By Tylor Colby
With good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar established himself as a lyrically gifted songwriter, but with his newest release he emerges as a hip-hop visionary. If that weren’t enough, he tackles the complex issues of modern black culture as a collage of different experiences condensed into one story.
Soundwise, To Pimp a Butterfly spans one of the widest spectrums of sound and style ever released in the hip-hop world, transitioning smoothly from free-form bebop to Parliament-style funk, sometimes in one track. In “For Sale? (Interlude),” a fluttering alto sax plays underneath synthesizer tones and arpeggios; the song completely lacks a backbeat, making Lamar’s verses flow in a stream of consciousness. This music-heavy production may come as a surprise to fans of the artist’s previous, more simplistic hard hitting raps, but the album is not without some big, lyrical moments as well.
While good kid, m.A.A.d city works as a personal narrative with political undertones, Lamar’s new album works as a political narrative tied in with personal experience. But the moments of political aggression are balanced well with optimistic anthems. “i,” a song about having black confidence in an oppressive world, wouldn’t be complete without ones like “How Much A Dollar Cost,” which sees the artist having a crisis when asked for money by a struggling crack addict.
“The Blacker the Berry” has a solid beat and catchy chorus, but the emphasis is clearly on Lamar’s verses. He traces his own behavior, and the images propagated in media about people of color, showing that he has moments of hypocrisy as well. In a tense moment, he asks himself why he weeped about Trayvon Martin’s death, when he himself has played a part in unnecessary and deadly gang violence.
Lamar has been earning comparisons to the late hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur since his last album, in his political edge combined with a steadfast dedication to his hometown of Compton, California. Toward the end of “Mortal Man,” which explores the legacies of black revolutionaries like Nelson Mandela, he confronts the comparisons head on, in a mock interview with Tupac about racism and activism. Shakur’s audio is provided from a 1994 interview, but the track feels eerily like an actual conversation from beyond the grave between Lamar and his idol, as a symbolic passing of the torch for cultural revolution.
In the new album, Lamar dwells long and hard about his relationship with race, love and hate, often coming to uncomfortable truths about humanity. Yet his intentions are earnest; his new album balances equal parts love and concern for black communities everywhere, and in that a double-edged sword. To Pimp a Butterfly doesn’t come up with an answer for how to solve the epidemic of violence and poverty it speaks about from track to track, but as a whole is a provocative work that balances pride with urgency in a beautiful way.