“I’m not the next pop star, I’m not the next socially aware rapper” said Kendrick on his debut studio album. To Pimp A Butterfly reveals that one of those statements is the truth, and the other a lie. An Avant-garde experimentation with jazz means you are unlikely to hear a single song from To Pimp A Butterfly on the radio. A deep concern for black welfare means Kendrick moves from the projects to the pulpit.
With To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick takes an ambitious step to reclaim the mantle that has been left vacant since the death of Tupac Shakur in 1996. He makes the transition from rapper to prophet. “Misusing influence” is a troubling thought for Kendrick, painfully aware of the responsibility that comes with his success. In many ways, his sophomore fulfils the wish of his mother, delivered on the final lines of Real: “Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids…[how] you rose from that dark place of violence…give back, to your city.”
With the killings of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown all within 6 months, Kendrick recognises the renewed need for black activism. He isolates the key to affecting positive change; “Respect: if I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us.” This is a message that is likely to be controversial. Both i and Blacker the Berry suggest that self-respect is the only means by which black people can overcome white prejudice. The album includes a faux-live performance of first single i – complete with missed lines, mumbling and adlibs. One of the albums most poignant moments comes when Kendrick ‘stops the concert,’ when a brawl erupts at his show. “Not on my time, kill the music,” he says. “2015, niggas tired of playin’ the victim dawg…how many niggas we done lost this year alone?” The effect of this is doubly potent given that the entire world is so familiar with the upbeat nature of the Grammy award winning single, which oozes positivity. It’s a dark abruption.
Kendrick tries to create a renewed sense of pride in black communities. King Kunta transforms the slave from Roots into a swaggering king, “black man taking no losses.” Kendrick doesn’t want to reclaim the word “nigga”; he wants to completely re-conceptualise it. He suggests that when it is spoken, it should refer to the homophone, negus, an ancient Ethiopian word for royalty. On Complexion, Kendrick sermonises against discrimination based on ‘shade’ between black people.
Other than Kendrick’s concern with racial politics, To Pimp A Butterfly has one other thematic fixation, what Kendrick calls “survivors guilt.” Kendrick has a complex over the opinions of those he has left behind. On Hood Politics, a friend is angry that he keeps getting Kendrick’s voicemail. He warns Kendrick not to abandon his roots and end up in a pair of “socks and skinny jeans.” Kendrick’s enormous success has allowed him to escape the ghettos of Compton, but the fact that he has left so many behind eats at him. After a very real battle with depression, Kendrick finds himself trapped in a hotel room on u. “You ain’t no friend, a friend never leave Compton for profit,” says the voice of someone still trapped in ghetto. “You even FaceTimed instead of a hospital visit” continues the voice, referencing the death of Kendrick’s close friend Chad Keaton, who was shot in a drive-by. Kendrick was overseas and couldn’t visit him; he never expected him to die after complications with surgery.
Just as striking as the album’s thematic focus, is the album’s production. It’s a modern amalgam of jazz, funk and soul that is daring and fascinating. It’s as if Kendrick conceives of these genres as inherently black, and he’s reclaiming ownership, like a centenary tribute to the musical achievements of his people. Even though Kendrick is a hip-hop artist, he has a duty to pay homage to the distinctly black genres that have come before him.
We get a dark acid jazz trip on the Flying Lotus-produced, George Clinton-featuring opening track, Wesley’s Theory, complete with futuristic synths. For Free begins with a saxophone intro before launching into free form jazz, and the track seems more like spoken word than hip hop. Not confined by any set rhythm, Kendrick delivers a mesmerising tour-de-force verse that reminds us that freestyle rapping has its origin in improvisational jazz. Sounwave and Terrace Martin give you funk that you can positively strut to on King Kunta. It even includes some sub-par backup singers for self-parody. The jazz is smokey and mellow on Institutionalized and thoroughly bebop when Bilal comes in with a “zooomzooooszooom.” These Walls evokes the imagery of the musical Chicago. You can visualise Kendrick under a lone spotlight, speaking over the music with a solitary click of his thumb. He smoulders on this soulful track, an ode to sex.
Whilst the jazz on the first 6 tracks is so bold and fresh, by the 7th song it has become thoroughly repetitive. Alright, For Sale and Momma are samey and lacklustre. They bring to mind a word that I never thought I would ever associate with a Kendrick song: forgettable. At this point in the albums juncture, you could be forgiven for not knowing when one song ends, and the other begins. Jazz purists might find the freeform nature of U interesting, but for the rest it will be a jarring and uncomfortable listen. Ultimately the jazz formula is very inhibiting for a rapper. They do not go hand in hand. Its erratic nature makes it difficult for Kendrick to ‘ride’ the beat. Many times it sounds much more like spoken word, or beat poetry than rap. It’s easy to switch off when this kind of droning begins.
For those among you that consider Section 80 to be the greatest hip hop album ever made, To Pimp A Butterfly might be upsetting. For those that consider g.o.o.d Kid M.a.a.D City to be equally good – by virtue of the fact that it’s largely a carbon copy of Section 80 – you might be disappointed. And if you were perfectly content to watch Kendrick rehash that same formula over and over again until the end of time, you might be positively heartbroken. To Pimp A Butterfly shares no similarities with his first two masterpieces. What is striking about those albums is their diversity: there’s effervescent charm on Rigamortis; preaching on Kiesha’s Song; a thumping gangster anthem on The Spiteful Chant, and a chart-topping powerhouse on HiiPower. His first two albums are about colour. They make for the ultimate desert island playlist because of their huge range.
To Pimp A Butterfly has no colour. I’m not going to spell out what shade it most resembles. Both the themes and the sounds are repetitive and subdued. There’s absolutely no denying that Kendrick has crafted something genius, enormous, and important. The whole thing seems like a move pulled far too early in his career. Kendrick shatters expectations. But did anyone really have a preconceived notion of what Kendrick Lamar was? To Pimp A Butterfly is a very challenging, uncomfortable listen. Ultimately, it suffers because it is not an enjoyable experience.