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.