In 2012 Compton-native Kendrick Lamar released his breakthrough album good kid, m.A.A.d city to unprecedented critical acclaim. The album chronicled the internal struggles and harsh realities of one man’s experience growing up in the notorious city, bringing a vivid lyricism and weighty conscious to its well-visited themes. In 2015 Lamar’s poeticism, social awareness and deep political participation return in To Pimp A Butterfly, a sonic biography of the nation rather than the individual.
While To Pimp A Butterfly retains the reflectiveness and sentience of good kid, m.A.A.d city, it ambitiously expands upon Lamar’s musical influences. The 27-year-old largely resists the generic reliance upon infectious hooks and guest artists in rap music, abandoning the preferred hip-hop structure for elements of avant-garde jazz, soul, and funk. Lamar is fearless from second one. He makes a clear statement from the outset, as the title track from the 1973 Blaxploitation film Every Nigger Is A Star is sampled in the opening of Wesley’s Theory. To Pimp A Butterfly then is expectedly anything but apolitical or unmoved.
Lamar seemingly scats about the tired theme of gold digging on For Free? (Interlude), before a deluge of unconcealed rhyme is released over a striking, sax-driven ensemble, doing away with nuance: “Oh America, you a bad bitch / I picked the cotton that made you rich”. In King Kunta the rapper references renowned 18th century slave Kunta Kinte over a driving funk instrumental, metaphorically crowning the man as an illustration of personal success and racial authenticity in hip-hop, as well as a poignant comment on the role race plays in American social hierarchy.
Lamar showcases his infinite talent for changeable flow and vocal tone in the arresting and uncomfortable track ‘u’. His voice becomes increasingly laboured over a wailing soprano saxophone, as he becomes enveloped by self-loathing, anguish and his own insecurities. The frantic cracking mimics a voice on the verge of tears, a vulnerability not often so openly displayed in hip-hop. But not every track is as distressing and hard to experience. ‘u’ acts in complete contrast to the album’s lead single ‘i’, which offers messages of self-love and consolation, proposing some sort of optimistic redemption over a sample from an Isley Brothers classic. The track exists in an entirely different form to the single, having been re-recorded as a pseudo-live rendition. Complexion too advocates positivity, navigating the implications of black beauty standards, and criticising colourism.
In contrast to the affirmative message of Complexion, intensely criticising and rejecting colourism, Lamar admits to hypocrisy in the furious, emphatic The Blacker The Berry. Intensely angry and relentlessly confrontational about race relations in America (“I’m as black as the heart of a f****** Aryan”), Lamar acknowledges his own participation in prejudice within the African-American community based on colour (“When gang banging make me kill a n**** blacker than me?”)
After visiting Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island in 2014, Lamar became discontented with the pointless binaries within hip-hop culture, and in Compton in particular. In Mortal Man he campaigns for reconciliation and unification, navigating conflicting strategies for racial uplift and equality from renowned leaders from Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. to Malcolm X. Lamar also casts Tupac Shakur as an influential voice in both the artistic and political spheres, conducting an imaginary dialogue with the legendary rapper with audio taken from a 1994 interview.
To Pimp A Butterfly is not background music, and it doesn’t want to be. This near 80 minutes of ground-breaking, and overwhelming analysis, opinion and reality is accompanied by a flood of exciting and ambitious music; an amalgamation of influences that diverge drastically from mundane populism.