Kendrick Lamar's Lyrical Evolution From 'Section.80' to 'To Pimp A Butterfly'

Ramona Rosales
Kendrick Lamar photographed on Dec. 3, 2014 at Smashbox Studios in Culver City, Ca.

Kendrick Lamar has been fighting to say something for four years now.

Every interview, every piece of media about the man born Kendrick Lamar Duckworth has asked him to unpack broad thoughts. Some of them weren't as polished and succinct as they are now, but Lamar still had them. Some of them lived in their rawest forms on his 2011 Section.80 album; others were danced around when it came to his proper debut, 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d city. He claimed he wasn't an activist in 2011, but now, four years later with the spotlight directly upon him, he's come to a point where he needs to say everything he possibly can without a single fear of repercussions.  

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The rush to grasp what Lamar has done with To Pimp A Butterfly (Top Dawg/Interscope) is akin to battling your impulses. You want to have an immediate answer, yet you're still trying to figure out where exactly Lamar went so you don't sound lost and idiotic. On 2011's "Hol' Up," declaring himself a Gemini screaming for help, Lamar remarked, "30,000 feet up in the air/ Stewardess complimented me on my nappy hair." It was the clearest and earliest declaration of blackness he had made -- a boy near this exact image appears on the cover of Butterfly, almost as if the visage is eternal.

He seemed confined to thinking a mixture of filth and consequence but the Compton emcee pressed on. Strangers were invited to see inside of his head then. They were shut out on good kid when he turned narrator. He's daring those same strangers to look at him now on To Pimp A Butterfly, to gauge where his thoughts have evolved.

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"I want you to feel uncomfortable," he told The New York Times earlier this week. He may have attempted to affix a microscope on us, just to see how we would react to To Pimp A Butterfly, but the same could be also said of him -- or you and I. Lamar sought for his own bit of personal peace on "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe," much in the same way I was after dealing with my father being in and out of the hospital near death. I wanted peace and comfort. Yet I felt no pleasure because I knew the cycle would continue. Lamar deals with frustration and mental uplift ("i") in global ways where he, as with the initial thought 2011's "HiiiPoWeR," focused only on one individual. Lamar's message has grown just as the weight of that message has become a metric ton.

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The largest shift between good kid's insular attempts of walking a fine line through Compton and those in To Pimp A Butterfly lies in how often Lamar switches up his voice to match certain deliveries. He shrunk it down to the size of your conscious sitting on your shoulder for "Swimming Pools (Drank)" and made it alien for "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe," but those characters and moments pale in comparison to what he offers on To Pimp A Butterfly. The scratchy high level of ethos found on his 2012 feature for BJ The Chicago Kid's solemn "His Pain" returns for "u" with him drunkenly berating himself in a hotel mirror, his words and tears landing like boulders on cement.

Fame has made Kendrick beat himself up to the point where he hates himself sometimes. He contorts it into a thin wheeze and whine on "For Free," launching into a four-minute conversation with a woman where he, in a nutshell, breaks down 21st century relationships and identity. The good kid wanted to have fun and experience the high of sex, a major contrast to the man here now.

Three years ago, Lamar rapped about what was in front of him. There were his friends, his earliest thoughts of carnal lust with a neighborhood girl, dreams and aspirations, and his opportunity to get away. The only dip in salvation or thoughts of anything bigger than just him arrived on "Sing About Me, Dying Of Thirst," when he prayed out of frustration, not content. The constant about good kid was how it felt like a movie, a coming of age tale that was easy to digest. To Pimp A Butterfly is more like The Simpsons episode "22 Short Films About Springfield" where Lamar's voice is only unified by him finding God, despite God shunning him for his own materialism on "How Much A Dollar Cost" and him questioning the prophet who spoke to him the clearest over whether or not a butterfly is truly free.

"I know Compton/ I know street shit/ I know shit that's conscious," he rattles off on "Momma." He knew of these things previously on good kid but fought them tooth and nail. He thought revenge would serve him well on "Dying Of Thirst" yet it yielded emptiness. He picks himself back up here, despite understanding that the cycle of Compton is the same as the rest of the world ("Hood Politics") and fame making him seem like a hollow monster ("u"). The constant unpacking of ideas, black ones, bold ones, violent and thoughtful ones, lay out like landmines on To Pimp A Butterfly. They're ideas many are still grasping to fully realize.

good kid, m.A.A.d city was about a man walking through adolescence, lyrically deft and easy to package. All of the first person, singular verses are blown up to cover everyone on To Pimp A Butterfly with a singular message that is both undeniably universal yet comfortably black.


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