The other night one of my roommates asked me what was up with Kendrick Lamar’s cover for his new album To Pimp a Butterfly. I started to explain and then I stopped. “What is up with the cover?” I thought. I knew the sentiment it gave me but couldn’t find the right words. Shit, what does a group of shirtless beaming black men huddled together holding stacks of hundoes and bottles of champagne atop a “dead” judge against the backdrop of the White House mean exactly? And maybe, more importantly, what does this image evoke? What does listening to this album from beginning to end elicit? What memories, insecurities, secrets, achievements, and aspirations was the Compton native giving us? What did Lamar want us to hear and feel? I didn’t know entirely so I listened again.
To Pimp a Butterfly is a ride. Sonically, it’s different for Kendrick Lamar. It’s unlike anything you’d hear on the radio. The warm earthy goulash of funk, soul, and jazz is full and doesn’t let up. From the onset, with “Wesley’s Theory”, listeners hop in a pimped out DeLorean. The Boris Gardner sample from “Every N*gger is a Star” comes into earshot, the beat drops, and you prep yourself for some galactic funked out jam session. Kendrick spits and croons perfectly. Then interstellar funk god himself, George Clinton, hops on the train and you know you’re in for trouble. It’s an eccentric landscape. This is not good Kid mA.A.d city. It’s a completely different roller coaster with some of the best architects laying out the loops and drops. Lamar grabbed jazz impresarios, funk legends and contemporary beatsmiths for the project. It shows. And as you sit and ponder just why Kendrick went all 70’s on us in 2015 it comes into view. The 27 year old is a gifted scion of African American music. This is the stuff he was raised on. He’s just reaching back. He’s just borrowing from what is rightfully his which is uniquely black in form and expression. Lamar wears each genre well; comfortably weaving in and out. He bounces confidently picking up his crown on the funk infused “King Kunta”. There’s a familiar pep that pairs well with the warm backing of singers Bilal and Anna Wise on the intimate neo-soul ballad “These Walls”. Audiences hear the conflicted staccato on a jazz backed “u”. We sit on edge with the spoken word poem Kendrick sprinkles at the start of every other song that snowballs into a beautiful passage. It’s a wonderfully active performance of distinctly black art.What do we feel? Well, we groove and we bop and we ache and we twist. We do it all just like the black musicians and audiences did before us decades ago.
The curated black sonic steps Kendrick raises himself on give way to a powerful platform unique for the African American community. Kendrick takes his time unpacking a list of internal and external problems. However, his power not only lies in his imaginative scope but also in his ability to make both nearly interchangeable. It’s revealing. Kendrick gets intimate as he explores his partner on the syrupy sweet ode “These Walls”. It’s a stark contrast from the rapper playfully tackling materialism in relationships and general pettiness via spoken word on the “For Free?” interlude. Both are honest raps that are relatable in the same manner that “Momma” or “Alright” is. The latter exposes Kendrick as he throws off the vices of drugs, women, and materialism which accompany stardom. Perhaps the album’s deepest exchanges come as Lamar embraces community. This album is a noisy barbershop. This album is a sticky summer block party. This album is your grandmother’s smoky backroom filled with card playing uncles. There’s a deep feeling that he’s here and in it with us still. In a year that was permeated by the shootings of unarmed young black men and the repercussions of the mass protests and discussions that followed; Lamar is timely. TPAB comes as a Black State of The Union address. What’s really good? K-Dot keeps it real with“Hood Politics”; a West Coast low rider trip that opens up the inner-workings of the barrio. There’s gang violence and illicit trading. But how different is this savage hood from “DemoCrips” and “ReBloodicans” who authorize killings abroad and take shady deals from lobbyists asks the rapper? It’s a question of perception and context. These urban ills didn’t come about in a vacuum. They’re the results of institutional racism. Decades of detrimental political economy, segregation, and flawed policy brought people here. Black culture is a reflection of broader American culture. Even hip-hop is an active etch a sketch “..of the prevailing values in our society, values created and sustained by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” as scholar bell hooks describes it. Kendrick’s aim is clear when he raps, “They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs”.
And just like that the urban griot starts to piece together the black condition from his stoop. Kendrick reaches back to the infamous Willie Lynch speech as he deconstructs the painful roots of colorism and their present day effects in African American circles with the help of Rapsody. Energy at rest turns to kinetic force on “Blacker the Berry”. It’s a bombastic reaffirmation of blackness. Lamar opens by claiming he’s “the biggest hypocrite of 2015”. It’s a bold statement repeated on each of the three verses as Kendrick rips open the black condition. This isn’t a CNN special; it’s a gritty take no prisoners look. Lamar calls out the government for exploiting poor neighborhoods of color, exposes the sinister nature of implanted self-hatred at the hands of whites, and eventually calls himself out for gang violence against other African Americans. It’s not the groovy warm self-love of “i”. It’s a sharp transparent reminder and wakeup call. It’s a middle finger to the white establishment that has hated, profited from, molested and murdered black people since their arrival in the Western hemisphere. The clarity is unrivaled. Kendrick Lamar is taking his blackness back and he’d be damned if you stand in the way.
The rest of the album unfolds on a very individualistic level as Kendrick moves away from community and ascends into a space that is both torturous and rewarding at times. “u” is an addled battle within the rapper’s psyche. Lamar affirms the idea that we are our worst critics as he overturns all of his own insecurities, failures, and scars. The rhymer goes on to confront “Lucy”, the ever-present figure, who represents the devil. Lucifer tempts the rapper with everything; slowly pulling him away on a red velvet carpet until he meets God himself through “How Much a Dollar Cost”. By this time Kendrick is successful – obstinate even. The star bumps into a vagabond at a gas station who asks for change as he steps out of his luxury car. As the performer’s anecdote unfolds we see that Kendrick is being confronted by God. The misuse of his stardom and unequivocal greed has cost Lamar a spot in heaven. It is the ultimate reflective moment as the young man sees everything for what it is and what he lost. His only redemption comes, on the last track, “Mortal Man”. Lamar visits world leaders like Mandela, MLK, and Malcolm X and readies to take his seat as an artist who can be proactive about social issues. The song ends with Lamar’s completed butterfly poem about and an integrated “interview” with Tupac. It is vigorously heroic and ambitious at best and strained at worst. Maybe it was foolish to culminate with something like that or maybe it was daring and intimate.
To Pimp a Butterfly is evocative of the experiences of so many and simultaneously a mouthpiece for one. Kendrick Lamar wrote about what it means to be black in America . And Kendrick Lamar wrote about what it means to be Kendrick Lamar. It’s an epic autobiography complete with history and vignettes. Lamar reached back to his musical and political forebears to tell his truths and, maybe more importantly; a community’s story. I told my roommate the artwork for TPAB was about “us”. This mixed up world full of devastating plight and vibrant life African Americans have inherited is on that cover. Every black house, neighborhood, and city is reverberating through this album in some way, shape, or form. It’s ugly and pretty. Look what these people have made of their situation again and again. I just hope Kendrick Lamar continues to tell his and our stories. I hope he pushes for change so there’s more “pretty” things than “ugly”. Next time, I hope there’s no hesitation or confusion. That black man needs to fly.