Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
Aftermath / Interscope
5 out of 5
Bear with us but, more importantly, bear with Kendrick Lamar. When, in November, he dropped ‘i’, the first single from his then-upcoming follow up to 2013 breakthrough LP good kid, m.A.A.d city, a few eyebrows were indeed raised. It was great, self-celebratory. But had Lamar gone retro soul Happy? Lite, no content? Now, in retrospect, it made sense to put the victory lap out in advance of, well, this, To Pimp a Butterfly.
At this point in the review, you normally try to encompass a record. Well, that’s a disservice to the 27 year old Compton rapper’s latest. It’s a vibrant sounding, teetering on schizophrenic, 79-minute no- fat sprawl which Q-Tip or any of Lamar’s antecedents would be proud of – in fact, we might be close to the hip hop motherlode, nay, with shades of a shiny new P-Funk mothership in its zooming sounds. But with room also for, alongside some superb brags from Lamar, with contrasting lacerating self-putdowns, his fast action flows, God, the Devil (disguised as ‘Lucy’), true entertainer doo wop backing vocals and a voicemail from Dr Dre. With the first voice you hear on the record that of none other than George Clinton.
But most of all Lamar wants us to talk about America in the wake of the Trayvon Martin and MIchael Brown shootings, amongst too many others. The synonyms flow, and, yes, he’s talking. With these killings the catalyst, everyone is getting Lamar’s goat. With songs such as Institutionalized, what Lamar essentially sees (and it’s complicated, as with his new position of influence, he feels implicated) is institutionalized killing on both sides. Whether the unfairly stacked, one-sided authorities – a judge is also pictured being trampled on the record’s sleeve – or gang bangers in his hood, Compton.
There’s no prescription, although the similarities imply one, just a determination to, as he puts it in a new acapella outro to ‘I’ “make the most of the time we have left”. He conveys the ire, confusion and the conflicted I in pretty fly terms. On the mad skate into hard jazz of For Sale? he sounds like he’s grabbed the mic from a keynote speaker at some jazznik party conference, rapping triple time “I need 40 acres and a mule, not forty ounces and a pitbull, bullshit”, staring down Uncle Sam. And whilst the neo- G- funk-isms of These Walls starts as a deliriously woozy sex jam, by the time a booming, echoing voiceover intones “walls can talk!”, you sense Lamar ‘s spent plenty of time with his thoughts bouncing from them.
And, people, the real time, live-sounding music matches Lamar’s material. Thundercat’s elastic P-Funk bass lines on opener Wesley’s Theory and on King Kunta are things of wonder in themselves, the music a romp: backing vocals chanting “oh yes we can!” arriving right on the slinky beat on the latter. There’s also an embedded sample of James Brown’s ‘The Payback’ amongst these lines. The mean modernistic beats ‘n clatter of The Blacker The Berry has its devastating final Lamar inversion.
Street slang interjections which could have wandered off a Miles Davis cover and mood pieces with a tremendous attention to sonic filigrees and detail intersperse, to give some idea of what’s in effect, a hugely culturally rich but neglected other side to the whole American imbroglio. New nuances reveal with each listen of this vast and powerful artistic statement. It’s surely one of the most powerful in hip hop in recent years, and, one is tempted to say, in any form anywhere near the mainstream.