For the first Kendrick Lamar album, everyone didn’t know quite what to expect. It was obvious that he was a rap virtuoso, a rapper who had a unique way with words and storytelling, those abilities shown so impressively on his flawless mixtape Section.80. Those abilities were then in dazzling display on debut album good kid, m.A.A.d City, and with Lamar detailing life in his hard-knock community in such a raw and vibrant way, it was immediately clear this was an instant classic. The Compton rapper set the bar extremely high – almost out of sight – for himself as well as all other emcees in the game.
The story-arc that ties everything together on good kid, m.A.A.d City is what makes it such an accomplishment, and while there’s no similar arc on Kendrick Lamar’s highly anticipated sophomore album To Pimp A Butterfly, there’s instead a rich thread of black culture running through it all: it extends to the guest spots, to the people that are referenced, and most vividly, in what Lamar chooses to say.
“Wesley’s Theory” is driven by the science fiction funk of the legendary icon George Clinton, who makes his voice heard in the intro and the bridge, and whose band Parliament has been a huge inspiration for Lamar. Another icon of more recent times, Dr. Dre, has an enlightening message to pass on to his protégé between the verses: “remember, anybody can get it, the hard part is keeping it”. Words to heed for King Kendrick if he wants to keep the crown on his head.
On “King Kunta”, Lamar sticks up for his principles, making it clear that “if I got a brown nose for some gold then I’d rather be a bum than a baller”. He got himself out of the hood on his own and draws a parallel to the titular character Kunta Kinte who persistently tried to free himself from a life of slavery. Lamar “give[s] a fuck about your complexion” in the smooth R&B-tinged “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” featuring Rapsody, a philosophy that would make the world a much less irksome place for everyone.
It’s on “The Blacker The Berry” though, where the Compton rapper ups the ante and really hammers home his views on black culture in a stunningly aggressive and confrontational way. The track was released as a single just a day after Lamar picked up two Grammy Awards for the uplifting and positive track “i” and this different, darker and provocative side knocked everyone off their feet. He began writing the song when he saw the news of Trayvon Martin’s murder, and it filled him with a burning rage that manifested in venomous accusations like “your plan is to terminate my culture” and “it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society”. In a culture where a young black man without a degree is more likely to end up in jail than anywhere else, Lamar is a resounding voice when he claims that the “penitentiary would only hire me”.
Lamar shines a scrutinizing light on himself just as much as he does on his surroundings throughout the 79 minutes of To Pimp A Butterfly. “u” finds Lamar staring at himself in the mirror and mercilessly, brutally telling himself that “the world don’t need you”, and calling himself a “f**kin’ failure”. It’s a cathartic act that leads to the calmer sounds of “Momma”, where rap’s “brought me back home” and has gifted Lamar a tight grasp of his sense of being once again. Ultimately, his catharsis leads to the joyous sounds of “i”, the polar opposite of “u”, where the rapper proclaims “I love myself” over the sunny tones of an Isley Brothers sample.
In the final track, the drifting “Mortal Man”, Lamar reveals he went to visit Nelson Mandela’s cell so he “could find clarity”, and goes on to mention Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, JFK and others, all heroes that faced some sort of betrayal. He’s looking for some trust in this day and age of scepticism, asking his fans “when sh*t hit the fan, is you still a fan?”, to stick by him through thick and thin during his reign. It’s the end of the track that holds the most profound moment of the album though, one that will leave a lasting impression. Lamar uses samples from a 1994 Tupac interview and grippingly forms a conversation with him, asking him questions and looking to him for guidance. It’s the passing of the torch from one voice of a generation to another.
A darker feel is very prevalent at the core of To Pimp A Butterfly, and what’s clear is that Lamar’s no longer the good kid with dreams to escape the mean streets of the m.A.A.d City. He’s grown to become the King of Compton, but he isn’t resting easy; he challenges the perceptions of race in a currently volatile world. Alongside this, he also challenges himself through searing introspection. It’s delivered in an unflinching and unforgiving way all wrapped up in ambitious, expansive, funk-infused production. It might not be an instant classic, but it will undoubtedly be one in time. To Pimp A Butterfly is out now via Aftermath/Interscope, purchase it on iTunes here.