?In 2015, gangsta nostalgia was in full effect. The summer brought both the acclaimed N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton and the long-awaited third solo album from Dr. Dre, Compton. Together, the movie and its unofficial soundtrack tell the tale of how, back in the day, a group of young black men armed with conviction and creativity were able to challenge racist institutions and change pop culture. With To Pimp a Butterfly, N.W.A acolyte and Compton native Kendrick Lamar advances the plot to the present day, offering the next chapter in a story that’s only grown more complicated.
That word, “complicated,” comes up a lot in connection with this album, which topped the Billboard 200 the week of April 4, 2015, and placed first on practically every year-end best-of list. Lamar himself uses it throughout “u,” a stunning song about guilt, depression, and insecurity. It also surfaces in just about every review, helping critics describe the music (an ambitious blend of jazz and funk unlike anything in mainstream hip-hop) and the subject matter. On To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar has some bones to pick, and not just with the police and the media and all the engines of inequality that continue to plague his community. First and foremost, Kendrick is critical of himself: a world-famous rapper who got out of the hood and isn’t sure where that leaves him.
Across these 16 tracks, Kendrick takes on the world, himself, and the expectations of his city and his fans, and he somehow goes the distance. Along the way, he references everyone from Wesley Snipes and Michael Jackson to Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, writing himself into a narrative of black expression that’s richer for his inclusion. He mixes humor into his social commentary on “For Free (Interlude),” conducts a beyond-the-grave interview with hero Tupac Shakur on “Mortal Man,” and creates a Black Lives Matter anthem with “Alright” — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Regardless of what Grammy voters decide, To Pimp a Butterfly is a record for the ages — one people will still be deciphering and debating in 20 years, when today’s impressionable young Lamar fans begin making their masterpieces.