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Since giving hip-hop its most celebrated album (good kid m.A.A.d city) and verse (on Big Sean's 'Control') of the last five years, Kendrick Lamar has had the eyes of the world on him, wondering where his highly observant mind would go next. When he gave us 'i', a single released last September, it was viewed by many as "safe" or overly earnest, and aiming for mass appeal and broad cultural acceptance. Two Grammys later, Lamar's naysayers had even more ammo in their clips, but then came 'The Blacker The Berry'.
Released less than 24 hours after the ceremony, it was an aggressive song that featured more capital-R rapping and a hard-knocking beat by Boi-1da of the ever-hip OVO Sound stable-- in other words, seemingly the exact opposite of the retro, melodic 'i'. By releasing one of his most uplifting songs to date just before the Grammys' eligibility period closed and then showing us his angriest side once two trophies were firmly in his grasp, Kendrick effectively gamed the system to his benefit. Study the lyrics, though, and To Pimp a Butterfly's two lead singles are flipsides of the same coin. While 'i' brushed aside wars on the street and mobs of police in favour of celebratory self-love, 'The Blacker the Berry' reminds us how many of those societally-embedded factors African Americans need to overcome in order to truly love themselves. This love spoken of on 'i' no longer seemed like Pharrell's 'Happy'-ness (a freely available commodity), but rather a method of survival in a world hellbent on quashing it.
This barely scratches the surface of the conversation at play between the new album's two singles, but then again, that's any attempt to summarise To Pimp a Butterfly in a nutshell. Any review able to be read in one sitting will inherently only be able to touch on part of the vast array of thoughts, emotions, musical connections and politics that the album prompts in any close listener. That, more than any of the actual bread and butter of To Pimp a Butterfly, is its greatest achievement. In the era of Kanye To The and Reddit message board conspiracy theorists, most hip-hop albums get put under the interpretive microscope, but this seems like it should be the gold standard for rap albums that require a deeper understanding.
A little over five minutes into the album, a groove as close to "free jazz" as I believe a major label rap beat has ever gotten kicks in, and sets our protagonist off on babbling, arrhythmic screed accented by the line "This dick ain't free," delivered in a grating voice that almost certainly made some people turn off the record before they finished track two. Instrumentally, things never get as messy as they do on the 'For Free?' interlude on the rest of To Pimp a Butterfly, so it sort of functions as a speed bump for people gunning through the tracklist to look for "bangers". Unfortunately for them, turning up is the last thing on Kendrick's mind.
It's impossible to talk about the album without recognising its political and racial implications. To Pimp a Butterfly is not an exclusively political listen, but reverberations of black nationalism, unpaid reparations and cultural appropriation clearly weigh heavy on Kendrick's mind, and are there on nearly every song. As Kendrick suggested in a recent New York Times interview, this album was not made for me, a white, middle class guy shielded (for the most part) from experiencing the realities of life in America's poorest neighbourhoods. It was made for "somebody who's been snatched out of cars and had rifles pointed" at them, and ignoring that would be arrogant and even offensive on my part. In the wake of a terrible year of racialized police violence in America, though, I think everybody, regardless of race, economic status or religion, needs to hear this album, as Kendrick has proven himself ridiculously adept at relating his stories and message to a wide audience.
Those stories were specific, vivid childhood memories on good kid m.A.A.d city, and this time around, they're more like parables. The line "My grandmama said to me, 'shit don't change until you get up and wash your ass,'" a song based around Roots character Kunta Kinte, and How Much a Dollar Cost''s tale of meeting a homeless man who turns out to be God all use specific, disconnected scenes as fuel for Kendrick's fire. Snapshots of life, media and fiction are tied together with recurring lyrical themes, namely the spoken word passage that begins, "I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence." This ever-expanding monologue appears in its longest form at the end of 'Hood Politics', and therein lies the main clue that despite the various big issues Kendrick grapples with throughout, this album is mostly about him and his position in rap and history. This is a dude who believes that the duty of the most successful rappers in the world is to promote their values, raise awareness of the world's ills, and envision solutions. "Protest music" raises broad issues with society; To Pimp a Butterfly attempts a more ambitious task: locate the specific problems and envision a way to eradicate them, however painful that may be.
Speaking of painful, let's talk about 'u' for a second. Clearly the actual nadir to 'i''s emotional zenith, this is the song's that's the most difficult to listen to on an album full of songs that challenge listeners' sonic boundaries. The track's second half sounds essentially like OutKast's 'Drinking Again' interlude expanded to a full song, with Kendrick drunkenly berating himself for what fame's done to him, namely making him forget the people and place he came from. The main problem raised here--that he missed a friend's last days, opting for "FaceTime instead of a hospital visit"--can never be "solved", but it can change Kendrick for the better, and that's what we get later on in the album on 'Momma'. Over a warm, Dilla-esque beat, Kendrick says, "Thank God for rap, I would say it got me a plaque/But what's better than that? The fact it brought me back home." While he's never seemed like the type to get caught up in the trappings of rap stardom, Kendrick clearly brushed shoulders with that lifestyle in the wake of good kid m.A.A.d city's success, and perhaps this intimate contact with a way of life that's so opposite of what he aspires to was what he needed to truly recognise what was important.
Now living in a modest home miles away from where he grew up, Kendrick is consciously showing us how he thinks celebrities should carry themselves without being preachy about it. Rap stardom in particular has historically been linked to gaudy displays and boasts of wealth (which, granted, can be viewed as another perfectly valid form of the reparations Kendrick focuses on here), and while he never outright shames this behaviour, he clearly would not be comfortable portraying this lifestyle himself. Instead, what he prescribes hip-hop is a hearty dose of honesty. This mostly comes across in 'You Ain't Gotta Lie', yet another side of the "love you for you," be-comfortable-in-your-own-skin message that pervades much of To Pimp a Butterfly. To get noticed and signed, rappers often play into the prevailing flavour of the week (artists in other genres are by no means exempt from this), which often erases any traces of personality in their music. Now that we have a former corrections officer building a musical empire around the fantasy of envisioning himself as one of the late 20th century's most notorious drug kingpins, truly anyone can make trap music, a genre rooted in Southern drug dealing whose sounds and posturing are now mimicked even by artists in electronic and pop. By saying "You ain't gotta lie to kick it," Kendrick is cutting through the surface-level bullshit and asking for rappers' true stories, even suggesting that constant talk of drug trafficking makes "you sound like the Feds, homie."
good kid m.A.A.d city had moments of flirtation with trap sounds, but To Pimp a Butterfly doesn't even acknowledge its existence. 'The Blacker The Berry', 'Alright' and 'Hood Politics' have the three only remotely trendy beats of the album, and even those are outfitted with considerable nods to genres that predate rap, namely funk and jazz. Whereas Kendrick's previous album succeeded on modern rap's terms-- sonically, thematically and most noticeably, in its inclusion of a Drake feature -- this one throws any hope or desire of staying current out of the window, instead mining past eras of Black expression and revolution for nuggets of sound. In this way, along with its generally "important" feel, To Pimp a Butterfly's closest modern relative is D'angelo's Black Messiah, another towering achievement that followed a genre-and-era-defining classic. Both albums hold Parliament/Funkadelic, Gil Scott Heron, Sly & The Family Stone and J Dilla in the highest regard, letting them inform the grooves, scope and aim of their music. 'Institutionalized', the beginning of 'Hood Politics' and 'Complexion (A Zulu Love)' in particular have instrumentals that could easily nestle in between The Vanguard's work on Black Messiah, with Kendrick's highly-skilled team of Thundercat, Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper all showing their vast knowledge of music history with every note played. Outside of D'angelo's latest, the only other comparison I feel suits Kendrick on this album is the Seattle-based duo Shabazz Palaces. They revel in a more psychedelic, less lucid sound, but also position themselves as part of a cultural through-line that most hip-hop doesn't attempt to engage with. Their concerns usually predate Kendrick's, stretching back to Africa itself, but the same cries for black nationalism and reexamination of rap's perpetuation of societal problems are their, as is an almost complete disregard for trend-seeking.
As a project that's substantially left-field in good kid m.A.A.d city's wake, To Pimp A Butterfly will almost inevitably receive more acclaim from critics than fans. Kendrick clearly wasn't focused on retaining the considerably large audience he attracted with its predecessor, and the album's stronger for that. Proving that he'll keep us guessing for years to come, Kendrick has truly solidified his place in rap history with this album, even if it didn't end with a simulated conversation with his spiritual forebear, 2pac.
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