First Impressions: Kendrick Lamar, “To Pimp a Butterfly”

kendrickI couldn’t and shouldn’t speak much to the resonance of To Pimp a Butterfly as a State of the Union address—for hip-hop, for Kendrick Lamar, for America—except to say that it’s there and that its depths are worth plumbing, even if there is, perhaps, no bottom. This is a record so teeming with ideas and so bristling with wild, careening, often contradictory energy that it quickly blasts through any notion that it could possibly be empty or slight: The medium is the message, the chaos is the point, and its profundity lies in its ambition, if nothing else.

It comes with lofty expectations—more than any record since, well, Black Messiah, and arguably as much as any album in rap history—and it rises to meet them, surely shouldering the burden through an admittedly exhausting 80-minute runtime in which Kendrick speaks boldly and directly to current events while spending a curiously large fraction of his time dwelling in the past: This is a record that grapples with the current realities of stardom by looking back to the artist’s roots, and honors Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement by throwing it back to Parliament and the Isley Brothers, to Tupac and Dr. Dre, to Alex Haley, Michael Jackson, Nelson Mandela, 40 acres and a mule.

It is an album of overwhelming blackness that is also steeped in the artist’s own autobiography and internal monologuing; it does not condescend with efforts to open itself up to wider audiences, and in its lack of compromise proves James Baldwin to be correct: The destiny of America is the destiny of black America; Kendrick wrestles with the pull between being responsible and being a fallen human, with institutional injustice and personal shortcomings, with the rap game as savior and as serpent, and never gives any of us an out: These aren’t just black problems or rap problems or Kendrick Lamar problems, and we think of them as such at our own peril.

Throughout the album, Kendrick is triumphal, defiant, reflective, self-loathing, and self-destructive; a song called “u” courts the hatred of self, the hatred of Kendrick Lamar, with the singer adopting the cracked and pitiful voice of a bitter alcoholic. A later song, “i,” rides an electrifying Isley Brothers groove to an expression of self-love, self-worth.

The album never congeals into any one thing. Funk grooves build momentum and then collapse into free jazz; smooth soul mutates into drunken, Dilla-style beats; a song begins as one thing and then transforms into something altogether different. It’s noisy and convoluted and at times willfully difficult.

The whole thing seems like it might have its own internal logic—repeated phrases and motifs, callbacks to earlier songs—and perhaps in time it will all snap together into something unified and consistent. I rather hope it doesn’t, though: The album’s appeal is in its beautiful mess, its contradictions, its loose sense of time and history. To Pimp a Butterfly is an album that could only have been made by a human being named Kendrick Lamar, following on the heels of wild success and widespread tragedy.

Given how rich in history the album is, it comes as no surprise that it has many antecedents: It resembles Fear of a Black Planet in how its general anger is metered out into individual songs that mount specific arguments and tackle specific points, and also in how its lyrical ambition doesn’t keep it from being musically rich and—at times—funky as shit. It resembles a Roots joint in its live band feel, and undun in particular with its humane and compassionate perspective, with how its protagonists are reflective and aware of their imperfections. George Clinton shows up on the first song as a kind of funk godfather, and unsurprisingly this song feels like it’s cut from the same cloth as Aquemini—not least because, like Outkast, Kendrick makes the case for eccentricity as its own black experience; the album’s weirdness is its own form of hardness.

Several songs feel like Olympian feats. “How Much a Dollar Cost” is tough, then surprising in the end; the song recounts an encounter with a homeless beggar who is in the end revealed to be the very Ancient of Days. It’s killer. On “Mortal Man,” Kendrick considers the burden of his newfound responsibility, the inevitability of his imperfections, and the way we all turned on Michael Jackson. (“He gave us ‘Billie Jean’—you think he touched those kids!”) It descends into a poetry recitation, then an interview with Tupac, then more poetry. It is impossible to imagine a more audacious album closer.

Kendrick’s audacity is almost all it takes to sell the record: I’m not sure how often I’ll actually sit through the Pac interview, but Kendrick really goes for it, doesn’t pull punches, and makes it feel like it’s essential to the album’s tapestry.

If the album’s cover and its opening line—“Every nigga’ is a star”—didn’t give it away, it is indeed a Very Serious record, and could just as easily have been titled There’s a Riot Goin’ On, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, or Black Messiah, were those names not otherwise claimed. It is often fun though never particularly funny, and perhaps doesn’t need to be: It tries so hard and pushes so fearlessly forward that it’s impossible to be bored by the record, even if you might find yourself overwhelmed or even wearied by it. Personally, I think its madness invigorating and galvanizing.

Throughout the album the artist asks us if we hate him, and seems at times to feel sure that we do. Some will, perhaps; To Pimp a Butterfly does not try to make friends. But none will find it possible to ignore. It is as much its own thing as any hip-hop record you can name. It seems as though it contains everything of who Kendrick Lamar is and what he can do, which is another way of saying that it contains multitudes.


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