To Pimp a Butterfly: King Kendrick returns with a scathing indictment of the powers that be

To Pimp a Butterfly was legendary even before it was released. As the author of two of hip hop’s greatest contemporary achievements – the breakout mixtape Section.80 and the intensely personal and highly successful debut good kid, m.A.A.d. city – Lamar had a lot to live up to. With both of those records, Kendrick wove street parables with emotional resonance, positioning himself as a conflicted figure living between two worlds. On one side of the fence, Lamar identifies himself as more of a writer rather than a rapper, and as a young man growing up in Compton he was known as a good student, frequently scribing stories and poems from what he observed in his immediate environment. This image, however, violently collides with the groundswell of West Coast hip hop, the birthplace of gangster rap, and thus a necessary prism through which Lamar entered and experiences the world.

This conflict between the keen, studious and multi-talented observer and the hardened Compton native forms the core of To Pimp a Butterfly, a record that provides perhaps the most searing insight into the ways in which systematic racism plague the individuals that sit at its receiving end. The burns caused by this friction are problematic for Lamar, as evidenced by his inability to soothe them with the spoils of infamy. In fact, even after the immense success of good kid, m.A.A.d. city, it appears that Lamar might actually be worse off, a fact that becomes evident the deeper one delves into To Pimp a Butterfly.

How does one man with all of this newfound influence avoid the trepidation of temptation? How can Lamar engage in a quest for social justice when he’s the furthest from Compton’s streets as he has ever been?

A tortured psyche and hyper self-critical eye is the driving force of To Pimp a Butterfly, as Lamar bears his soul for his audience in one of the most public acts of martyrdom ever committed to record. It’s an album that is as uncomfortable as it is uplifting; a jump at mass appeal and commerciality not for success’ sake, but to widen the discussion and create conversations necessary for the progressive shifting of black culture and the nurturing of individual identity within.

To achieve such a task, Lamar has dug deeper into the history of black music than all of his contemporaries combined. He understands that in order to come to terms with the pain of the present, one must understand and digest the past and on To Pimp a Butterfly Lamar does exactly that. Taking a leaf out of D’Angelo’s book, Kendrick has contorted the echoes of jazz, funk and soul into a contemporary form, a process that further legitimises the serious undertones of the ideas contained within his words. To say that To Pimp a Butterfly simply borrows the sounds of the past to use as a crutch however is an unfortunate conclusion; even one listen of the record will reveal that it’s more alive than most contemporary records could even dream of being. Like the music of Flying Lotus – a figure with whom Lamar has been publicly associating himself for quite some time, and who appears on this record – the music of the past is a channel through which one can explore the present.

Fractured forms throughout history come together on To Pimp a Butterfly in the most exciting and liberating of ways. If there’s a reason that Lamar was able to recruit such well-established musicians for his sophomore release, and I’m sure there are many, it’s most likely because throughout the album Lamar seems to be on the same quest for truth as they would be, as well as all of those great musicians who came before him. This journey is as singular and focused as the music that represents its patchwork, and through its tortured, self-critical and hopeful vision we can witness a long tradition of suffering and triumph. Miles Davis would probably smile and nod.

We witness this in the beat poetry of “For Free? (Interlude)”, with it’s searing saxophone giving way to a woman demanding that Lamar live up to the expectations set by America’s fascination with rap stars, a commercial cliché that Lamar obviously has trouble swallowing. We hear it in Thundercat’s soulful, virtuoso bass slapping across “These Walls” and “Wesley’s Theory” (as well as numerous other instances). Hell, we witness it across the entirety of To Pimp a Butterfly, from the dynamic, loosely psychedelic P-funk passages to the neo-soul splatterings that glide underneath Lamar’s powerful words on almost every track. Mostly, however, the past haunts as it unshackles at the conclusion of “Mortal Man”, wherein Lamar reconstructs a 1994 interview with one of his heroes, Tupac Shakur, to have himself ask questions to which Tupac responds. It’s quite the literal conversation with the past, and it’s powerful in ways that are often hard to articulate, yet it is very clear that this conversation crystallises To Pimp a Butterfly.

But what about Kendrick? Sure it’s easy to be distracted by the overwhelming craftsmanship of the instrumentals, the colours, the tones and the acoustics. What’s most important about To Pimp a Butterfly is not its aesthetics, but rather how Lamar thoughtfully utilises them. The swirling beauty of the music is used here explicitly as a platform for ideas that are as potent and powerful as any Bob Dylan record. To Pimp a Butterfly is a vivid, personal journey that also establishes itself as universal. Somehow, Kendrick has managed to articulate his own personal struggle as a successful, young black male in a way that exposes the systematic imbalance that leads to such a situation while offering salvation for those who suffer in the process. The mind boggles.

To Pimp a Butterfly’s first third primarily deals with the ways in which Lamar, now as close to being a household name as his idols, comes to terms with the ways in which fame corrupts. His self-sacrificial nature shines through strongest here, as he contemplates temptation (a phenomenon that reveals itself in the album as a non-specific character named Lucy) as a means of avoiding responsibility. Hip hop culture has brought many artists great success, but with Kendrick the weight of his crown disturbs as he struggles to decide how to wield his new power without being a hypocrite. To put it bluntly, he feels powerless and pimped.

“King Kunta”, the driving, James Brown-flavoured third track, uses the figure at the centre of the novel Roots, Kunta Kinte, as a metaphor for the mental anchor that denies him success. Following the lyric “now I run the game got the whole world talkin’” with “everybody wanna cut the legs off him” is as explicit as that conflict gets. “Institutionalized” deals with Lamar’s limbo most explicitly, chalking up his inability to reap rewards to the guilt instilled in him from his Compton upbringing and the institutional, rigid nature of that environment. When the silver tongued, G-funk legend Snoop Dogg sings “you can take your boy out of the hood but you can’t take the hood out the homie”, it’s as plain and simple as such a complex matter can be.

All comes crumbling down, though, on “u”, the flipside to sunny optimism of Lamar’s polarising lead single “i” (which now works much better in context). It’s a song that finds Lamar literally breaking down in his hotel room, crippled by depression and internal conflict. “Loving you is complicated”, he screams, with the moment being the most exposed and insecure a hip hop artist has ever appeared. If “u” is from the outside looking in, a person disconnected from their values and their influence, then “i” is that internal struggle exorcised externally, the butterfly emerging from its cocoon, with the dichotomy between these two tracks being crucial to comprehending To Pimp a Butterfly.

Suffering builds character, however, and after a visit to his birthplace (whether that be literal or metaphorical, it’s irrelevant), Lamar works through his turmoil by finding truth within his own self. After the Pharrell assisted “Alright”, a track that scraps together enough necessary optimism to carry on, Lamar reaches a point of self-realisation and clarity in “Momma”, particularly in its second verse. His diatribe about “knowing everything” is the apex of self-empowerment through knowledge and understanding. It’s the equivalent of Kanye’s “I am a God” sentiment, but in this instance it feels actualised due to the struggle that came before it. The sentiment here is tangible and confident, but most importantly it feels achievable, even for me.

As To Pimp a Butterfly continues, Lamar oscillates between fear and confidence in equal measure, but unlike the record’s first half, the lows don’t seem inescapable. On the blistering “The Blacker the Berry”, Kendrick addresses his hypocrisy bold-faced, and instead of using race and history as he did on “King Kunta”, his ownership of blackness becomes liberation. Recognising hypocrisy is as human an act as one can undertake, and here Lamar does so with fire in his belly.

“Complexion (A Zulu Love)” also deals with the trappings of blackness but in a more affirming way, as Kendrick (with some help from the wonderful Rapsody) acknowledges what causes African American communities to destroy themselves based on nothing but skin tone, and then combats that hatred with love. When Rapsody coolly sings “Black as brown, hazelnut, cinnamon, black tea and it’s all beautiful to me / call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens”, it’s hard not to pine for a world in which her words aren’t the absolute truth.

It’s probably “Mortal Man” that is the most affecting cut on the record though, even without Kendrick’s uncanny conversation with Tupac. Through Lamar’s direct pleading with his audience to accept him as he is despite his transgressions, we are witness to one of the most beautiful examples of empathy education this side of, well, Nelson Mandela, a figure Kendrick wholly holds up as inspirational. To judge someone based upon their choices without trying to understand what affects those choices will destroy us. By humanising of his own self, Kendrick’s words resonate deeper in such a context and the end result is overwhelming to say the least.

What’s most important about To Pimp a Butterfly, however, is not so much its message or its construction but rather how we as listeners react to the record. Thankfully, early reports seems to indicate that Lamar’s blood, sweat and tears might assemble into something tangible, something measureable, and perhaps, something truthful. If the soul’s salvation lies in knowledge, compassion, understanding and love, then the overwhelming positive reaction to To Pimp a Butterfly might just indicate that we’re on our way there. And for that, K-Dot, you are forgiven. 

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