What does it sound like?:
Kendrick Lamar’s last release, Good Kid: M.A.A.D. City, was a masterpiece, a rite of passage tale of growing up in Compton. However, that now sounds suffocating, introspective and monochrome compared to To Pimp A Butterfly. This is a multicoloured kaleidoscope of sound with complex lyrical themes and narrative threads woven within its rich tapestry. Although one of the themes is being conflicted and depressed, Lamar exudes confidence. At times, his raps are literally breath-taking; they go so fast, one wonders how he actually physically does it without pause. He experiments with rolling the sounds around his mouth and adopting different voices to reflect different characteristics of his personality. He bounces his raps off the music’s flow much better than he has ever done.
The music is spectacularly imaginative. It sounds like a wild free jazz band, underpinned by Bootsy bass and backed by P-Funk singers. But, it can also slow down to perform polished sweet Soul. Thundercat provides the bottom for much of To Pimp A Butterfly and Robert Glasper sprinkles his stylish jazz piano embellishments just as Mick Garson did for Bowie on Aladdin Sane. Its vast array of styles most resembles the breadth and scope of Flying Lotus’s aural ‘vision’ but it owes a great deal to Erykah Badu’s eclectic chaos on 2006’s New Amerykah Part One (4th World War).
The album, as a whole, is a suite of songs blending into each other, depicting a long, dark night of the soul, with many ups and downs and twists and turns. Lamar experiences a biblical torment of guilt and despair, is tempted by Lucy and is frustrated by the attitude of his own people, but emerges on the cusp of greatness, of growing wings and becoming a butterfly. Many of the songs feel like parables but the most overtly religious is How Much Does A Dollar Cost, a chilling piece in which an arrogant Lamar behaves as a Bad Samaritan.
Naturally, a deep sense of injustice and anger at the spate of legal killings of unarmed black Americans pervades the whole, including those tracks that don’t deal with these issues head on. The burden of being under constant racial surveillance tells its toll. The Blacker The Berry is the most fierce and incendiary with its “You hate me, don’t you” refrain, whilst King Kunte depicts the first slave as a strutting, impossibly funky ruler, yet Complexion is beautifully sexy.
But, there’s more, much more with many tracks matched with a conflicting, polar opposite. Just look at the titles, u, then “i”, For Free? and For Sale?. There are reflections on the hubris of fame, then a self-centred celebration of being in the spotlight, a love/hate of Compton or home, a passion for Rap but not for Rap politics and strong pride in his race but a shame at a lack of unity. Lamar’s ruminating on himself are alternately empowering and deprecatory.
It is difficult to imagine Lamar dripping in bling. His desire to remain true to himself and his values is striking. He is quite clearly intelligent, creative, sensitive, flawed and very likeable. Azealia Banks implies he is vanilla as he is enjoyed by the ‘soccer moms’ and white, middle class men like me. However, Banks is better on social media than on record. Kendrick Lamar can simply sit back and let his music do the talking.
From the front cover of Lamar and his homies, shirtless in triumph on the White House lawn, he stretches limits. He pushes the maximum length of a CD album, clocking in at a 79 minutes that feels a lot shorter. The music is wonderfully challenging but even that runs out before Lamar has finished. The album draws strength from black icons of the past, Harper Lee in the title, Mandela, King and Kunta Kinte, and old school black music, jazz, funk and soul. In the finale, Mortal Man, the loose ends are neatly tied off as Lamar conducts an eery interview with his hero, Tupac. It’s a remarkable ending to a remarkable album.
Kanye may currently occupy the throne but To Pimp A Butterfly puts Kendrick Lamar next in line and ahead on artistic achievement.
What does it all *mean*?
After two weeks of deliberation, I can confidently state that To Pimp A Butterfly is the best rap album ever made and, more than that, it transcends its genre and is the greatest album released this century. I mean it.
Goes well with…
An open mind. Come on, Afterworders, test your mettle.
Might suit people who like…
Great music of any kind, rap, jazz, Flying Lotus, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah with which it shares a spirit.