Instead of reviewing a film, I am branching out this week to review Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp A Butterfly, which in many ways is just as narratively complex and wildly visual as some of the greatest films out there. TPAB is Kendrick’s second album from a major record label and not only does he avoid falling into a sophomore slump, but he also manages to compose one of the most important albums in a most opportune time.
In his previous album good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick showed us a life once lived in Compton. His deeply personal anecdotes, which include detailed imagery of the tragic deaths of friends and family, the life of a hustler and gangster, the ups and downs of his love life, and the disenfranchised African-American in America, shed light on Kendrick’s many conflicting personas. good kid, m.A.A.D city is not just an album but a diary and a confessional. Despite its rawness, GKMC also contained a lot of songs to jam to (“M.A.A.D City” and “Backstreet Freestyle” come to mind). Although it is less personal, which is not necessarily a negative thing, To Pimp A Butterfly is an unapologetically political album. It dares to spit venom at the “cocoon that institutionalizes” African-Americans while sharply critiquing blacks for failing to unify. It is simultaneously a call-to-arms and a heartfelt plea. At the same time, Kendrick questions his own fame and legitimacy as not only a hip-hop artist but also a voice for the disenfranchised. Here, he is a mad figure who feels neutered by society and music is the only solace.
Before the album’s release, Kendrick Lamar said that he wants his songs to be called “statements,” not singles. Perhaps, this was his way of foreshadowing the album’s uncompromising vision and dense politics. However, in the first half of the album, Kendrick is more contemplative about his fame. With “Wesley’s Theory,” which melds Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigger Is A Star,” the electronic influence of Flying Lotus, and George Clinton, TPAB begins where good kid, m.A.A.d city left off. Dr. Dre reminds Kendrick about the time he was in his mansion. Dre tells him “anybody can get it, the hard part is keeping it.” Clinton later warns, “Lookin’ down is quite a drop.” In “King Kunta,” it’s 70s inspired funk that references Alex Haley’s Roots and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Possessing “the yam” that “brought it out of Richard Pryor” and “manipulated Bill Clinton with desires,” Kendrick illustrates how everyone is trying to chop him down from the echelon of hip-hop.
The album slowly descends into madness and the avant-garde with “u,” which serves as an antithetical companion piece to the hit single “i.” While “i” is a declaration for peace and self-love, “u” is a dark track that has Kendrick snarling repeatedly, “Loving you is complicated” in the hook. Here, Kendrick comes to full realization that while he has risen to fame, wealth, and power, life in Compton serves as a reminder that his brothers and sisters are still living in a societal and emotional ghetto. It is in “i” when Kendrick digs himself out of this conundrum and takes action. The album version of “i” is now a live rendition, where Kendrick raps before a rowdy audience. In a powerful moment, Kendrick asks, “How many niggas we done lost bro? / This, this year alone?” He later intones, “So we ain’t got time to waste time my nigga / Niggas gotta make time bro / The judge make time.” Kendrick then breaks into acapella, turning a disorderly audience into a unified one as they quiet down and listen.
Like ketchup out of the bottle, Kendrick’s rage, dread, and anger pour out, reflecting the collective attitude and sentiment of blacks today. Kendrick culminates all of the internal and external exasperation and struggle in the hit single “Blacker the Berry,” which also serves as a response against critics who criticized him for his comments on Ferguson. While he simultaneously displays black pride and chastises his oppressors with “I’m African-American, I’m African / I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan,” Kendrick is also fully aware of the hypocrisy and contradiction. He admits, “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street? / When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? / Hypocrite!” However, a consistent theme that runs throughout the album is the notion of self-worth and self-respect.
In “Mortal Man,” Kendrick conducts a spiritual interview with Tupac Shakur as they share personal reflections about the life of a black man and the pursuit of the American Dream. Within that is a struggle to break the bonds that cement African-Americans. Kendrick compares the black man with a caterpillar, who consumes its environment in order to survive. However, the most striking part of this interview is when Tupac declares that in this country, the black man only has five years to “exhibit maximum strength.” It is only when you are a teenager that you still want to “lift weights” and “shoot back” because once you have turned thirty, this country “will take the heart and soul” of a black man and “you don’t wanna fight no more.”
This ultimately sums up Kendrick Lamar’s approach in To Pimp a Butterfly. Unlike Drake, who many consider to be the LeBron James of the hip-hop stage, or Kanye West, Kendrick eschews producing hit singles. Instead, with complex lyrical ease and astute storytelling, he produces statements that aim to shoot back and reinforce the heart and soul of the black man. Kendrick is an artist with fingers firmly resting on the pulse of today’s social climate. Kendrick Lamar proves he is the right voice to lead today’s generation, hypocrite or not.