To Pimp A Butterfly is a marvel of bi-polarity, a force field of simultaneous attraction and repulsion. It invites you to come in, grab a seat, and have a meaningful conversation, then proceeds to tell you to get the fuck out. It deals with issues that America wants to avoid, but simply cannot. Kendrick Lamar knows a little bit about this dichotomy, too. At age 27, he’s wealthy, wildly successful (his major-label debut good kid, M.A.A.D. city sold over 1 million copies), and is widely regarded as the best rapper in the world by fans, critics and, most notably, the competition. After his incendiary guest verse on Big Sean’s “Control” in 2013, Lamar’s evisceration of peers like Drake, A$AP Rocky, and Pusha T (“I got love for you all/ But I’m tryna murder you niggas”) was met less with anger than a sort of envious, smirking admiration.
But there’s a darker aspect to Lamar’s accomplishments. He’s plagued by insecurities, depression and alcohol abuse — his biggest hit depicts the surreal act of diving into a swimming pool of liquor. Born Kendrick Duckworth and raised in Compton, California, Lamar is haunted by the trauma of having both witnessed and committed murder while growing up in his treacherous Alondra Boulevard neighborhood (acts he chronicled vividly in good kid, M.A.A.D. city). And most recently, as a side perk of having rap’s most unassailable credentials, he’s saddled with Sisyphean task of being the de facto musical spokesman for the country’s entire black population during the most volatile, racially-charged period of the 21st century.
Think about the gravity of that last one for a second. If Kendrick Lamar, a man who prides himself “on writing rather than rapping” and wields metaphors, peripheral narrators, and double entendres as dangerously as an English grad professor, can’t articulate the outrage and alienation of millions of African-Americans still shell-shocked by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, who the hell can?
The awesome weight of that burden is transformed by Lamar’s grit, skill, and fatigue into To Pimp A Butterfly, a brilliant, fraying document of lyrical prowess, rich aural diversity, and urban exhaustion. Its oblique, suffocating density not only mirrors a country’s impending cultural collapse fueled by issues of racial inequality, violence, and poverty, but also captures its debilitating sense of confusion, challenging the very precepts by which we choose to frame those injustices. “You hate my people/ Your plan is to terminate my culture” Lamar observes coldly. “This plot is bigger than me/ It’s generational hatred/ It’s genocism.” To Pimp A Butterfly is a majestic, disturbing work of art that lays its grievances bare and refuses to accept your ambivalence.
Musically, the album is a prodigious, snarling incarnation of West Coast hip-hop that puts its influences on full display then levels them, manhandling funk (“King Kunta”), bending jazz to its will (“For Free?”), and deconstructing soul by plumbing the unconscionable depths of Lamar’s own (“For Sale?”). Live bassist Thundercat and saxophonist/producer Terrace Martin infuse To Pimp A Butterfly with a rich, terrestrial spirit, but these songs don’t so much breathe as shudder. Even within the silky, carnal comfort of Prince-style R&B jam “These Walls,” there is no respite. Those walls are closing in, too.
Lamar’s rap technique is lithe and often jaw-dropping. He modulates his vocal pitch to assume the roles of different characters on different verses, flipping from vulnerability to brash contempt with the slightest change in intonation and cadence. Kendrick shifts gears like a Ferrari on congested city streets, accelerating, cornering, contorting his coarse drawl around multisyllabic, internal rhymes with power and finesse. On “Momma,” even his bookishness dazzles: “The mind of a literate writer, but I did it in fact/ You admitted it once I submitted it wrapped in plastic/ Remember scribblin’ scratchin’ dilligent sentences backwards/ Visiting freestyle cyphers for your reaction/ Now I can live in a stadium, pack it the fastest.” His flow, coupled with superb storytelling skills and keen literary acumen, borders on peerless.
“The Blacker The Berry” and “Institutionalized” offer harrowing examinations into America’s conflicted perception of its own blackness while turning over the rocks of Lamar’s survivor’s guilt and propensity for self-destruction. Even his fantasy of becoming the President resembles a prison — “Master, take the chains off me!” he laments over woozy beats, crippled by the pathetic realization that with all the power in the world, he’d only aspire to bulletproofing his Chevy and getting high inside the White House. On diatribe turned self-flagellation “u,” Lamar confesses to a litany of reprehensible acts before sobbing into the mirror: “Loving u is complicated.” The same can be said for To Pimp A Butterfly. It’s a dark, unforgiving microcosm of Lamar’s crippling distrust of the system and himself.
As claustrophobic as it feels, there are shafts of light at the end of To Pimp A Butterfly’s bleak tunnel. Lamar’s closing conversation with the ghost of Tupac Shakur engenders genuine awe at first listen, followed by a wisftul longing for what might have been. Upbeat jam “i”, whose Isley Brothers sample seemed almost frivolous when the song was released as the single, now feels like sweet succor — a self-sustaining message for an entire generation of young black men. The song trails off early, making room for the record’s pivotal moment, when Lamar addresses a black crowd on the verge of violence and delivers a sermon of reconciliation rooted in etymology. “N-E-G-U-S. Definition: royalty” he decrees, transforming a hateful epitaph into solemn praise. Kendrick becomes the Voice he’s been asked to be — street kid turned poet turned reluctant savior.
If To Pimp A Butterfly is more cryptic, ragged, and conceptually fractured than its predecessor good kid, M.A.A.D. city, it’s also more layered, labyrinthine, and seductive. Lamar’s stunning memoir to his younger gang-banging self was a lucid, first-person narrative whose ending was already known — Lamar finds God, experiences forgiveness, and imparts what he’s learned on the next generation of Compton kids. But in some ways, the ambiguity of To Pimp A Butterfly is an even more authentic expression of Lamar’s bruised conscience, as well as our own. There is no satisfying answer to how the brutal story of racial unrest in America ends, only more questions. History is still playing out.
Lamar confronts this uncertainty on To Pimp A Butterfly and cements his status among rap’s all time greats. His peers might be crafting more attractive brands of generational malaise via images of bacchanalian nightclubs, vacant sex, and endless booze and weed, but in doing so, they’re merely donning blindfolds and describing different parts of the same elephant. Lamar sees the beast in its awful entirety and does not blink. Decades from now, odds are we will still be teasing apart the subtleties of To Pimp A Butterfly, turning over our own rocks in the process, and deriving significance from music that does far more than simply chronicle our history. It becomes part of it.