Revisited: Kendrick Lamar’s Masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly
First comes the crackle, but you don’t hear it. Like a concertgoer standing in a dark arena, you’re too busy waiting for the show. Then comes the sample, loud enough that you hear it, quiet enough that you can’t make out the words at first. Then it hits you: Kendrick Lamar has chosen to open his second album by with a sample that repeats, “Every n***** is a star” for 30 uninterrupted seconds. For a moment, it seems like the phrase will repeat forever, and an unusual type of discomfort takes hold.
Then, crash. Producer Josef Leimberg screams “Hit Me,” the beat drops, and you snap to focus. You’re listening to To Pimp a Butterfly, and Kendrick Lamar has kicked in the door to your brain and jumped on the sofa. TPAB is 79 minutes long, but it stays with you for much longer than that runtime.
It’s now been over a year since Kendrick dropped his masterpiece in March 2015. The record first hit America’s ears as a result of a record label error, and it touched off a frenzy as critics and listeners alike struggled to describe its provocation and brilliance. Kendrick was carrying no shortage of hype at the time — before TPAB, he was armed with the cache of 2012’s richly insightful Good Kid m.A.A.d. City, a guest-verse on “Control” that shattered rap, 30 months of incendiary live performances, and even an infuriating Grammy snub. Nothing about Kendrick’s yearlong ascension to cultural icon status is accidental or even vaguely surprising — it doesn’t take long to recognize genius, and Kendrick had it from the beginning — but it’s difficult to remember just how desperate people were to hear Kendrick’s next act.
With all that weight, failure was simply not an option for Compton’s favorite son, and Kendrick pumped his album full of the ambition to trump all his previous accomplishments. The record seamlessly incorporates a comprehensive history of African American music, drawing on blues, gospel, soul, jazz, funk, hip hop and more without ever making the album feel bloated or lacking in cohesion. Every track is a complete surprise, and it takes several listens to hear all the fun wrinkles — a musical reference here, a sample there — that Kendrick draws from his encyclopedic knowledge of black music. Unlike the much simpler GKMC, TPAB established Kendrick’s credentials as musical stylist. Now he’s bringing a full band on tour, resurrecting the rapper-as-bandleader archetype, and really turning heads for more then just his lyrics.
But TPAB isn’t a Kanye West record, and the musical dressings aren’t what people tuned in to hear. Kendrick’s rapping is on an entirely other planet in TPAB, a strange world where beats and song structures are playthings he manipulates at will. Above all else, the crowning achievement of TPAB is in the messaging. Like a great speechwriter, Kendrick’s focus has shifted from what he’s saying to how we understand him, and that shift works to his, our, and the album’s immense benefit.
Kendrick may have dragged rap fans to the water with GKMC, but he couldn’t quite make them drink. The album is loaded with brilliant insight — such as when he explains the cycle of violence in gangland America in a single verse of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” — but it’s revealing that the enduring hit of the album was “Swimming Pools”. The single was Kendrick’s assertion that binge drinking is really just a self-destructive way of fighting the anxiety of social pressure, but that didn’t stop people from triumphantly screaming that they were ready to dive into a pool full of liquor at any given party between 2012 and 2014. This isn’t a criticism of that mindset — it’s hardly the first time a deep song has been misinterpreted as a party banger — but that example at least suggests that there was a disconnect between Kendrick and his audience on GKMC.
It’s impossible to know whether Kendrick was concerned with or even aware of that disconnect, but it’s clear that the gap was fully bridged on TPAB. Kendrick dials up his social commentary and emotional grip to full power from the first track, painting a riveting self-portrait of a genius artist beset on all sides by temptation and self-destruction. Kendrick’s symbolic foes are daunting and unavoidable: a corrosive American capitalism designed to strip him of every dime he earns and turn him into another cautionary tale, the ever-present ghost of the devil’s temptation, the pressures of his home city to be part savior and part enabler, and the self-loathing, depression and survivor’s guilt that threaten to cripple him from within.
These pressures are nothing new — Good Kid m.A.A.d. City had that name for a reason — but more than before, Kendrick illustrates these conflicts so vividly that you can’t look away. On TPAB, Kendrick stopped speaking to America’s ears and grabbed hold of its heart and brain. Unlike on GKMC, there’s no infectious, party ready hook you can cling to while you bury the uncomfortable truths Kendrick is telling you about your country, your culture, your life. You just have to listen and think, over and over, for over an hour.
Thought provoking social statements can be found all over the album. Kendrick rages against his critics on “King Kunta”. He shows you the way a young black man is taught to hate himself on “The Blacker the Berry”. He learns the path to salvation is as thin as a dollar bill on “How Much a Dollar Cost”. And on “u” Kendrick becomes so overwhelmed by guilt and self-loathing that he seems to nearly drink himself to death.
These are just examples of the rich story that To Pimp a Butterfly tells, and it ends with Kendrick returning home — to his city, his soul, his faith, and his inspiration, Tupac. Like on GKMC, he’s an imperfect soul who wants to be everything at once. But on TPAB, he finally realizes that loving himself and giving that love to others is the best elixir for his many emotional ailments. Throughout the album, you feel the dark weight that threatens to drag Kendrick to Hell — literal or personal — with every step he takes. By getting the full view of his suffering, you take even greater joy in his eventual triumph. To call the album cinematic underestimates the spiritual scope; it’s downright Biblical.
And it all paid off — Kendrick’s massive ambition has left an even larger cultural footprint. In a year, the conversation surrounding Kendrick Lamar has shifted completely. He was a brilliant rapper, but now he’s something much more, a cross between a visionary, a cultural prophet, a wise storyteller and a chest-beating standard-bearer. He’s reached iconic status as the unassuming leader of a new culture. Last year, in protests around the country, the Black Lives Matter movement took TPAB’s “Alright” and made it a rallying cry. It was the first time in decades that a song became synonymous with a social justice phenomenon so unanimously, and it was beautiful. In the year since TPAB dropped, one thing is clear: Kendrick Lamar has America’s attention, and nobody is misunderstanding a single word from here on out.