80/100 — Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
Kendrick Lamar may not be the most influential rapper of this generation (that would be Kanye) but he is on his way to being one of the greatest of all times. Section 80 revealed a young rapper with a strong voice, and the incredible narrative of Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, deemed an instant classic, secured him as an artist of cultural significance. Then To Pimp a Butterfly came out and transcended both with its explorations of what it means to be black, its deep roots in the great African American art forms — jazz and hip hop — and its unflinching self-examination.
Tying the album together is a poem. As each line is revealed in turn, a new song demonstrates its themes (wealth, power, mental health, responsibility, hypocrisy, temptation). As the album progresses each line’s meaning shifts and changes as more of the context is also explored. It’s a brilliant device which replaces traditional hip hop skits with something meaningful.
“Wesley’s Theory” explores the exploitation of black celebrity and how governmental systems make it difficult for them to truly succeed long term. “For Free?” is a hilarious track which opens with Kendrick being berated by an angry girlfriend about how he “ain’t shit” unless he buys her stuff while a free form jazz freak out plays chaotically in the background. Somehow he manages to shift a verse about the dynamics between sex and power in a relationship into a metaphor about slavery and what true freedom is. “These Walls” does something similar in a more profound way. Ias it begins with Kendrick bragging about his prowess in the bedroom before zooming out and exploring the guilt of knowing that the girl he is with has a man in prison.
Things get really moving with “King Kunta,” a straight-up G-funk banger in which Kendrick declares his supremacy and calls out all the fake friends who have shown up since he’s gained fame: “Bitch, where were you when I was walkin’?”
Kendrick doesn’t just crush bars, he also modulates his voice to great effect. On “u” he seems to talk to berate himself in a deep depressive gloom. The second half of the song becomes even darker as his voice changes to a drunken slur, interrupted by swigs from a bottle and thoughts of suicide. This is in direct opposition to the empowering “i” a song about self love, and the importance of ending black on black violence. “Alright” (which became an unofficial theme of the Black Lives Matter movement) explores police violence but declares hopefully “Nazareth, I’m fucked up/ Homie, you fucked up/ But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright!”
“For Sale?” introduces Lucy (a female Lucifer) who continues to tempt Kendrick for the rest of the album and a really dark atmosphere falls for a number of tracks. “How Much A Dollar Cost” has Kendrick wrestling with responsibility towards a homeless man who ends up being God in the end. “Complexion” explores skin colour and has a phenomenal verse by female MC Rapsody. “Blacker the Berry” declares “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” when he catches himself showing hatred towards other black people while rapping about how they should all be united.
All of this resolves on the aforementioned “i” which declares “I love myself!” and breaks down into a spoken word exploration of the origins of the word “nigger” as coming from “negus” a title of african kings. Then the album closes with “Mortal Man” wherein the whole poem is read out loud and Kendrick conducts a chilling interview from beyond the grave with the late Tupac Shakur who sums up all the themes of TPAB in his own words. A powerful experiment.
I could say so much more about every track on this brilliant album, but I don’t have the time or space. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the musical contributions of Kamasi Washington’s jazz band, Thundercat’s bass lines, and Anna Wise’s gorgeous vocals. Without their contributions this album would have been merely great, not transcendent. To Pimp a Butterfly continues to challenge me musically, philosophically, and culturally. Kendrick and I are the same age, but couldn’t be more different in experience or perspective. That makes him important for me personally, but I think it extends beyond that as Kendrick challenges our cultural assumptions and stereotypes and lends his thoughtful mind and prodigious talent to unlocking new facets for all of us.
Favourite Tracks: “King Kunta,” “Alright,” “i”
Least Favourite Track: “Momma”