Kendrick Lamar’s second major-label album, To Pimp a Butterfly, was released March 15 to the kind of fanfare that, while not quite breaking the Internet, prompted 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 shock that the record’s surprise release, eight days before its expected March 23 due date, 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. Since the 2014 Grammy shutout for 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 superfan Taylor Swift). And To Pimp a Butterfly is every bit as forward-thinking, perhaps more so, than its predecessor.
It’s certainly more timely, speaking to race and racism — the matter of black lives mattering — a topic that has dominated the national discourse recently. 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 also is less readily digestible, mixing hood braggadocio, personal demons, spiritual yearning and meditations on fame with James Brown’s stomp, Sly Stone’s riot, 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 hardly is 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 80-minute listen: “My knees gettin’ 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 wizard Thundercat, Taz Arnold, Terrace Martin and Lamar’s Top Dawg in-house go-tos Sounwave and Tae Beast, who weave an impressively all-over-the-place black-diaspora patchwork that bridges jazz fusion to G-funk, neo-soul to glitch-hop and all points in between, often in the same song.
But the music isn’t the most challenging thing about the album: The lyrics are preoccupied with race and personal identity in ways that will be decidedly uncomfortable to mixed company. It opens with a sample of Jamaican soul singer Boris Gardiner’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 surrounded by black men and children 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 prerelease offerings – the bouncy, Isley Brothers-sampling “i” (which appears here in a live-band version that’s interrupted by a fight in the crowd) 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,” Lamar says on repeat, seemingly talking to himself.
On “These Walls” he’s pondering sex and existence in equal measure; it’s a metaphor about the power of peace, with sugar walls being escape and real walls being obstacles. By the song’s end he’s talking to an incarcerated foe and explicitly referring to the narrative of 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 Lamar line, and song — circular and repetitive, thoughtful and reckless, objectifying women while seeing them as whole beings, messy and complex about life, conflicted about violence, 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 — it makes greater sense as whole and requires full engagement all the way through. It’s a journey with a destination, hinted at by the fact that it was released almost 20 years to the day after Tupac Shakur’s classic Me Against the World, which isn’t mere coincidence: Hours before the album’s midnight release to iTunes, Lamar took to Twitter for only the third time this year, writing that March?14 “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 on 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 listeners to come to their own conclusions about the heady topics raised, to continue the conversations started and to reflect on the often unbridled anger on display. Issues of race and identity haven’t been addressed adequately by presidents, sociologists or all the talking heads on TV; 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. Despite the bold declarations, beautiful beats and brash imagery, To Pimp a Butterfly is not an announcement — it’s a conversation.