Kendrick Lamar’s extraordinary To Pimp A Butterfly shares a good deal of common ground with D’Angelo’s recent Black Messiah, not simply in its rush-release mechanism (available to download suddenly, ahead of a planned release date) but also in its excoriating examination of contemporary race issues in the US. Both albums seem to capture a rage and desire to examine in the wake of Ferguson, as well as featuring bold investigations of their creators’ internal vulnerabilities behind the external egos. Both albums have been hailed instantly as important works, although both ought to resist snap judgements. To Pimp A Butterfly is a particularly intense (and dense) work, crammed with references, insights and invention. For those not entirely convinced by Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe (not least after it played a small role in the Oscar Pistorius trial), To Pimp A Butterfly’s combination of expansive scope and microscopic detail may come as something of a revelation.
It is an album that both looks back and innovates. It judiciously picks samples from both past and near-present (The Isley Brothers and James Brown on the one hand, Sufjan Stevens on the other). The first notes on the album are drawn from Boris Gardiner’s Every Nigger Is A Star, an earlier attempt at reclaiming a still controversial word from racists and suppressors (more on this later). Wesley’s Theory features the voice of Parliament‘s grand master George Clinton, a fundamental influence on a range of hip hop artists. The ghost of Tupac Shakur is another key presence throughout the record, not least in the album’s closing minutes, during which Lamar interpolates his own questions and concerns in to a recorded interview with Shakur.
Whilst the occasional use of samples and the appearance of ghosts provide memorable moments, it is the sound of the musicians involved that gives this otherwise turbulent album a coherent sound. In addition to Clinton, Wesley’s Theory utilises the virtuosic bass playing of Thundercat and the production skills of his visionary associate Flying Lotus. These are experimental musicians who have been gradually expanding their audience independently – but Lamar’s work could speed up that process yet further. Socially conscious and protest jazz is another reference point – with the interlude For Free? taking place over some burning contemporary swing and elsewhere there are interjections of wildness and improvisation. Robert Glaspar, a jazz pianist who has embraced hip hop sound and culture in his own work, is an important presence here, often imbuing the music with warmth and depth. Various vocalists, including Bilal and returning guest Anna Wise, provide a melodic and strikingly emotional core to this work. Musically, this is vivid, defiantly unpredictable and, if yielded to, completely engaging.
Yet none of this would work were it not for Lamar’s articulate and adventurous lyrics. In his presentation of a journey from the streets of Compton to international success, Lamar embraces confusion, paradox and contradiction. This is made explicitly clear in some of the opposing track titles (the interludes For Free? and For Sale? and in ‘u’ and ‘i’). There is a recurring spoken word theme: “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same.” He refers to “the temptations of Lucy” (presumably Lucifer in female guise). This is not a straightforward story. On Institutionalized, Lamar critiques the corrupting influence of money at the same time as claiming to be “trapped in the ghetto” and “I ain’t proud to admit it”. On the smoother, ruminatively funky These Walls, he riffs on walls both external (prison bars) and internal (mental barriers, vaginal walls). If last year’s single, the old-school sounding i (it is, perhaps, worth noting the use of the lower case) could be perceived as relatively lightweight and affirmative, its album incarnation is tougher, and is succeeded by an extraordinary internal debate about the use of the N word in hip hop. Lamar reclaims it as a positive term on the basis of the word ‘negus’ meaning ‘emperor’ or ‘king’.
Lamar has a strong belief in individual responsibility (“Shit don’t change until you get up and wash your ass, nigga” is the refrain on Institutionalized) that could be seen as either radical or deeply Conservative. It is accompanied, however, with a plea for strong community. Lamar’s beliefs can be hard to gauge – Wesley’s Theory finds him worrying about the malign corporate forces in the music industry but does its riffing on the downfall of actor Wesley Snipes endorse his use of protest theory to justify tax evasion? The strongest socio-political invective here comes on The Blacker The Berry. Lamar goes way beyond the N word here, sterotyping himself as a ‘proud monkey’ in a cascade of confrontation (“My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide – You hate me don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture”). Is this about how white superiority, oppression and racism might incite self hatred? Are Lamar’s claims to hypocrisy in his response to the shooting of Trayvon Martin specifically a condemnation of violence within black communities (“it’s funny how zulu or xhosa might go to war”) or simply a recognition that an individual might not be able to condemn violence if they themselves have participated in it? There are pitfalls here, but the song invites analysis and Lamar’s delivery is peerless.
Beneath the stark duality of self-confidence/self-loathing here is a more complex internal dialogue between the extroversion of Lamar’s role as rapper and his personal introspection. Few rap albums have been quite so open about examining mental health issues – and the ‘deep depression’ of the album’s recurring motif is an ever present feature. So whilst Lamar might enjoy some ingenious boasts regarding his superiority on King Kunta, he also deploys a vivid range of voices throughout to elucidate his interior conflicts. The most singular example of this is u, on which Lamar addresses himself, exhuming his personal demons. The production might make it the most fearlessly radical moment on a mainstream hip hop release this decade (it could be an Anticon track) – at one point a near-beatless storm of darkness. It’s typical of this purposefully confounding album that it is followed by the hook-laden blast of positivity in the face of adversity that is Alright. It turns out there might be more than two sides to every story.