Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp A Butterfly' Challenges and Rewards: Album Review
Kendrick Lamar's second major label album, To Pimp a Butterfly, was released on Sunday night to the kind of fanfare that, while not quite breaking the Internet, does prompt multiple trending topics on Twitter -- and some confusion on iTunes and Spotify, where clean and explicit versions of the album went up at different times, came down, and went live again. It's no surprise that the record's release would cause a small frenzy. Lamar is mainstream hip-hop's thinking man: the guy who conveys more gravitas and transmits bigger ideas than Kanye West, and the commercial underdog to Drake's chart-controlling hegemony. He's popular rap's reigning Serious Artist, and since his Grammy shutout in 2014 following his masterful major-label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, his follow-up has been one of the most eagerly awaited projects in the genre and outside of it (ask Taylor Swift). And To Pimp a Butterfly is every bit as forward-thinking, perhaps more so, than its predecessor.
It's definitely more timely, speaking to the continued discussion of race and racism in America -- the matter of Black lives mattering -- that has dominated the national discourse over the past half year. Lamar is no longer primarily concerned with his own narrative, as he was on good kid, m.A.A.d city. Because of that, he's also less readily digestible, mixing hood braggadocio, Black dysfunction, personal demons, spiritual yearning, mediations on fame with James Brown's stomp, Sly Stone's riot, a layered and stripped version of George Clinton's mothership funk, loose free-form jazz and muscular, languid soul. The result is all over the place and in one place, at the same time.
There's hardly a concession to radio sensibilities to be found anywhere. The closest thing would be the Pharrell Williams- co-produced "Alright," which showcases what passes for optimism during this dense and involved 80-minute listen: "My knees getting' weak and my gun might blow / But we gon' be alright." Aside from Drake collaborator Boi-1da, Williams is the lone brand-name producer on To Pimp a Butterfly. Instead the album relies heavily on outliers like Flying Lotus, bass virtuoso Thundercat, Taz Arnold, frequent co-conspirator Terrace Martin, and Lamar's Top Dawg in-house go-tos Sounwave and Tae Beast.
But the music isn't the most challenging thing about the album: the lyrics are pre-occupied with race and personal identity in ways that are decidedly uncomfortable to mixed company. It opens with a sample of Jamaican soul singer Boris Garnder's obscure blaxploitation number "Every N---er is a Star" before giving way to Clinton's technicolor musings on "Wesley's Theory," wherein the funk architect asks, "Are you really who they idolize?" The cover features Lamar holding a baby, surrounded by bunch of unapologetically expressive and shirtless Black men brandishing wads of cash and bottles of champagne in front of the White House; beneath them is a judge, possibly dead, drunk or just passed out. The two sonically polar pre-release offerings -- the bouncy, Isley Brothers-sampling "i" (which appears on TPAB in a live, extended version, as opposed to the earlier Grammy-winning version) and dark and angry "The Blacker the Berry" -- show different sides of a young man's internal search for meaning. "u" is an abstract bookend of the theme: "Loving you is complicated," he says on repeat, seemingly talking to himself.
On "These Walls" he's pondering sex and existence in equal measure; it's a yoni metaphor about the power of peace, with sugar walls being escape and real walls being obstacles. "If these walls could talk, they'd tell me to go deep," he raps. "Yelling at me continuously/ I can see your defense mechanism is my decision/ Knock these walls down, that's my religion." At the song's end he's talking to an incarcerated foe and explicitly referring to the narrative of his previous album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, which recounted a night out "with the homies" that ended with one of them dead. "Walls telling you to listen to 'Sing About Me,'" he says, referring to one of the previous album's standout tracks. "Retaliation is strong, you even dream about me / Killed my homeboy and God spared your life / Dumb criminal got indicted the same night / So when you play the song, rewind the first verse." It's a classic Kendrick line and song --circular and repetitive, thoughtful and reckless, objectifying women while seeing them as whole beings, messy and complex about life, conflicted about revenge and violence, obsessed with real and poetical captivity, full of exposed secrets and hidden truths.
To Pimp a Butterfly defies easy listening, but it's deeply rewarding. This is an album in the old-fashioned sense--like his debut, it makes greater sense as whole, and requires full engagement all the way through. It's a journey, released almost 20 years to the day after Tupac Shakur's Me Against the World, which doesn't appear to be mere coincidence: a little more than 30 minutes before the album's sneak release eight days before its announced March 23 drop date, Lamar took to Twitter for only the third time this year, writing, "Yesterday. March 14th. Was a special Day." A conversation between Lamar and the slain rapper -- edited together using a rare interview and foreshadowed at multiple points throughout the album -- closes the last song, the 12-minute long "Mortal Man." "Finally free, the butterfly sheds light own situations that the caterpillar never considered, ending the eternal struggle," he says to Shakur. "Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different, they are one in the same… What's your perspective on that?" Lamar gets no answer.
It's a fitting end to a demanding project, leaving the listener to come to our own conclusions about the heady topics raised, to continue the conversations started, and to reflect on the often unbridled anger on display. Questions and conflicts about race and personal responsibility haven't been answered by presidents, sociologists or all the talking heads on television; it would be absurd to ask one man to have any or all of the solutions. "What's your perspective on that?" Lamar's asking us, because he's still searching. Because, despite the bold declarations, beautiful beats and brash imagery, To Pimp a Butterfly is not an announcement, it's a conversation.