We like our emotions direct. We like our philosophies direct. We, as the American people, have little patience for ambiguity, self-doubt, and the complexities of intelligent political ideologies. We like our pop and rock and hip-hop to fit into clear, easily distinguishable genres. Kendrick Lamar
doesn't give a f*ck what we like, and thank god for that because his latest release, To Pimp a Butterfly
, is one of the most lyrically dense, sonically ambitious, and politically complex records of the decade.
Not that things have ever been different, but 2014/15 has seen a massive expansion of coverage in the mainstream media of police violence against African-American communities and institutionalized oppression more generally. The Department of Justice simultaneously exposed deep-seated racism in the Ferguson P.D. while clearing Michael Brown's police killer of any homicide charges. Backlash against the possible murder of Eric Garner by the NYPD led to a petty "strike" by New York's "finest" which ultimately left most citizens happier than they had been under New York's strict "broken windows" policing. The 12 year old and unarmed Tamir Rice was gunned down, and the American people are starting to reject the police's immediate attempts at demonization.
A lot of emotions rest at the heart of To Pimp a Butterfly
: the record is as much a purging of Kendrick's personal demons over the trappings of fame as it is a painfully intimate portrait of depression. But, above all else, K-Dot is running on righteous and deserved anger: anger at the box white America tries to put him and his community in, anger at the devastation and violence and hopelessness of poverty, anger at himself for failing to be the man he wants to be, and -- yes -- even anger at the black community for the violence which still plagues it.
From the George Clinton opening of "Wesley's Theory," Kendrick makes it clear that he's not holding anything back. To Pimp a Butterfly
is an excoriation of the institutional evil of greed, a lesson in how the traditional routes of escape from poverty in black communities -- music and sports -- are dolled up tools of oppression, and it's a heart-felt plea for the leaders of the black community to be their best possible self. If good kid, m.A.A.d city
was Kendrick's The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man
-- examining his upbringing and life through a stream-of-conscious narrative -- this record is his Gravity's Rainbow
meets Hail to the Thief
-- a modernist political screed with his sights aimed at all facets of life, both political and personal.
Kanye West once famously said that it's "hard to be humble when you stuntin' on a jumbotron" and tracks like "Wesley's Theory," "For Free," "Institutionalized," and "How Much a Dollar Cost" find Kendrick explicitly rejecting the idea that he must sell his soul to continue his newfound success in the hip-hop world. It would be a cliche if Kendrick weren't making it so clear how much he's afraid he's failing to remain authentic and how much he hates himself for those failures. Kendrick finds himself trapped and torn and pulled by a million different obligations: his obligation to remember where he came from, his obligation to push himself as an artist, his obligations to his record label, and his obligations his to friends, and any man would be ripped to pieces by that maelstrom of tugging and tearing.
And, perhaps more than any other hip-hop record ever made, Kendrick captures the existentialist despair of an artist wishing to remain genuine in a capitalist production system that demands sales over integrity. Hip-hop is far too often a genre driven by how "hard" or "tough" you can come off, but songs like "u" and "These Walls" are some of the most emotionally vulnerable tracks of this decade in any genre, let alone hip-hop. "u" explicitly deals with Kendrick's suicidal depression and substance abuse while "These Walls" tackles the emptiness of sexual hedonism and the evils of sexual exploitation while also working as a metaphor for the prisons (both literal and figurative) of society. Any given track on the record works in about three different ways, and everyone should listen to it at least twice with a lyric sheet open to even begin to catch half of the hidden meanings Kendrick has placed on the album.
To Pimp a Butterfly
would have been an instant classic with its lyrical density and political aspirations alone, but it's the album's production which pushes it into the pantheon of the all-time greats. Kendrick finally has production that matches the heights of his lyricism, and although Flying Lotus didn't produce every track on the record, his presence is felt everywhere. If Tupac Shakur and black nationalist west coast hip-hop is the biggest influence lyrically on the album, Flying Lotus's love of Miles Davis/futurist jazz and funk is omnipresent with a touch of Afrikaa Bambaataa for good measure. Every track from singles "King Kunta" and "i" to deeper cuts like "Momma" or "Hood Politics" offers a sonic universe to lose yourself in if you can pull yourself away from the ocean of K-Dot's lyrics. Good luck escaping that whirlpool of images and ideas though.
To Pimp a Butterfly
is the sort of album that feels equally comfortable imploring the black community to stop judging each other based on skin tone on "Complexion (A Zulu Love)" -- which features a titanic verse from female MC Rapsody, the only proper full guest verse on the record -- as it is talking about how we need to love ourselves before we can expect anyone else to love us on "i." And "i" is central to the entire arc of the record. Kendrick spends the entire album battling his anger and deep melancholy, and then he brings the album to a close on this vibrant and joyous celebration of the potential for the best in all of us.
The ghost of Tupac Shakur haunts the entire album; it's easy to forget this in 2015, but Tupac was another explicitly political rapper that also was interested in writing songs to empower women in the black community (listen to "Keep Ya Head Up"
if you doubt me). But, Kendrick makes those allusions explicit on album closer "Mortal Man," a track that begins as a spoken word poem Kendrick reads in Tupac's honor that transitions to Kendrick "interviewing" Tupac about poverty in black communities, greed, and the need for activism. And that's what To Pimp a Butterfly
is. Shit gets hard and even if you do everything right, life is going to find ways to keep you down. But if you have something other people don't, it's on you to make the world a better place. Kendrick Lamar has hip-hop's throne on lock, and he's using that platform to make a difference.