Kendrick Lamar excels as a rapper with restraint. A lyricist with seemingly endless talent, he thrived under the self-imposed limits of good kid, m.a.a.d. city. Confined to the day-in-the-life of Kendrick in Compton circa 2005, the concept album offers a clean coming-of-age redemption arc. His previous work—the mixtape masterpiece Section .80—is a limited narration of a few home city characters that shed light on the struggles of an entire generation born into the 1980’s crack epidemic.
To Pimp a Butterfly is a decidedly less focused album, anchored only to an introspective look at the Compton rapper in his post-good kid fame. The result is almost 80 minutes of wandering emotions over disparate sounds that are always surprising, mostly fascinating but sometimes frustrating.
On To Pimp, Lamar dumps his Pandora’s Box of feelings onto a soundboard and spends 16 tracks sorting through it. The manic swings between self-loathing and self-worship, depression and elation, offer a sonic whiplash in the album’s best moments. His bipolar companion pieces “i” and “u” juxtapose Lamar’s competing desires to wield internal strength for absolution while being equally capable of turning that violent power on himself.
He’s astonishingly honest, exploring depression and grandiosity alike. On “King Kunta”—the album’s strongest track—Lamar is brash in sporting his championship belt, unafraid of offending while on the throne. The scorching “The Blacker the Berry” is poetic fire breathing—a look at Lamar as he absorbs external race atrocities and unleashes anger on his own contradictions, in addition to the culture that’s tolerated recent travesties. The 27-year-old gives listeners a myriad of different viewpoints, but never apologizes for being himself.
Nor is he afraid to push the music. The genre’s most influential lyricist, part of Lamar’s evolution on To Pimp includes an infusion of colorful sounds, moving from big jazz horns to psychedelic funk and even into easy R&B grooves. He bypasses the Dr. Dre-inspired beats of good kid and main-lines the genres his mentor used to slow down. Plenty of his contemporaries are eager to include different musical influences. Lamar is the most excited to abandon hip-hop sounds altogether.
He’s earned a lot of these indulgences. The groundswell of the early mixtapes, the shuttle launch of good kid, and the guest verses since have continuously cemented the Compton rapper’s position in the pop music zeitgeist. His internet shaking appearance on Big Sean’s “Control” in 2013 accomplished more in a verse than most rappers achieve on an entire album. On To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar is willing to spend the political capital he’s earned.
It’s one reason the album’s journey has all the ease of an exhausting therapy session. It’s hard to embark on some songs without taking a deep breath. Lamar doesn’t shy away from his meticulous, thorough nature on To Pimp but he’s not always effective. By the time he reaches “How Much A Dollar Cost”, the album starts to feel tired before the cannon shot to the finish line packed into the album’s final four tracks. When Lamar picks through the complexity of his personality, he’s most interesting when he chooses to break down these walls with a sledgehammer.
Lamar responded to burden of the unparalleled critical praise of good kid by mining the deepest trenches of his psyche on To Pimp. What bubbles up is the hard-hitting, blunt perspective that makes To Pimp a Butterfly another important step in his young career, but it doesn’t forgive his inability to reign in the tangential strings. On the second half of the otherwise brilliant “u”, the Compton rapper begins to dwindle into redundancy. It’s as if obliterating his opponents on “Control” has left him with more space to flex on the album. He needs to find that person to help him return to more restraint. No different than Kanye West handing over Yeezus to be Rick Rubin-ized or Paul Thomas Anderson tightening his films after Magnolia.
If it’s an isolated feeling on top, Lamar is conscious of it. “I’m the closest thing to a preacher they have,” he said of his fans to The New York Times. “I know that from being on tour—kids are living by my music.” Even if there is a strange divinity in his perspective on his craft (he’s not the only one, another guy compared him to Gandhi), there’s no denying his dominance.
On his quest for introspection, Lamar isn’t alone. Childish Gambino, J. Cole and Drake are all deftly pushing popular rap inward. But Lamar is always the most interesting amongst his peers due to his versatile delivery and unmatched ability to rhyme. On “Alright”, there’s no denying Kendrick is the genre’s most proficient talent.
Lamar is at the vanguard at a much-needed time for rap music. He is the genre’s most technically advanced craftsman. And it’s a superpower he uses for good. Recently, Lamar appeared in trailer for “Straight Outta Compton” talking to Dr. Dre and Ice Cube about the lasting influence of N.W.A. The spot was an unsubtle reminder that Lamar is the current torchbearer. But it was also a damning indication in the lingering themes of police brutality and racial injustice present in both the biopic and Lamar’s album that as much the new Compton rapper is evolving music, his country is much farther behind.
Lamar’s distaste for the stagnant political climate of 2015 America is on full display. “Ain’t nothin’ new but a flow of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans – Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?” he raps on “Hood Politics”. Lamar is skilled in his role as social commenter, reflecting personal experiences on the present day background and offering a unique perspective. He screams “hypocrite!” on “The Blacker The Berry” because he’s firmly rooted in a sense of personal responsibility. It makes his music more complicated—he isn’t always offering red meat protest songs to placate an angry audience. He doesn’t stand down from the fight either. Lamar handles complex issues and his own complicated feelings with a veteran’s competence.
To Pimp a Butterfly will be an album worth unpacking for a long time. It’s a trademark of Lamar’s work and his sophomore effort is his most dense. As a writer, his massive fanbase hangs on his every word and Lamar often delivers. Even when he wanders, he isn’t quite sloppy. In 2015, Lamar’s music matters, as much if not more than any other artist.
by Brock Benefiel
Brock Benefiel is a writer from Indianapolis. In addition to his rap nerdom, he is currently writing a spec script for a “Love Monkey” reboot. You can follow him on Twitter.