As a piece of art increases in complexity and ambition, the artist becomes more and more likely to commit a creative misstep. On To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar thrives in what should have been a steadily shrinking platform of potential for perfection: this is D’Angelo on Voodoo, Kanye on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Radiohead on Kid A. It is obvious that over the last three years, Kendrick was fully dedicated to crafting his third full-length LP.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City has been part of my regular listening rotation since its acclaimed 2012 release. It was the first of Kendrick Lamar’s albums that I had given a serious listen to, and, like most, I was immediately taken aback by his technical skill as a rapper, as well as his elaborate storytelling ability. A star-studded team of producers collectively created the sonic backdrop over which Kendrick delivers his candid Compton narrative. The finished product appealed to a wide range of musical palates, some of which lauded it as a hip-hop classic, and its conceiver as the genre’s savior. Much of the love the album continues to receive feels unwarranted in its sheer excess, and unjustly suggests that Kendrick maxed-out on GKMC. His role on the album was to tell his story, to let the world know that his Compton roots still run deep. Critics–including myself–were quick to point out the obvious: he told his story; now what? Is he capable of further innovating?
Some of Kendrick’s work following GKMC fed my skepticism; he had a nice, but severely overrated, verse on Big Sean’s “Control,” participated in a cringeworthy mashup with Imagine Dragons, rapped over Taylor Swift, and ruined a fantastic Tame Impala track. But just as I started to feel comfortable on my critic’s high-horse, Kendrick violently shook me off over the next few months; he gave us a psychotic ODB rendition of “i” on SNL, the devastating “Blacker the Berry,” an evil verse on Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me,” and a great performance of what remains an untitled track on The Colbert Report. Flying Lotus further fed the hype when he tweeted that Kendrick’s latest album would “pretty much destroy everything,” and man, was that an understatement. GKMC deserves any hip-hop head’s respect, but the jump Kendrick makes on To Pimp a Butterfly is astounding.
The album’s incredible versatility, both musical and thematic, is tightly controlled to maintain an impressive degree of unity throughout. Each song seamlessly transitions into the next; no matter how unique the individual song tones are, each somehow contributes to the album’s incredible cohesion. For example, Kendrick’s repertoire of voices, tones, and inflections is wide-ranging, but none feels out of place. On “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said),” he’s delicate and melodic, in contrast to his earlier fire-breathing wrath on “Blacker the Berry.” His wild screams on “i” are euphoric, but we suffer with him on “u,” where his frustrated rage turns into sob-rapping mid-song.
The album is filled with harmonious contradictions like these, largely thanks to the dynamic production. Boi-1da’s drums and Assassin’s monstrous hook on “Blacker the Berry” switch to a gorgeous Terrace Martin jazz composition that offers us some merciful relief from Kendrick’s harsh, but indispensable tirade. “Wesley’s Theory,” the album opener, is an anthemic fusion of 70s funk and modern electronic sound; it features Funkadelic’s George Clinton, a funk pioneer and specialist, but was produced by Flying Lotus and Thundercat, some of this music generation’s very best innovators. The amalgamation makes for a futuristically fresh track, which transitions smoothly into “For Free? (interlude),” two minutes of pure jazz and caricatured spoken word that sounds like a scene right out of Do The Right Thing. Kendrick interpolates elements of funk, jazz, and a purist’s hip hop throughout the album, again adding to the album’s overall cohesion without it feeling like an indulgent dependence on established genres and melodies, as it often does with rappers like Joey Bada$$ and J. Cole. He uses the old as the groundwork over which to create the new, and that’s an incredible feat.
To Pimp a Butterfly is very intricately produced. On Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, Kendrick recruits an all-star team of producers — including Dr. Dre, Pharrell, Hit-Boy, DJ Dahi, and Just Blaze — who created a collection of unique sample-based beats for the rapper to work with. Aside from Flying Lotus, Pharrell, and Boi-1da, who are credited on a track apiece, the production team is composed of less established, but nonetheless highly talented up-and-comers spanning across several genres, several of which only have a few thousand followers on SoundCloud; Kendrick was the production ringleader. The rapping and instrumentals throughout the album are meticulously built for one another, and it never sounds like Kendrick is just spitting over a hot beat. “These Walls,” for example, builds beautifully. It starts off with some rhythmic snaps, then a layer of increasingly loud moans is added, until a voice exclaims, “Sex!,” introducing the delicious neo-soul beat that still has me biting my lip and bobbing my head after a month of listening. “Hood Politics,” perhaps the most traditionally structured “hip-hop” song on the album, even takes a risk of its own by sampling an experimental contemporary artist, Sufjan Stevens, rather than the 80s R&B sound clips we usually hear.
Kendrick brought the best out of every one of the album’s collaborators, even those whose involvement he only subtly includes. Anna Wise’s reinforcing shrieks on “King Kunta,” Thundercat’s bouncy bass riffs on “Wesley’s Theory,” Snoop Dogg and Bilal’s dueling hooks on “Institutionalized,” SZA’s warm voice on “For Sale?” do not necessarily do the strenuous creative process justice on their own, but rather flex how tastefully Kendrick gathered and directed the long list of contributors. My favorite moment on the album is Kendrick’s self-loathing drunken breakdown over Whoarei’s “Loving You Ain’t Complicated” (and fyi, watch out for this dude). It’s a deeply haunting song, heartbreakingly cathartic at a level that I thought transcended music. As the torment in Kendrick’s lump-in-throat, raspy voice intensifies, Kamasi Washington’s crisp saxophone correspondingly emotes over the distant, staticky production — chilling.
To Pimp a Butterfly is less dependent on the concept album template that Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City abides by. Kendrick’s latest work is consequently far more thematically diverse, but the message is still candidly delivered; it’s poetic, but straightforward. He discusses police brutality and black-on-black violence, laments the unspoken exploitation of black celebrities, and displays optimism about eventually reaching a race-blind world. The final track, “Mortal Man,” with help from a special guest I’ll let you discover on your own, leaves us off with uncertain neutrality that bridges the gap between the album’s assertive, but contrasting tones. Throughout the album, Kendrick incrementally reveals pieces of a poem that he finally delivers on the closer. This is the most reminiscent the album gets to GKMC’s linear storyline, and while it bolsters the album’s incredibly-achieved cohesion, what was once Kendrick’s most notable strength ends up being the least impressive aspect of To Pimp a Butterfly.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is a great album, and To Pimp a Butterfly is even better, but bowing down to Kendrick as hip-hop’s “savior” is dangerously ignorant (check out Eli Arbor’s think piece on the subject). Hip-hop is ever-changing; it’s artists, whether or not you’ve noticed, push it into a constant state of evolutionary flux. Kendrick’s growth between his last and current albums rejuvenated an already thriving genre – who got next?