Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

JODY MACGREGOR delves into Kendrick’s complex, conflicted and compelling followup to his good kid M.A.A.D City breakthrough.

My first reaction to Kendrick Lamar’s new album was a dumbfounded, “Woah, this is dense.” No shit, it’s dense: it’s a Kendrick Lamar album, what was I expecting? But while good kid M.A.A.D City called itself “a short film”, To Pimp A Butterfly feels more like a novel, one that warrants those annotations by Michael Chabon. To get specific, To Pimp A Butterfly is like a modernist novel, one that rewards re-reading, comes with unreliable narrators, has lengthy interior monologues, and embraces a grand narrative.

As for what it sounds like – there is so much funk. George Clinton’s right there on track one, a Flying Lotus production that also features his frequent collaborator Thundercat. That distinctive Thundercat bass playing is all over To Pimp A Butterfly, but there’s also toasting from Assassin and jazzy beat poetry, like Lamar’s going back to all of hip-hop’s various roots. That poetry holds To Pimp A Butterfly together, with lines interspersed throughout and the complete thing finally revealed at the end.

There are smaller climactic revelations all the way through, with so many sudden twists in final verses it’s like an M. Night Shyamalan film festival. The woman railing at Lamar about money because she wanted a nice outfit “for the fourth” turns out to be the United States (“Oh, America, you bad bitch/I picked the cotton that made you rich”), and both God and the Devil appear in separate tracks as if performing the lyrical equivalent of pulling off Scooby-Doo masks.

These twists might seem goofy but they work because of the effort Lamar puts into his characters, getting inside their heads in unexpected ways. In the middle of berating his crew for acting up at an awards ceremony he delivers a verse from their perspective (bookended by Snoop Dogg impersonating Slick Rick as a kind of fairytale narrator), while elsewhere he raps as his own mother, and then a castigating voice that sounds like his own conscience berating him for leaving Compton and chasing fame.

To Pimp A Butterfly is a lot of work, but there’s a lot of reward too”

That’s in ‘u’, which works as a centrepiece for the whole album as well as a vital complement to the feelgood single ‘i’. Where ‘i’ is a declaration of self-love, in ‘u’ Lamar looks into the mirror and repeats “Loving you is complicated,” before getting drunk and spiraling into depression and vicious recriminations. Where the single version of ‘i’ seemed like an out-of-character burst of positivity, put in context on the album it becomes a necessary balance to the darkness and a celebration that feels hard-earned. That’s highlighted by the album version being a pseudo-live recording with audience chatter and “Come up to the front!” ad-libs. Then a fight breaks out although the audience is quickly calmed by some of Lamar’s a cappella spoken word poetry, which is a real thing that really happens.

Another thing that really happens is that the final track, ‘Mortal Man’, includes a conversation between Tupac and Lamar, who inserts himself over questions from a 1994 interview with the dead MC to draw the obvious connection between them. Calling that ‘audacious’ feels like an understatement. I said To Pimp A Butterfly embraces grand narrative and you don’t get much grander than “I am Tupac’s heir and I’ve come to preach for black America.” Like a lot of the parts of this album that seem hokey when you try to explain them – beat poetry, twist endings – what’s impressive about it is that it works in the moment, that when I’m listening it transports me to a place where it mostly doesn’t seem corny or mental.

I say mostly though because I could do without things like the apology for Michael Jackson (“That nigga gave us ‘Billie Jean’, you say he touched those kids? When shit hits the fan is you still a fan?”) that comes after Lamar comparing himself to Nelson Mandela. But there are more things that work than don’t, and every time I go back there’s another detail that stands out, whether it’s Robert Glasper’s piano piece that sounds like ‘Pyramid Song’ or the way Lamar nervously fidgets with paper while pretending to read his poetry to Tupac or the killer guest verse from Rapsody. To Pimp A Butterfly is a lot of work, but there’s a lot of reward too.

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