Last Sunday night, Kendrick Lamar briefly crashed the Internet by issuing To Pimp a Butterfly a week early on iTunes and multiple streaming services. His Top Dawg Entertainment management protested loudly at Interscope “fucking up” the release. But since the well-timed leak merrily coincided with a Rolling Stone cover story, one can safely assume that the world heard Kendrick’s third album (fourth if you count his Overly Dedicated mixtape) as planned.
Days later, it’s clear that Kendrick’s newest Great American Hip-Hop Novel resists quick absorption. To Pimp a Butterfly has been celebrated as a meditation on blackness as pigmentation and mind state (see Clover Hope’s Jezebel.com essay “The Overwhelming Blackness of Kendrick Lamar’s Butterfly”), and noted as a parable of celebrity sin and spiritual renewal (a la Joe Coscarelli’s New York Times profile “Kendrick Lamar on His New Album and the Weight of Clarity”). It has been dissected into helpful track-by-track guides, and sample guides, virtual Cliff Notes for an album in which Kendrick’s performance is as crucial as the themes he conveys.
He sounds preternaturally calm and intensely neurotic. His rap technique is imperious, shifting from the funk smoothness of “These Walls,” to the angry growl of “The Blacker the Berry,” to the agitated stop-start fast rap of “Alright.” He challenges everything, including himself. On “Momma,” he encounters a mirror image of himself, a black boy he meets in the crowd at a concert who tells him “I know your life is full of turmoil.” He sounds frenzied, yet convinces us that his life depends on him pouring out his mind.
Kendrick’s virtuosity slices through To Pimp a Butterfly’s prog rap cornucopia: the mumbo jumbo of sonic styles that flip from the jazz-oetry of “For Free? (Interlude)” to the Take 6-styled R&B groove of “Alright”; wizened G-funkateers Ronald Isley, George Clinton, Dr. Dre and Uncle Snoop conferring gravitas; nurturing modern soul backgrounds by Bilal, Taz Arnold, Lalah Hathaway, and Anna Wise of Sonnymoon; Low End Theory beat madness via Knxwledge, Flying Lotus and Thundercat; and the YouTube crate-digging for choice licks by Sufjan Stevens and Boris Gardiner. However, only two rap voices stand next to Kendrick’s — Uncle Snoop on “Institutionalized” and, in a potential star-making cameo, underrated North Carolina backpacker Rapsody on “Complexion (A Zulu Love).” She murders her verse: “Black is brown, hazelnut, cinnamon, brown, tea/ And it’s all beautiful to me/ Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens/ We all on the same team/ Blues and Pirus, no colors ain’t a thing.”
Without the taut narrative of good kid, m.A.A.d city to gird him, Kendrick meanders, often within the same song, only to pivot back to the dilemma of modern black consciousness and being compromised by black America. For “Institutionalized,” he says he’s “trapped inside the ghetto” memories of his Compton childhood, then rhymes that his “flow’s so sick” in typical rap braggadocio, then refers to himself in the third person as he says, “But something came over you when I took you to them them fucking BET Awards.” He wonders if he’s “For Sale?” He admits on “Alright” that “I’m at the preacher’s door/ My knees getting weak and my gun might blow.” He frames his inquisition with a tone poem that he unveils in fragments throughout the 75-minute album, and then recites whole on the penultimate “Mortal Man.”
Some critics believe that Kendrick’s theories of black uplift are essentially a conservative corollary to the “New Black” era. His conflation of Trayvon Martin’s murder with Crips-Bloods violence on “The Blacker the Berry” struck some as an apologia for police state oppression (as Stereo Williams claimed on his DailyBeast.com post, “Who Exactly is Kendrick Lamar Raging Against?”). In his defense, Kendrick seems to present a more nuanced vision of multi-cultural inclusiveness (remember “Fuck Your Ethnicity” from Section.80?), black pride, and Christian resolve.
Kendrick’s crazy quilt often appears as fuzzy and sepia-toned as To Pimp a Butterfly’s B&W cover art, a collage of exuberant black men and boys clutching wads of forty acres and a mule cash, metaphorically painting the White House black. You can hear that joy in Kendrick’s “I.” It may have drawn an equivocal response when issued as a stand-alone single last September (and subsequently picked up for the premiere of TNT’s 2014-2015 NBA broadcasts). But here, arriving after an hour of torturous self-doubt, “I” sounds like a life-affirming ray of sunshine.
But as with everything on To Pimp a Butterfly, the rewritten version of “I” used here is barbed with meaning. There is crowd noise, and the audience responds hesitantly as Kendrick performs the Isley Brothers-inspired number as an old-school revival. The song suddenly ends as Kendrick observes a restless crowd breaking into scuffles, shouting out, “Not on my time! Not on my time!” He declares, “2015, niggas tired of playing victims, dog,” then locks into an a cappella freestyle as if in a trance:
Retrace my steps on what they never taught me
Did my homework fast before government caught me
So I’m a dedicate this one verse to Oprah
On how the infamous sensitive N-word control us
So many artists gave her an explanation to hold us
Well this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia
N-E-G-U-S, definition: royalty
It’s a supremely meta moment, Kendrick comments on “I’s” underwhelming performance on the Billboard pop charts even as he presents it to us now, freshly brewed and ready for the racial shadowboxing of To Pimp a Butterfly. Even when he’s supposed to love himself, and prays, “The holy water don’t go dry,” he can’t help but doubt himself.
So is Kendrick an evolutionary step from Tupac Shakur? He may have the West Coast on lock, as he brags on “Hood Politics,” “the only nigga next to Snoop that can push the button.” But his “conversation” with Shakur’s spectral presence (via a 1994 interview) reveals the two’s philosophical contrasts. “I think that niggas is tired of grabbing shit out the stores, and next time it’s a riot it’s going to be, like, uh, bloodshed, for real,” says Pac in a nod to the then-recent 1992 Los Angeles uprising.
Pac’s incendiary words seem distant from Kendrick’s quest for personal and political resolution. “In my opinion, the only hope that we kinda have left is music and vibrations,” he says. “A lot of people don’t understand how important it is.”
In the end, what unites 2Pac and Kendrick is their innate charisma, their fearless introspection, their righteous anger at a world that both rejects their beautiful blackness and pimps their God-given talent, and their dreams of an America that’s both wondrously transformative and perhaps realistically unattainable. He asks us on “Mortal Man”: “If shit hit the fan, is you still a fan? Do you believe in me?”