Kendrick Lamar doesn't make anything easy. Sunday night, he briefly broke the constantly breaking internet by issuing his new album, To Pimp a Butterfly, a full week early on iTunes and multiple streaming services; by Monday afternoon, iTunes had both frantically pulled it back down and just as abruptly put it back up again. His management at Top Dawg Entertainment protested loudly that Interscope was "fucking up" the release, but given that the well-timed leak triggered the inevitable breathless Twitter freakout and merrily coincided with a Rolling Stone cover story, one can safely assume that the world heard Kendrick's fourth full-length project as planned.
A few days later, it's clear that Kendrick's newest Great American Hip-Hop Novel resists quick absorption. To Pimp a Butterfly has been celebrated as a meditation on blackness as both pigmentation and mind state, and honored as a parable of celebrity sin and spiritual renewal. It has been dissected into helpful track-by-track guides and sample breakdowns, virtual Cliff Notes for an album with the density of Ulysses and the verbal intensity of Shakespeare. He sounds preternaturally calm and intensely neurotic. His rap technique is imperious, shifting from the funk smoothness of "These Walls" to the angry growl of "The Blacker the Berry" to the agitated stop-start fast-rap of "Alright." He challenges everything, including (especially) himself. On "Momma," in fact, he encounters a mirror image of himself, a black boy he meets in the crowd at a concert who tells him, "I know your life is full of turmoil." He sounds frenzied, and intent on pouring out his mind lest he lose it entirely.
That virtuosity slices through To Pimp a Butterfly's prog-rap cornucopia, the mumbo jumbo of sonic styles that flips from the jazz-oetry of "For Free? (Interlude)" to the Take 6-styled R&B groove of "Alright." Wizened G-funkateers Ronald Isley, George Clinton, Dr. Dre, and Uncle Snoop confer gravitas; Bilal, Taz Arnold, Lalah Hathaway, and Sonnymoon's Anna Wise provide nurturing modern soul backgrounds; Knxwledge, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat offer Low End Theory beat madness; and some YouTube crate-digging results in choice licks from voices as varied as Sufjan Stevens and Boris Gardiner. Notably, only two fellow rappers stand out: Uncle Snoop on "Institutionalized" and, in a potential star-making cameo, underrated North Carolina backpacker Rapsody on "Complexion (A Zulu Love)." She murders her verse in particular: "Black is brown, hazelnut, cinnamon, brown, tea / And it's all beautiful to me / Call your brothers magnificent, call all the sisters queens / We all on the same team/ Blues and Pirus, no colors ain't a thing."
Without the taut narrative of 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d city to gird him, Kendrick himself meanders, though he always pivots back to the dilemma of modern black consciousness and the perils of being compromised by black America. On "Institutionalized," he admits he's "trapped inside the ghetto" memories of his Compton childhood, adds that his "flow's so sick" in a bit of typical rap braggadocio, then switches perspectives to interrogate himself: "But something came over you when I took you to them fucking BET Awards." He wonders if he's "For Sale?" He admits on "Alright" that "I'm at the preacher's door / My knees getting weak and my gun might blow." He frames this 75-minute inquisition with a tone poem that he unveils in fragments throughout, and then recites it whole on the finale "Mortal Man."
Some critics believe that Kendrick's theories of black uplift are essentially a conservative corollary to the "New Black" era; his conflation of Trayvon Martin's murder with Crips-Bloods violence on "The Blacker the Berry" strikes some as an apologia for police-state oppression. In his defense, this is a more nuanced vision of multi-cultural inclusiveness, black pride, and Christian resolve than we've seen from him before: Remember 2011's "Fuck Your Ethnicity"? Here, his crazy quilt of high-level racial discourse comes off as fuzzy and sepia-toned as To Pimp a Butterfly's black-and-white cover art, a collage of exuberant black men and boys clutching wads of 40-acres-and-a-mule cash, metaphorically painting the White House black. You can hear that joy in the album's first single, "I," whose hippie vibe and self-love exuberance drew an equivocal response when first released in September, but here, arriving after an hour of torturous self-doubt, it sounds like a life-affirming ray of sunshine.
But as with everything on To Pimp a Butterfly, it's not quite that simple: The rewritten, reworked version of "I" used here is barbed with meaning. There's crowd noise now, and the theoretical live audience responds hesitantly as Kendrick performs the Isley Brothers-inspired number as an old-school revival, before it abruptly ends as he observes a restless crowd breaking out into scuffles, admonishing them with, "Not on my time! Not on my time!" Emboldened, he declares, "2015, niggas tired of playing victims, dog," then locks into an a cappella freestyle as if in a trance:
Retrace my steps on what they never taught me
Did my homework fast before government caught me
So I'm a dedicate this one verse to Oprah
On how the infamous sensitive N-word control us
So many artists gave her an explanation to hold us
Well this is my explanation straight from Ethiopia
N-E-G-U-S, definition: royalty
It's a supremely meta moment; Kendrick even comments on the single's underwhelming performance on the Billboard pop charts as he presents it to us now, freshly re-brewed so as to better complement the racial shadowboxing of the album that surrounds it. Even when he's leading a chorus of, "I love myself" and praying, "The holy water don't go dry," he can't help but doubt himself, too.
So is this complex, half-commercial and half-streetwise young rapper from L.A. an evolutionary descendent of Tupac Shakur? Kendrick may have the West Coast on lock: "The only nigga next to Snoop that can push the button," as he brags on "Hood Politics." But the strange "conversation" with Shakur's spectral presence (via a 1994 interview) that shows up late on this album reveals the two's philosophical contrasts. "I think that niggas is tired of grabbing shit out the stores, and next time it's a riot it's going to be, like, uh, bloodshed, for real," says Pac in a nod to the then-recent 1992 Los Angeles uprising. Such incendiary words seem distant from Kendrick's quest for personal and political resolution: "In my opinion, the only hope that we kinda have left is music and vibrations," he says. "A lot of people don't understand how important it is."
In the end, what unites 2Pac and Kendrick is their innate charisma, their fearless introspection, their righteous anger at a world that both rejects their beautiful blackness and pimps their God-given talent, and their dreams of an America that's both wondrously transformative and perhaps ultimately unattainable. "If shit hit the fan, is you still a fan? Do you believe in me?" Kendrick asks on "Mortal Man." For now, the answer is yes.
Mosi Reeves lives in the Bay Area and writes for Rolling Stone, SPIN, Rhapsody, and others. He's on Twitter.
Photo by Angelo Merendino / Getty.
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