Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly review – fearless in its scope


As angry as Kanye, as funky as D’Angelo, more self-flagellating than Drake and as righteously cosmic as Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar’s latest album does not disappoint. His breakthrough album of 2012 cast this native of Compton, California as a “good kid” from a “maad city”, a poet promoted out of the war zone to tell his tale. Months in the anticipating, its follow-up, To Pimp a Butterfly (the title improves after one play), finds Lamar eyeing up America, turning his back on the lure of easy stardom.

Jazz is a brave place to go, even for a man from Compton. But Lamar is fearless in his scope here, both lyrically and sonically. For Free? – Interlude is one stunning, sax-led jazz scat in which Lamar enunciates “this dick ain’t free”. At first, the interlude seems to riff on the anti-gold-digging sentiment familiar from umpteen hip-hop albums in which renown changes a rapper. Swiftly, though, we’re in deep. “I need 40 acres and a mule/ Not a-40-ounce-and-a-pitbull bullshit,” Lamar bristles, and a breathtaking torrent of rhyme follows, taking in the size of his manhood and bank interest. “Oh America, you a bad bitch/ I picked the cotton that made you rich,” he snarls – probably the least nuanced rhyme here.

The state of American apartheid, still heartbreakingly unresolved 150 years after emancipation, is Lamar’s subject throughout. After decades of product placement and generalised “ballin’”, black anger has been increasingly enunciated in mainstream American urban music, spurred by Ferguson. On the cover (visually echoing Good Kid, Maad City, where he was the kid on a gang member’s lap), Lamar holds a child while a rabble of shirtless men takes over the White House lawn, a judge trampled underfoot.

Although Compton remains a frequent reference, Lamar has “Democrips” and “Rebloodicans” in his sights (specifically, on Hood Politics), as well as other pointlessly destructive binaries: the conscious rapper v the gang-banger, macho grandstanding v “survivor’s guilt”, white culpability and black-on-black violence. Lamar can do it all, and does, across 16 dizzying tracks. Having visited Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, he sees that a house divided is easily ruled, and pleads for reconciliation between Compton’s warring gangs on the closing Mortal Man.

Before that, partying plays its part in this enlightenment project. Lamar and his team of producers – returnee Pharrell Williams on the stuttering, three-legged pop tune Alright; avant-hip-hop man Flying Lotus on Wesley’s Theory ; and a busy cast of up’n’comers – are not averse to getting down. We’ve already heard i, a party banger ostensibly about Lamar’s prowess (there is a new outro in which the N-word is rewritten as “negus”, an east African word meaning “emperor”).

It’s joined by the indecently funky prowl of King Kunta, another grandstanding opportunity that calls out “sham bars” by rap ghostwriters. On These Walls, Lamar waxes lyrical about vaginal walls, internal obstacles and prison walls with no loss of pensive funkiness.

Ultimately, though, …Butterfly is closer to the preview provided by album teaser The Blacker the Berry – a furious diatribe about race whose roll is as heavy and relentless as its messages – than it is to i. The album is linked by an unfolding voiceover in which Lamar discusses his inner conflict, depression, the temptations of “Lucy” (the devil in the guise of a groupie) and false epiphanies.

It all ends with a slightly overbaked conversation between Lamar and the (sampled) late Tupac Shakur, which seems to predict an uprising, while Lamar’s extended metaphor of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly begs for greater self-knowledge and transcendence. That bit might get old quickly. The rest won’t.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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