Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly review – challenging but gripping

Sly and the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield – the greats of 70s protest soul ghost through Kendrick Lamar’s restless dissection of modern America. But he’s angrier than them all

In the days since Kendrick Lamar’s third album was released online – so unexpectedly that it appeared to take even his record label by surprise – its creator has been mentioned in the same breath as some very lofty names indeed. Reviewers have invoked Parliament-Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone. In one New York Times profile alone, the 27-year old rapper was variously likened to Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye and – wait for it – Mahatma Gandhi, the latter a comparison that even the most vociferous fan of Lamar’s 2012 breakthrough album Good Kid MAAD City might think amounts to gilding the lily.

His similarity to the architect of Sawarj notwithstanding, you can see where most of them are coming from. For one thing, To Pimp a Butterfly actively invites comparison to Parliament-Funkadelic. Apart from a sample of Jamaican singer Boris Gardiner, the first voice you hear on opener Wesley’s Theory belongs to George Clinton, intoning over a very Bootsy Collinsish bassline. But even when Dr Funkenstein isn’t in the room, the shadow of the Mothership frequently looms. If it never sounds quite so like them again, there are echoes of P-Funk in everything from the album’s cover – which evokes the line from Parliament’s Chocolate City about how “they still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition, too” – to its variety of speeded-up voices, to Institutionalized’s hook of “shit don’t change unless you get up and wash your ass”, which sounds like exactly the kind of advice Clinton and co might have chanted at you in the mid-70s.

And like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Curtis Mayfield’s There’s No Place Like America Today or indeed Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, To Pimp a Butterfly is a black musician’s anguished reaction to a turbulent period in US history, although it’s a far angrier piece of work than any of them, devoid of the pacifying druggy fog that shrouded Gaye and Sly Stone, and of Mayfield’s almost superhuman capacity to meet injustice with gentle equitability. Gaye noted that the evils of the world made him want to holler; Lamar goes right ahead and screams his head off. “My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round and wide – you hate me don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture, you’re fucking evil,” he snarls on the remarkable The Blacker the Berry, one of a number of moments when To Pimp a Butterfly seems noticeably less like a socially conscious, early-70s soul album than it does a very 2015 equivalent of The Predator, Ice Cube’s broiling response to the Rodney King beating and its aftermath: powered by post-Ferguson fury, plagued by the kind of self-doubt and qualification that comes from knowing any statement you make is going to be at best picked apart and at worst torn to pieces on social media. “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” he says on The Blacker the Berry. “Once I finish this witnesses will convey just what I mean.” The album’s other single, i, meanwhile, ends with an unaccompanied verse agonizing over whether it’s right for a black rapper to use the word “nigger” – not something that ever much troubled Ice Cube – concluding that it is, because it might conceivably derive from the Aramaic word negus, meaning king.

But even The Predator had Today Was a Good Day, a radio-friendly single amid the fury. To Pimp a Butterfly doesn’t, although penultimate track i’s Isley Brothers-sampling guitar sprawl comes closest. Quite aside from its much-vaunted heredity in early-70s protest soul, there’s a sense in which To Pimp a Butterfly also belongs in another, perhaps slightly less exalted musical lineage, one that contains not just Nirvana’s In Utero, but Terence Trent D’Arby’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh, MGMT’s Congratulations and Finley Quaye’s Vanguard: it is the archetypal Difficult Follow-Up Album. It takes less than five minutes to unleash that eternal, pan-generic signifier of Serious Musical Intent, a burst of skronking jazz. Tracks resembling the hits that drove its predecessor’s ascent are noticeable by their absence. It’s extremely light on melodic hooks. When one does appear, it’s usually short-circuited by the weird, non-linear song structures, or sudden, jarring mid-track musical shifts, as if it’s being presented to the listener, then snatched away. i grinds to a halt midway through, replaced by the sound of a fight breaking out in the audience at a show. These Walls starts out as a relatively straightforward bedroom-bound funk, complete with orgasmic female moaning, before dissolving midway through. It plays out without a beat, to odd twitchy scatterings of synth and sax, Lamar’s voice rendered claustrophobic by electronic effects, as if even the straightforward pleasure of having it off can’t counter the angst and anxiousness at the album’s centre. It is big on self-examining tracks about the isolating effects of fame: there is a great deal of talk about screaming in hotel rooms.

That kind of thing is obviously a perilous business. At worst, the Difficult Follow-Up Album can sound petulant and smug, or like an artist trying to dress up a shortfall of musical ideas in a load of avant-garde frills in the hope that no one will notice. It’s testament to the skill of Lamar and his various producers that To Pimp a Butterfly never sounds like that. It’s a challenging and dense listen, and there are certainly moments of self-indulgence – the closing Mortal Man ends with seven minutes of Lamar interpolating his own questions into a 21-year-old interview with Tupac Shakur, a hugely earnest exercise you struggle to imagine listening to twice – but they’re hugely offset by stuff that’s really gripping. Alright tries to inject a spot of optimism into proceedings, but its chorus is undermined by the assemblage of vocals behind it, hitting uneasy harmonies, or being drowned out by muttering: similarly, the rival-smearing bragging of King Kunta sounds increasingly panicked, desperate and dark. The drunken, tearful u is that rarest of things: a track on which a pop star complains about being a pop star that doesn’t make you want to grab said pop star by the lapels and shake him about a bit. It eschews self-pity for self-loathing, and genuinely sounds like the work of a man at the end of his tether, rather than a man who’s slightly bored with the options on the hotel’s pay-TV service.

Elsewhere, as the music heaves and totters between sounds and genres, and one track after another splinters or fragments, To Pimp a Butterfly feels like an album that’s tossing and turning, unable to settle. Lamar has said his goal was to make an album befitting the moment, one that made the listener “uncomfortable”. Time will tell whether in decades to come, To Pimp a Butterfly is still being spoken of in the same breath as the kind of epochal albums it’s currently being compared to, but for the moment, he’s certainly achieved his aim in impressive style.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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