The history of black music in America is a story of marginalization. Record labels ignore it, the radio refuses to play it, and it often fails to break through until a white artist with a similar musical sensibility becomes popular. We don’t celebrate Little Richard the same way we trumpet the talents of Elvis Presley. The virtues of Robert Johnson went long ignored until Bob Dylan and Cream cited him as a singular influence. Eminem receives the notoriety that Rakim never enjoyed.
While the commercial success of hip-hop has smashed a number of the racial barriers that exist in the music industry, the landscape that shapes the social and political commentary of rap music has been largely unchanged since the days of N.W.A. and KRS-One. Black lives are still marginalized, and after a spate of racially charged incidents in places such as Ferguson and Staten Island, racism in the era of “colorblindness” is a condition that can no longer be ignored, especially by the music that is often misattributed as brewing racial tension in the first place.
With this state of affairs in mind, Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore offering, To Pimp a Butterfly, captures both the discontent of a people plagued by police brutality and mass incarceration and traces the history of black music, civil rights and the bloody conflicts of gang violence. The rap counterpart to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, To Pimp a Butterfly’s album cover thrusts White America’s worst nightmare into the forefront: black men of various ages are posing in a B-Boy stance, with the White House looming behind them. Forty-ounce malt liquor bottles in one hand, a thick stack of dollar bills in the other, they seem to mock conservative stereotypes of young black men, and while their postures are more satirical ‘fuck you’ than menacing invasion, their leers all convey the same message: you cannot ignore us anymore because we are Black and we are Proud. To Pimp a Butterfly is a distillation of that.
Album overture “Wesley’s Theory” opens with the warm crackling of an old film looping up and a sample of Boris Gardiner’s 1970’s black pride anthem “Every N***er is a Star.” Backed by a dazzlingly jazzy and experimental beat from producer Flying Lotus, funk hero George Clinton’s opening creed is a cautionary tale that analyzes the true beneficiaries of celebrity in a society that is structured to capitalize off black culture. Kendrick picks up where “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” left off and details the alienations of a relationship with the rap industry gone sour: “Tossed and turned, lesson learned/You was my first girlfriend/Bridges burned, all across the board/Destroyed, but what for?” Soon, he directs his frustrations more broadly in a total indictment of popular culture: “I’mma put the Compton swap meet by the White House/Republican, run up, get socked out/Hit the Pres with a Cuban link on my neck/Uneducated but I got a million dollar check, like that.”
“King Kunta,” an album highlight, is a battle-cry, energized by looping bass lines and unabashedly funk instrumentation. Infused with elements of James Brown’s “The Payback” and Ahmad Lewis’s “We Want The Funk,” on “King Kunta” Lamar embodies the spirit of Alex Haley’s Roots character Kunta Kinte. It’s a composition that best meshes with the incendiary album cover, an unapologetic ode to a “black man taking no losses.” “King Kunta” is Lamar exposing the black Coming to America story: “From a peasant/To a prince/To a motherfuckin’ king.”
For better or for worse, TPAB is an uncompromising album. Just when it approaches something conventionally coherent, it veers into experimental improvisation. It’s an undeniably impressive display of musicianship that takes multiple listens to unpack, and there are times when it is weighed down by the sheer volume of experiences and sounds it attempts to fuse together into a uniform statement. Devoid of the concentrated bars that made similar offerings from Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City like “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” so compelling, pieces such as “These Walls,” and “For Sale? (Interlude)” can become enamored with their own sophistication and don’t connect on quite the same level.
However, these somewhat less fully realized pieces are overshadowed by the moments when Lamar’s cauldron of blues, jazz, funk, hip-hop and spoken word effortlessly blend into something uniquely compelling. Part of what contributes to Lamar’s success in navigating his myriad of influences while still emerging with cohesion is his tactic of working primarily with a small group of in-house producers. Sounwave, Terrace Martin (saxophone/keyboard/sampler) and Thundercat (electric bass)—all gifted musicians in their own right—steer the album’s ambitious live instrumentation by imposing limits on its sprawl.
For example, there’s the winding saxophone riff on “Alright,” or a bubbling guitar melody on “Hood Politics” that transforms into a stuttering drumbeat. The reworking of album single “i” has the feel of a raw live performance and concludes with a searing indictment of the American judicial system, street culture and those who criticize the use of the N-word in rap music. “For Free? (Interlude)” is one of the most off kilter songs (if you can even call it a song, since it’s really spoken word) that you’ll ever here on a major label rap album. Amidst Terrace Martin’s lush keyboard strokes and a percussive background worthy of one of Coltrane’s session players, Lamar channels Gil-Scott Heron and the Last Poets in a furious verbal exercise that meditates on the exploitation of black culture: “Living in captivity/Raised my cap salary/Celery, telling me green is all I need/Evidently all I seen was spam and raw sardines…Oh America, you bad bitch, I picked cotton that made you rich/Now my dick ain’t free.”
What elevates these tracks, many of them on the second half of the album where Lamar finds his true comfort zone, is the focused nature of Lamar’s rhymes. Always the consummate storyteller, Lamar’s “Momma” and “How Much A Dollar Cost?” are existential meditations on wealth and privilege worthy of a spot amongst Lamar’s best anecdotes. “Momma” is the product of a series of trips Lamar took back to Compton to find inspiration for TPAB. A track “brought to you by adrenaline and good rap,” Lamar accepts the invitation his mother offered on Good Kid, M.A.A.D city’s “Real” to return home to Compton and his pre-fame self. “Momma” weaves into “Hood Politics,” a song that operates on a similar micro-level analysis until Lamar connects the politics of Compton and Congress: “Aint nothing new but a flue of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans/Red State versus a blue state, which one you governin’?” “How Much A Dollar Cost?” details an encounter with a homeless man at a gas station in South Africa, begging for money. Originally, he is spurned by Lamar, until he is revealed to be God himself. Knocked off the insular pedestal of fame, Lamar learns the true value of a dollar, even if it’s only figurative.
TPAB concludes with the 12-minute epic “Mortal Man.” Inspired by a trip to South Africa, Lamar channels the ghosts of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Moses. As the track progresses, it’s clear the album has left several questions unanswered, including the significance of a series of poems that unfolds throughout the LP. When the music ends, only static and Lamar’s pensive voice remain, until the voice of one of Lamar’s heroes surfaces: the late Tupac Shakur. It’s only fitting that after contemplating the legacy of several black icons, Lamar actually interact with one. His mock interview with Tupac is a fitting conclusion that ties together the grand political and social statements of TPAB. When the final meaning of the album’s title, artwork, poems and interconnected concepts are revealed, Lamar asks Shakur for his final perspective, but Shakur is nowhere to be found: “What’s your perspective on that? Pac? Pac? Pac?” With the listener left to consider their own perspective, one final question begs to be asked: Are you the caterpillar, the butterfly, or both?