A timeless narrative: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’
Matt McMahon | Tuesday, March 17, 2015
A lot has happened since Kendrick Lamar stole his mom’s van, wove an intricate story around his hometown and eventually took a victory lap for all of Compton’s survivors three years ago on “good kid, m.A.A.d. city.” In the mainstream, Pharrell continued his brainwashing of the universe by infecting everyone who has ears with “Happy.” Peer Chance The Rapper went viral covering the “Arthur” theme song and turned it into the uplifting anthem for a generation uninterested and unoptimistic in having one. On the other end of the spectrum, YG somehow best captured the “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” concept album form, transforming DJ Mustard’s club-friendly “ratchet music” into a platform for conscious storytelling in “good kid, m.A.A.d. city”’s more troubled, spiritual younger brother “My Krazy Life.” Meanwhile, Lamar continued to simultaneously conform to and one-up his competition on a string of stellar guest verses and changed the rap world forever with “Control” … or, maybe, didn’t.
Thus lies the context for Kendrick Lamar’s new album — or not completely. In the greater context of American news, events such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida and George Zimmerman’s acquittal, the death of Eric Garner in New York and the adoption of his last words, “I can’t breath,” in protest and awareness movements, the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent Ferguson riots, the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, police brutality and documented racism in Chicago, Missouri and New York and United States’ Justice Departments and the most recent University of Oklahoma chapter of the SAE fraternity’s racist chant videotaping all have illustrated the very real, very harmful racial inequality still present in the country. It is in this national context then, and not simply in the current state of music, that Kendrick Lamar released his much-anticipated sophomore studio album, “To Pimp A Butterfly.”
“To Pimp A Butterfly,” the title an allusion to Harper Lee’s novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” opens similarly to “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” with Lamar scheming on a girl. However, where “good kid” illustrated an intimate, personal narrative from Lamar’s past, “To Pimp A Butterfly” deals with a more universal musing on the black condition. Performing a gymnastic act of flipping between the verbose, over-enunciated educated Black Man and the less-articulate industry slave type, Lamar characterizes the changing of priorities due to quick, unwrangled fame on opener “Wesley’s Theory.” Over a soulful sample of ’70s Jamaican singer Boris Gardiner and experimental jazz production from Flying Lotus and Thundercat, Lamar details the same sentiment as Kanye West on “New Slaves”: corporate industries prey on young, budding talents like Lamar, West, athletes and artists and use them up and profit off them while fundamentally warping their desires and offering little reciprocal support — proverbially “pimping butterflies.”
Like how “good kid” could be pitched as a movie — on the album cover it’s billed as “a short film by Kendrick Lamar” — “To Pimp A Butterfly” unfolds like a musical. Kendrick repeats a building monologue at the end of various tracks, laying out more and more sides to his complex internal struggle with fame. Along the way, he paints portraits of characters from his past and present, interacting with them through verses delivered towards him from their perspective.
Through this narrative, Lamar explores heavy, racially charged themes relating to this imagery of pimping butterflies and black inequality across the album proper. A number of interrelated conflicts signify the double consciousness and duality facing every black American: the familiarity of home versus the existing, but lofty, opportunity to escape; street smarts versus book smarts; fame bringing widespread acceptance but removing the individual from everyday reality; success offering an opportunity to rise up but also bringing about its own ways of oppression; rallying around black children and teenagers who are innocently killed while purporting gang violence against members of your own race.
Contradictions and negations permeate the album, only further speaking to the complexity of the issues at hand. “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” boasts a Zulu philosophy denouncing colorism, “Complexion don’t mean a thing / It all feels the same,” only to be followed up by “The Blacker the Berry.” In the latter, Lamar commands and praises his ethnicity, echoing the phrase, “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” He is at his most confrontational here and employs the most aggressive flow and delivery to grace the album. He honors his roots, using guest vocals from reggae star Assassin, last heard in America on Kanye West’s similarly abrasive and unforgiving “I’m In It.”
Similar dichotomies arise in tracks “u” and “i” and the one-two punch of the downtempo, immediate “Momma” and the R&B-originating “Hood Politics,” which compares an illuminated Lamar returning home with new knowledge and a guilty conscience for succeeding and abandoning his home to the logistics of the neighborhoods like the one he grew up in and the singular way of life known to them.
Lamar, boasting his lyrical ability and keen sensibility, articulates so many ideas he makes it easy to grasp hold on any number of them, each one weighted and extremely pertinent on its own. But with each passing song, the artist captures the ongoing narrative of the debate over African-American identity and what it means to be black in America. In this sense, the album is timeless in the annals of black history. With name checks and philosophical ideas from everyone from Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King Jr. and Tupac Shakur to Oprah, the album spans the 1900s to 1920s, ’50s and ’60s and still feels supremely relevant to the now.
Meanwhile, Lamar and his collaborators sonically cultivate a robust, intricate collage of black musical influence, from the funk of George Clinton and the P-Funk alluding “King Kunta” to the jazz backings of the interludes and spoken word sections, to the Soul of Isley Brothers’ lead vocalist Ronald Isley. “To Pimp A Butterfly” embraces all aspects and aesthetics of blackness, devoting time and celebration to each. The album is calculated and assured; it’s rash and desperate; it’s exhausting and exhaustive without seeming any bit overlong or unnecessary.
The climax of Lamar’s musical comes in the form of the speech break as his live audience gets restless during the album version performance of lead single “i.” After the shaky-voiced, heartbreaking performance of “u,” itself a voice-cracked, faltering take on betrayal and the results of unsupportiveness, counterpart “i” demands love and support for yourself. Interspersed through the album, Lamar explains that if you stay true to yourself and love yourself for that, you will love and embrace that in others, and others will reciprocate. During the speech, he motions to take pride in your heritage, ownership for your individuality and agency in rising above your situation.
While the single debut of the track in September 2014 insinuated a lighter, summery — possibly shallower — side of Lamar, one focused on self-love and promotion of positivity, the extended version found on the album sends a deeper, earned message. The move is a bit of marketing and artistic genius; with heavy radio play, co-option by NBA television broadcasts and a Best Rap Performance Grammy propelling the single and anticipation for the album, Lamar grabbed an audience willing to hear him out and then injected the crux of his powerful, poignant argument into the song, with which his audience was already most familiar.
Following D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah” and Kanye West’s “Yeezus,” “To Pimp A Butterfly” is an unapologetically black, necessarily black album from a prominent, mainstream voice in popular music. Lamar’s fans transcend identifiers such as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status; over the past three years, he has built up so much support that his every next move, including details on his next album, have seen widespread speculation and heavy anticipation. Showing maturity, Lamar challenges his audience to be active, whereas his previous work — as much as it bounced — was a passive listening experience. On “To Pimp A Butterfly,” he uses his well-earned status as the current king of hip-hop to deliver a strong, brave, emotionally charged message. It’s clear in its bite, it’s razor sharp, and it’s wholly focused — not one track wastes a moment of its one-hour-and-20-minute runtime; all offer their own thesis relating to Lamar’s recurring themes. Moreover, it’s an album that will be heard by a lot of people, and, hopefully, listened to, considered and understood by just as many.