This week, Kendrick Lamar dropped his second major label album, To Pimp a Butterfly, a week earlier than anticipated, surprising fans and causing a social media frenzy among those eagerly anticipating the album. Supposedly an accident, this was, of course, probably a swift marketing move to stir up discussion and buzzzz…
And as one of those eager fans, I jumped on it! And I have to say, this is one of the most compelling and ambitious Hip Hop albums of 2015 (I know we’re only 3 months into 2015!) and quite possibly an instant classic.
Kendrick is artistically going for it here, all out. In fact, the album is downright challenging. The album is densely layered and complex and requires a few listens to fully absorb. Especially to those expecting a reprise of his previous, breakthrough major album, good kid, m.A.A.d city. This album has an agenda, a message, and is at times sad, optimistic, empowering & militant in its point of view. This is a serious and timely message of black empowerment and self-love in the wake of Ferguson and the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and although I feel he definitely goes a little far in his comparing himself to Mandela, Malcolm X and MLK as a black voice and leader, it is also filled with personal reflection and raw, real emotion.
Instrumentally the album moves between 70’s Funk, Jazz, Soul (Plenty of nods to Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Otis Redding & others here) & even free-form Jazz beat poetry! The arrangements are chock full of beat changes, breakdowns, and sonic interludes at every turn to keep you interested. The kind of instrumental variety that can challenge a lyrical master and freestyler like KL. It’s also dark. Even the funky 70’s p-funk groove of “Wesley’s Theory” with its Bootsy-esque wobbly wah bass and sprawling synths and the hard funk of “King Kunta” have a dark edge that pervades the production. Vinyl distortion on every track also adds to the darkness and nostalgic feel, (though it is a tiny bit overused for my taste) and even though it features various producers, notably including Flying Lotus and Pharrell, it holds together as a cohesive production statement. This is one of the most musical hip hop albums I have ever heard, hands down.
Vocally, it’s the kind of variety and mastery we’ve come to expect. Pitched up vocals, back and forth conversations, masterful story-telling, cartoonish character voices and rapid fire double time spitting deliver the message. Deftly layering introspection, black empowerment & social commentary with enough lyrical references & metaphors to write a term paper in Sociology & Black History.
From “King Kunta’s” juxtaposition of slave & king, to the metaphor of “Wesley’s Theory” addressing successful black artists who have become “pimped” by the entertainment industry, or the corruption of wealth and success in “Institutionalized” – he not only calls out the Industry and American society, but also himself. Laying bare his guilt, confusion, and ultimate depression while coping with being a wealthy black celebrity in America and trying to remain a representative voice of his hood. Simultaneously slave and king at the whim of his masters. At times it’s reminiscent of Kurt Cobain’s emotional lyricism about depression, betrayal and coping with fame while trying to stay true to one’s identity & art.
I could literally go through every lyric of the album and break down the historical and contemporary political references, multi-layered metaphors and allusions, but I’ll leave that up to you. This is the kind of depth & refined statement Kanye West would probably like to have made but, of course, falls far short of lyrically in his Yeezus album.
The only thing that really stuck out and bothered me a bit is the lack of credit to Dancehall artist, Assassin on the album notes even though he is one of the standout guests on the album. The other notable lyrical guest being Rhapsody in “Complexion (a Zulu love)”.
All in all , this is a real artistic effort. It takes risks and even when you have doubts – as I did with the slowly unfolding poem to Tupac Shakur and his interview with Tupac from the grave (taken from a 1994 interview with the Swedish radio show P3 Soul. You can listen to the full interview here.) – it still challenges you to think and re-think and re-listen and discuss, and that is what a great album should do.
What do you think?