Why Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ is The Album Of The Year

JODY MACGREGOR on why Kendrick Lamar’s complex, conflicted and compelling followup to his good kid M.A.A.D City breakthrough deserves its place at the top of FL’s Album of the Year list.

When Kendrick Lamar saw a news report about the police shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012 his immediate reaction was to start writing ‘The Blacker The Berry’. Depressingly, it remains as relevant as ever in 2015. To Pimp A Butterfly combines Lamar’s experiences as a black American with the greater story of black America as a whole – it’s fitting that ‘Alright’ has become a protest song, its chorus sung during marches and shouted at police. But while its politics are very much of the moment, the music spends a lot of time looking backwards.

On ‘Hood Politics’ one of Kendrick Lamar’s old buddies leave a message on his phone, worried that he’s “on some weirdo rap shit.” It’s a legit worry to have, because while To Pimp A Butterfly has been one of 2015’s most popular albums it’s also one of its strangest. Songs are either structureless or change genre halfway through, most dramatically when a fight breaks out in the audience during ‘i’ and Lamar switches from an upbeat radio-friendly single to jazzy beat poetry to calm them. It’s got plenty of funk (“If I give you the funk, you gonna take it?”), some jazz, and a fair whack of political 1970s soul in the mix.

“To Pimp A Butterfly is an essential document of our times”

Though there are plenty of names in the credits, two are repeated frequently: Sounwave and Thundercat. The first is one of TDE’s production team who has been with Lamar since the beginning, the second was brought in by Flying Lotus and is part of his own LA scene who are the definition of “weirdo rap shit”. What Sounwave and Thundercat have in common is love for classics, Parliament and Miles Davis and Mary Lou Williams, though it’s a love that comes filtered through underground hip-hop’s aggressively up-to-date samplescape. In interviews Thundercat namechecks anime and video game soundtracks as reverently as Herbie Hancock. They provided To Pimp A Butterfly with a soundfield that can encompass James Brown but also a sample from Sufjan Stevens.

Even Pharrell Williams’ contribution ‘Alright’ was modified to fit their preferences. Originally a more pedestrian beat crafted for Brooklyn rapper Fabolous, Lamar’s production team set to work adding saxophone and layering in more drums. Lamar’s own musical contributions are obviously significant too – as well as deciding what to include and what not to (Sounwave tells a story about being told to take 10 guitars off ‘King Kunta’), he was hands-on in things like editing together the posthumous interview with Tupac that closes the album.

Tupac and 1990s west coast rap is another piece of the album’s puzzle, directly referenced in ‘You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)’ and addressed in the poem that is unveiled piece by piece throughout the album. In the interview that closes ‘Mortal Man’ Tupac talks about how rap lets spirits have their say, “letting our dead homies tell stories for us,” which is of course exactly what Lamar is doing by resurrecting Tupac here. To Pimp A Butterfly lets dead musicians speak again, and what they speak about is the endless deaths of black Americans.

It’s for that, as much as for its musical and lyrical impressiveness, that To Pimp A Butterfly deserves to be album of the year. It reconciles hip-hop’s influences and history with its current state, and at the same time manages to be an essential document of and reaction to our times. When future generations look back on the events of 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly will be the soundtrack, black America singing the most defiant thing you can imagine singing in the face of a system determined to eradicate you: “We gonna be alright.”