Review: Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp A Butterfly

Forget everything you knew about the Good Kid from the M.A.A.D City.
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Forget everything you knew about the Good Kid from the M.A.A.D City.
Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly

opinion byZACHARY BERNSTEIN < @znbernstein >

On the night of January 26, 2014, for thankfully only a brief five minutes, Kendrick Lamar was deeply uncool. Capitalizing on the critical adoration and legitimate street credibility of Lamar’s instant classic debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, the Grammys inexplicably paired the upstart rapper for a live performance with Imagine Dragons, a band that represents everything inoffensive and unforgivably dull about contemporary rock music. To Kendrick’s credit, the pyrotechnic performance exuded remarkable intensity, but it also represented a disappointing commoditization of his outspoken lyricism and personality into the kind of pop product your father might have recalled the following morning. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was endowed with undeniable pop hooks, but it was never intended to coexist peacefully with modern pop artifice.

To Pimp A Butterfly leaves no room for such ambiguity or artistic repossession. Lamar’s sophomore effort forcefully and loudly demands that you forget everything you believed you knew about the good kid from the M.A.A.D City.  As its musical tangents grow increasingly idiosyncratic and its lyrical content more cerebral, Butterfly remains proudly impulsive, maddeningly unfocused, and unfailingly engrossing. Its politics may offend and its sonics may perplex, but there is no doubt that Butterfly is one of the year’s most fascinating and impressive musical artifacts.

It is virtually impossible to evaluate Kendrick Lamar’s second record without a consideration of the tumultuous sociopolitical context in which it was gestated. The ghosts of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner have cast a heavy shadow over the hip-hop and R&B worlds of early 2015 – D’Angelo’s perfectly timed Black Messiah, Pharrell’s “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” repurposing of “Happy” at this year’s Grammys, John Legend and Common’s Oscar-winning and Ferguson-referencing “Glory” for the painfully timely Selma. Though its lyrical content establishes the album’s social focus quite clearly, Butterfly’s politics additionally operate on a subtler level through their musical accompaniment. Butterfly channels the spirits of iconoclastic Black artists – Miles Davis, James Brown, and Gil Scott-Heron – to underscore its statements on contemporary race relations. “Institutionalized” and the Pharrell-assisted “Alright” skirt the line between hip-hop and slam poetry as Lamar’s voice glides over improvisationally jazzy saxophone and bass. The swaggering “King Kunta” conflates the central protagonist of Alex Haley’s Roots with a strutting funk vibe. African American music and social commentary have often been inexorably linked – Dr. Dre should be proud of the way his protege reveres and expands upon that dynamic.

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Off-kilter time signatures, tracks that change beats and melodic structures thrice in five minutes, very few discernible choruses – Butterfly appears deliberately designed to alienate a mainstream pop audience. Leadoff track “Wesley’s Theory” is almost an anti-opener, seemingly commencing the album in medias res with Thundercat’s wobbly bass, hazy synths, and fever-dream cameos from George Clinton and Lamar’s benefactor, Dr. Dre. “These Walls” and “Momma” change sonic directions midstream, morphing from despondent dub to triumphant grooves with no warning. Don’t come looking for too many earworm hooks on par with “Swimming Pools” and “Backseat Freestyle” – To Pimp A Butterfly unrelentingly subverts musical expectations with stuttering production and arcane samples from the varied likes of Boris Gardner and Sufjan Stevens.

The obvious exception, of course, is the record’s penultimate track and first single “i,” which raised eyebrows last summer for its sunny sound and unabashedly positive message. As one of my friends quipped, the slick “i” was, by Kendrick’s standards, “soft.” It should be noted that “i” sounds remarkably rougher in its LP context – its bright Isley Brothers sample gently neutered, Lamar’s tone hungrier and more urgent, the refrain “I love myself!” now joined by a swell of children’s voices that gives the self-respect narrative greater immediacy. Moreover, it serves as a welcome respite from the record’s unforgiving apocalyptic tone. It’s the closest that Butterfly comes to a hit single, but it’s the only one the album really needs.

The bedrock of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City was Lamar’s insightful storytelling – a Tarantino-cinematic, day-in-the-life narrative with microcosmic implications for modern race politics. To Pimp A Butterfly simultaneously turns its focus outward and even more deeply inward, exploring the surveillance state and artistic identity crises in strokes both broad and intimate. “How Much A Dollar Cost” harrowingly recounts Lamar’s encounter with a crack addict. The vivacious “For Free?” transforms an argument with a gold digger into an indictment of financial hierarchies that fostered “living in captivity, raised my cap salary.” “Hood Politics” takes aim at both the ghetto and the American political structure at-large, as Lamar dismisses all of the noise, proclaiming “From Compton to Congress…ain’t nothin’ new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodicans / red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?” True to his sense of introspection, Lamar reserves plenty of criticism for himself, opening the confrontational “The Blacker The Berry” with a targeted argument against institutionalized racism, only to deliver a stupefying rhetorical kicker at the end that consciously reveals his own hypocrisy.

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Kendrick Lamar grounds the album’s progression in a narrative of survivor’s guilt, gradually revealing a spoken word piece in scattered increments that reach their culmination on closer “Mortal Man.” Staging a conversation with the ghost of Tupac Shakur, Lamar offers his manifesto on a solution to contemporary racial unrest – “The word was respect…If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us.” This will undoubtedly be the sentiment on Lamar’s record that incites the most controversy. Lamar has garnered accusations and criticism in the past year for an interpreted endorsement of “respectability politics,” but with its closing sentiments, Butterfly is ultimately at its most unapologetic and fearless. No matter your politics, this album will challenge your perceptions and disregard your common sensibilities – but then again, great art has never shied from giving offense.

The one unifying factor on which surely everyone can agree is the awe-inspiring technical dexterity of Lamar’s rapping. He effortlessly shifts tempos and styles, tackling a dizzying array of drawls, spitfires, and meditations with an ever-evolving and beautifully lyrical voice that perfectly captures his conflicted emotional state. The titans of 2015’s hip-hop A-list embody distinct archetypes – Jay-Z the swaggering business mogul, Kanye the polarizing creative visionary, Drake the wounded romantic, Nicki the cartoonish diva. Let Kendrick Lamar be designated the intellectual warrior-poet, struggling to reconcile his past mistakes and present preachings amidst a concentrated distillation of fifty years of African American music.

To Pimp A Butterfly is a veritable feast for thought – and there are simply too many loaded couplets and unrelenting sonic fakeouts to be unpacked within the confines of a single review. That’s not to mention the record’s sure-to-be-iconic artwork. Who is Lamar satirizing – his compatriots who aspire to the “thug life,” the conservative punditry that perceives that image as the sum total of hip-hop, or both? And then there’s the record’s title, with its cryptic allusions to the diverse likes of Muhammad Ali and Harper Lee. When recently asked by Rolling Stone about the title’s significance, Kendrick Lamar provided the perfect answer – “that will be taught in college courses someday.” That’s not empty bravado – in an age in which colleges offer classes dissecting the politics of The Wire and Tupac Shakur resides calmly next to Thoreau in the annals of protest literature, it makes perfect sense that one day, To Pimp A Butterfly could be regarded a cultural and historical document worthy of academic discussion. It most certainly should be. A