Flying Lotus and Thundercat as well as vintage jazz and fusion and funk and rock and abstract tone poems. This is a headphone record, best absorbed in a sitting. It’s as ambitious as Janelle Monae or Shabazz Palaces or D’Angelo or the Roots, but is on a whole other trip of its own.
Like Drake, Lamar has a complicated relationship to his newfound fame. Unlike Drake, Lamar takes his self-reflection to fascinating places, and drops enough references to 400 years of African-American history, literature and culture along the way to fill a university course (or a Spike Lee film—and this album’s mash-up of jazz and hip-hop and history fiery politics makes it this generation’s Do The Right Thing).
He’s not just wrestling with his own demons; he’s wrestling with the devil itself (known here as “Lucy,” or Lucifer). He’s worried that he’s turning his back on his friends on the tough L.A. streets of Compton, where his friends are dying, the same neighbourhood that birthed West Coast gangsta rap. He reflects on a visit to South Africa last year, which informs many of the musings here. “The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it,” he sings. Can you imagine Bono trying to get away with that line? (Wait, don’t answer that). But coming as it does, from Lamar, near the end of a lyrically and musically dense masterpiece, it’s as honest as the self-lacerating missives from a depressive state in which Lamar wrote most of the album.
Ah yes, depression: real pain, real misery. Not whining about mo’ money, mo’ problems (see: Drake). So much of hip-hop—hell, pop music in general—is about masking depression, pretending it doesn’t exist or willing it away. Lamar stares it in the face and gives it a voice, a character, a flow. Other than Lucinda Williams’s 2007 album West, I can’t recall an album that gets this dark, this inquisitive, this honest about the invisible disease.
But that’s only part of the picture. To Pimp a Butterfly is about Lamar’s ability to connect his personal struggles to the state of his neighbourhood to the state of America to the state of the world that sets him apart. Throughout, he balances reflection and vitriol, repeatedly calls himself a hypocrite, and crafts a hook out of the phrase: “Shit don’t change until you wash your ass.”
In a year when activists, in response to police shootings, coined the phrase “Black lives matter,” Lamar raps: “It’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society / that’s what you’re telling me.” Except, of course, that Lamar is anything but. He’s a badly needed social critic, a poet, an experimental artists and a pop star. A rare and essential combination.
Download: “The Blacker the Berry,” “King Kunta,” “i”