To Pimp A Butterfly
by Chad Jewett
To Pimp A Butterfly, the dazzling third album from Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, never stops moving. Across the record’s thickly packed seventy-nine minutes, we see Lamar work his way through a sort of spiritual autobiography to match the noirish bildungsroman that was 2013’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. But where that album was in literal motion, following a dramatized version of Kendrick through neighborhoods, alleyways, threatening territories, and friends’ houses, at times playing like a hip-hop Dante’s Inferno, this album tracks the dizzying motion of firing synapses. At its most incandescent, To Pimp A Butterfly moves with the kinetic speed of thought. The LP is a bubbling livewire dramatization of a forming worldview, with all the attendant cul-de-sacs, contradictions, anxieties, and hopes in rich, vivid supply. Songs stop and start with bracing momentum and velocity; grooves deteriorate then rebuild in miniature sonic electrical storms; voices stack in off-kilter harmonies that sync only on the outside notes.
To Pimp A Butterfly is devoted to its symbolism of formation, change, and creation (the title is an enigmatic play on To Kill A Mockingbird) but is equally defined by its dense nest of layers. One of the album’s central motifs is a tone poem that begins “I remember you was conflicted…” and builds, by album’s end, into a fully-formed closing statement-of-purpose, adding new branches with each repetition, serving as both punctuation and the aural equivalent of a snowball growing as it rolls downhill. It is an album about race in America and an album about a young artist finding himself, and it brilliantly refuses to separate the two. Similarly, Lamar seems most comfortable with the butterfly being the caterpillar at the same time. And like good kid but with more ground to cover, To Pimp A Butterfly is obsessed with how people move through space both literal and cerebral, and to what extent we’re affected by our many returns and departures. The record is at once a confessional and a triptych, a staggering work of introspection and a dizzying eruption of vibrant, gritty funk.
Lamar might ultimately settle on the optimism of breaking through and finding some workable version of self – a free-verse poem at the end of “Mortal Man” tries to find hope in the caterpillar’s ability to balance our various personae – but the twenty-seven-year-old rapper seems as positively fueled by contradiction as any artist of his generation. Lamar is a poet deeply inspired by all the ways that human beings don’t make sense. At its core, To Pimp A Butterfly seems to be playing with the scary truth that truth is scary. The buoyant James Brown strut of “King Kunta” abuts the ruminative, psych-soul and social critique of “Institutionalized”. The potent political force of “The Black The Berry” immediately dovetails into the plush, placid R&B of “You Ain’t Gotta Lie”, as intimate as the preceding song is wide-reaching and epic. Many songs seem to want to move in two or three directions at once. Some figure out a way to do just that. “These Walls” manages to make a moan sound like a mournful horn (or maybe vice versa), and has both bedrooms and jail cells in mind. “Hood Politics”, “These Walls”, and “i” all slide into buckling, slow-motion bridges that ripple and bend. The third verse of the brilliant, electrifying “King Kunta” (one of the album’s finest and most singular songs, its stomping funk like putty in Lamar’s imaginative hands) drops its entire, liquid-R&B beat to clear space for a detuning effect that warps Lamar’s voice into a stretching rubber band. Elsewhere, the trickling beat running beneath “Alright” (perhaps the only song here where the track’s sound design eclipses a slightly undercooked pair of verses) seems to be moving forward and backward at once, giving the song a riveting, improvisatory energy further stoked by the its sharp pauses and free-ranging ribbon of bop sax.
The album’s obsession with human complexity surfaces in the deeply fraught questions of race, identity, personal politics, and national mythology that run through “The Blacker The Berry”, a song that leans hard into Lamar’s penchant for self-examination and the granular intricacy of truth. The rapper announces “I’m the biggest hypocrite in 2015” and has as many versions of hypocrisy in mind as can fit into a trio of ultra-compressed verses. Set to a boom-bap thump swirling with sharp organs and piano, Lamar assembles images of white exploitation of black culture, embattled self-esteem, gang violence, institutionalized inequity, and a sweeping sense of unease, all the while investing deeply in the intersecting understandings of race in contemporary America with a pointed, cerebral bite.
That notion of strata in motion defines the continued flexibility of Lamar’s novelistic inner-monologue. “Hood Politics”, like 2013’s “Swimming Pools”, matches oblique, unexpected hooks (the song’s exuberant chorus — “I’ve been A-One since day One” — is brilliant and economical and infectious) and an insouciant, elastic flow to a massively intricate narrative, this time devoted to the pressures of home and success. In fact, a great deal of To Pimp A Butterfly works to track Lamar’s return (be it literal, spiritual, conceptual) to the same greater Los Angeles that provided the sweepingly cinematic setting for good kidd, m.A.A.d city. And if the previous album designed a version of the city full of diversion, temptation, and danger for an adolescent, Butterfly establishes L.A. as the home that a now-adult Kendrick Lamar is having a hard time figuring out how to return to.
Oftentimes, Lamar seems to be testing himself against past dreams, old intimacies, and changing realities. It’s why “Hood Politics” balances outsized rap-hero confidence and quiet, between-the-lines anxiety. It’s why the Quiet Storm soul-nostalgia of “Momma” seems to be speaking to both family and a broader sense of origins, as the song’s second verse becomes a compendium for everything Lamar has learned – history, bullshit, morality, spirituality, the self, Compton, “street shit”, lawyers, sponsors, wisdom, the Universe, the highs, the lows, how people work – that somehow inevitably loops back to coming home. It’s telling that a third verse finds the rapper challenged by a kid who at one point notes “Kendrick, you do know my language / You just forgot because of what public schools had painted”. Later: “Be an advocate / Tell your homies, especially, to come back home”. On “u”, Lamar goes so far as to question the very meaning of artistic endeavor, despairing over his own influence (“You preached in front of a hundred-thousand but never reached ’em / I’ll fuckin’ tell you, you fuckin’ failure / You ain’t no leader”) over a cloudy free jazz dreamscape. The album spends much of its runtime with such questions of self, origin, and horizon on its mind. To Pimp A Butterfly periodically asks whom to trust, and part of its gripping motion is defined by the search, both geographic and introspective. At times the album can feel like a turbulent flight circling to land.
The LP also finds Kendrick further expanding his already elastic voice, inhabiting troubled inner selves, skeptical outsiders, new femme fatales (this time the satanic Lucy instead of good kid’s Sherane), neighborhood kids, bitter mirror images. The opening verse of “Institutionalized” marks the return of the sort of nasally, hyper-compressed inner monologue that Lamar has played with before, but there’s no real precedent for the sharp, aerobic way the rapper pushes his voice on the hook of “i”, the sublime, sing-song lilt of “For Free?”, the toothy rasp on “For Sale?”, or the sharp bark with which Lamar cuts through the hazy, cracking groove of “Hood Politics” (adding even more catching energy to the song, one of the album’s best). Kendrick Lamar’s first bars (“When I get signed homie, I’mma act a fool / Hit the dance floor, strobe lights in the room”) on the rubbery album-opener “Wesley’s Theory” are delivered with a keen, enchanting force that marks a new plateau of taut energy from a rapper who already tore into his own language with graceful, charging abandon. And on “u”, perhaps the album’s finest, and certainly its most conceptually daring and experimental entry, Lamar offers a growling, grainy low-end to his voice that we’ve hardly seen before, a finely textured new character whose breathy, bluesy grit you can just about feel along the fabric covering your headphones. Elsewhere, Kendrick channels the taut, infectious energy of early-70s James Brown on “King Kunta” (“I got a bone to pick”) and D’Angelo on “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”, further underlining the vital soul-and-funk crunch that gives the album its savory, weighty density.
Indeed, To Pimp A Butterfly is as remarkable for its thick, gorgeous, quilted soundscape as it is for the novelistic psychological journey that takes place over it. Parliament funk, 70s soul, Blaxploitation soundtracks, Illmatic-era boom-bap grit, Delta blues, the blissed-out hip-hop weirdness of De La Soul and The Pharcyde, post-bop and free jazz – all are left to congeal and comingle, cooked across a spectrum of heats. Butterfly was recorded with a full band, giving the record its pliant, stomach-filling sense of presence. “Wesley’s Theory”, the album’s springy, cosmic opening track (produced by the brilliant Flying Lotus), is defined by both the Funkadelic harmonies and oaken rasp of George Clinton and the slip-sliding neon bass of Thundercat (a transfixing presence throughout), spending its four minutes pivoting between Lamar’s spellbinding delivery and a packed layer-cake of wriggling, gummy sound. “King Kunta” stomps its four-on-the-floor groove with sexy abandon, filled out by left-field sound effects (a triangle, bubbles, a snare-like panting, an auto-tuned back-up singer), trickling Radiohead guitars and a Greek chorus of call-and-responding female singers (“What’s the yams?”). “i” borrows the seductive jangle of The Isley Brothers’ “That Lady” to power its effervescent ode to self-esteem, here in reworked form from the original single and made to more closely match the delirious soul-punk energy with which Lamar lit the song during his Saturday Night Live appearance and closing with a dramatization of Lamar breaking up a fight, further underlining the album’s linking of the interpersonal and the political.
“For Free?” and “u” push the albums sonic adventurousness to a dazzling avant-garde outer edge, the former finding Lamar raining bars in Beat-poetic showers over a sidewinding bop workout, the latter eschewing almost all structure, allowing the rapper to pick and choose his own pockets, variably growling and shrieking, as free and liquid as the saxophone that chimes loosely throughout. The album’s relationship to hip-hop is equally sophisticated and cerebral, at times recalling Notorious B.I.G.’s ultra-ambitious and haunting Life After Death, at other points seeming like a more committedly avant-garde response to Kanye West’s similarly bombastic, outsized psychodrama, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Generally, Kendrick Lamar does fascinating work with rap’s history, retrofitting the anxious-success narratives of albums like Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life and Graduation and turning them into grand, piercing explorations of interiority, psychology, capitalism, race, and faith.
As omnivorous and intrepid as the album’s sonic imagination is, its conceptual bravura is equally stunning. There are dozens of recurring ideas, motifs, and characters: the offsetting despair and optimism of “u” (as tart and excoriating a self-critique as Lamar has offered) and “i”; the matching experimentalism of boiling jazz on “For Free?” and the outer-space soul of its book-end, “For Sale?”; the ways in which “Complexion”, “These Walls”, and “The Blacker The Berry” layer questions of personal connection, race, and structural inequality. The album is constantly raising and re-raising questions about what it means to be young, black, and successful in a country defined by centuries of endemic racism and uneven scales of justice. The album’s outro – a dream-like conversation between Kendrick and Tupac Shakur, assembled from a 1994 interview with Shakur – finds Lamar still searching for answers long after he’s made his way through whatever wisdom Shakur left for him to find. Tupac becomes the final, enigmatic say in a list of other African American figures that seem to bewitch and inspire Lamar – not only legendary guests like George Clinton and Snoop Dogg (who does vivid, if brief, character work on “Institutionalized”), but also Huey Newton, Michael Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr. Wesley Snipes – specifically the actor’s rise and incarceration on tax charges – inform “Wesley’s Theory”. Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker The Berry gives Lamar’s song its title and shares its questions over the complexity of racial politics (the artist’s similar exploration of color also comes to define “Complexion”).
But the album also shares the captivating sense of both possibility and dread that courses like lightning through books like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo. To Pimp A Butterfly carries both novels’ deeply sophisticated, nuanced takes on black culture and white consumption, as well as both author’s gifts for voice, musicality, stylistic flexibility, and the gripping nature of space and place. Indeed, it’s hard not to think of Ellison’s protagonist, hidden Underground to contemplate the mysteries of self as Lamar looks in the mirror and shouts “Loving you is complicated”. If good kid, m.A.A.d city was Lamar’s film noir, then To Pimp A Butterfly is his modernist novel. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the rapper cannily commented on the album’s transfixing title: “That’s something that will be a phrase forever. It’ll be taught in college courses — I truly believe that.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the comment mirrors James Joyce’s similarly Cheshire Cat-like assessment of his 1922 novel Ulysses: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality”. Both works offer that sense of scope, of imagination, of weight. And both are swept up in a cyclone of doubt, worry, anxiety, hope, soulfulness, faith, anger, and inspiration. We might think of To Pimp A Butterfly as Kendrick Lamar insuring his immortality. Or perhaps we could call it an epoch-shifting rap album to rival Fear Of A Black Planet or All Eyez On Me or The College Dropout. It is certainly daring, fearless even, the definition of a difficult yet rewarding follow-up to an unexpected smash hit. Ultimately, To Pimp A Butterfly defies definition. It is precisely the fascinating, bewitching, staggeringly deep album Kendrick Lamar knew it was. It is a masterpiece always forming anew, cracking through another chrysalis.